Fiction writers come from all walks of life, as this post demonstrates. And those who really have it in them to write will often endure many difficulties, even hardships, to make it possible. I’ve known writers who composed all their early works on trains while commuting to and from work, many others who got up in the wee hours of the morning or burned candles late at night in order to fit their writing in around full-time jobs, child-rearing, and other commitments. I’ve known a traveling salesman who wrote in his car while stopped at convenience stores between appointments, but never before have I met someone who wrote while in the driver’s seat of a vehicle moving at 65 mph. Mike Lee’s first published work of fiction, “Angel Face,” appeared in EQMM’s May/June 2017 issue under the name M.C. Lee. I think it’s a fine debut. I’ll let him tell the rest of his story himself. . . . —Janet Hutchings
Finishing has always been the hard part for me.
Without boring readers with self-advertising details, I’m here to say I have written three book-length manuscripts in my forty-five-year lifespan, and each was written in an entirely different set of circumstances from the others.
It started with a futuristic men’s adventure, The Cross. I was seventeen years old and writing on a Tandy 1000 SL desktop computer, and saving my work to 5 ¼ inch floppy discs at the end of each session. This was done on the side porch of our house in Cape May, New Jersey, which my mother used as an office. It took me roughly a year to complete. I finished just after I graduated high school and the manuscript totaled ninety-five thousand words. Things would never be this straightforward again.
My horror/thriller Too Low for Zero was next. It was three years later that I began writing it in an empty forward berthing compartment on deck three of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63), which was on sea trials off the California Coast. This time I used a Smith Corona PWP word processor, which had a five-line screen and saved to double-sided “quick” disks. This manuscript followed me out of the Navy and back to New Jersey, where I finished it (or got to 150,000 words, anyway) while working as a dealer at Sands Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. I made several attempts to revise TLFZ later, but it remains, to this day, in the dead-letter file.
John Lennon once said that “life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Well, for the next twelve years, I made a lot of other plans. Unfortunately, except for a handful of terrible screenplays, I didn’t do a lot of writing. Through various career decisions, none of which I’m proud of (I’ve attended five different trade schools and even held a California real-estate license for three years), I ended up as an independent truck driver.
In 2009, while driving a dedicated route between Salina, Kansas, Reading, Pennsylvania, and Bristol, Tennessee, I was once again bitten by the writing bug. The environmental circumstances, however, were much different this time. Professional truck driving is a very time-consuming and stressful profession. OTR (over the road) drivers often work twelve to fourteen hours a day, thirty days at a stretch (as they’re exempt from Federal overtime rules), with as little as ten hours off between driving shifts. The environment is loud and the lifestyle unhealthy, which leads to an unusually high industrywide turnover rate of almost 96% per year. I also gained fifty pounds.
For me, doing any kind of meaningful writing after an eleven-hour, seven-hundred-mile driving day is completely out of the question—my brain is just too fried. Luckily, by channeling the spirit of pulp novelist Erle Stanley Gardner, I found my answer.
I knew from a documentary about Gardner that many of his later Perry Mason stories were dictated and then transcribed by his secretaries. He wasn’t the first person to take this approach; it is almost universally accepted that John Milton’s Paradise Lost was a dictated work—popular artwork often portrays Milton’s daughters doing the transcribing. It’s a little unclear if Gardner actually recorded the stories to tape or dictated them live, but in his prime, he was producing more than one million words per year.
A Man with a Plan
I decided that the only way the new novel was going to be written (a political mystery/thriller this time) was to utilize my long driving shifts for something other than listening to audio books and eating Doritos. I started recording How to Kill Two Presidents in late April 2009 using my old Sony mini-tape recorder and filling four ninety-minute cassettes before the recorder died peacefully in its sleep. I then switched to a Sony digital recorder, although not one that allowed me to easily transfer files to my computer. In fact, the only way to get the files from the recorder to my computer (I was still three years from getting my first smartphone, which would have made this job much easier), was to use an external microphone on my computer to rerecord the audio directly off the Sony’s speakers. I had to turn off the engine of my truck for forty-five minutes at a time to do this, which, in the middle of the summer, could be brutal.
Writing by recording while driving an eighty-thousand-pound semi-truck down the road isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I was only comfortable enough to record when I was in light traffic on relatively straight roads. It was almost impossible to do while driving through places like Missouri, western Pennsylvania, or the Shenandoah Valley, areas I dreaded. Wind turned out to be another problem; my truck, a 2006 Kenworth T-2000, had poor door seals. A north/south wind, which is very common in the Midwest, can drown out the sound of a five-hundred-horsepower engine. The volume of the my recordings was decent enough on playback, but with a twenty-mile-per-hour crosswind and poor door seals, it became too loud to think, let alone produce good dictation. One time (I know this because I often added notes to the recordings) I went sixteen days without being able to record a single word just because of the wind.
The first draft of HTKTP was completed at 1:16 A.M. (EST) on June 7, 2010, on Interstate 81, mile post 38, just north of Greenville, Tennessee (birthplace of Davy Crockett). I didn’t make such a precise marker when I began the draft in April the previous year, although I believe I was on Interstate 70, somewhere between Salina and Topeka, Kansas. I recorded almost thirty-five hours of audio (approx 358,000 words) in forty-seven forty-five-minute-long files. I decided to keep recording in these forty-five-minute segments, which was the length of each side of the tapes I began with.
OMG—I still need to type all this out, don’t I?
I became quite proficient at typing with two fingers on my first book. I learned to type properly in the United States Navy, but devolved back to two-finger typing by the time I started my second manuscript. Suddenly, the process of transcribing thirty-five hours of audio ran into the same problem that led me to dictate the novel in the first place: time. Early transcription was so slow that I decided I needed to learn to type again, but then I discovered voice reorganization software. I procured a copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking but still managed to be time plagued by my driving duties. (To date, I’ve driven over two million miles or approximately ten light seconds.)
At first, I tried to repeat the process I’d used with the original transcription, this time listening to the recordings on my iPod while wearing ear buds beneath a USB microphone headset and repeating the story out loud, while my laptop, which was sitting with its screen closed on the floor of the truck, transcribed my writing using Dragon. The results were hit and miss. The noise inside the truck affected the transcription process, although it was surprisingly more accurate than most would imagine. The real problem with this process (aside from severe wind days, which made it impossible) was that with the laptop closed and out of my reach, I would have no idea if it was even transcribing without stopping to check. Furthermore, there were several words, especially in such a loud environment, that could trigger command functions in Dragon that would stop the transcription process cold. Since I couldn’t see this, I could go on transcribing and not discover until later that the process had stopped several hours earlier.
Another problem was the sheer size of the novel: My recorded audio usually comes in at about a thousand words for every five minutes of recording, and I had thirty five hours to deal with without much free time. The two or three days I was off and at home each month was the optimal time to do it, but in all honesty, I just wasn’t up to it. There was also the issue that what sounded great didn’t always look as good on paper, so I also had to do a lot of editing.
Then I had another idea.
A second draft by making new recordings of my old recordings
It took me five years and one month to get my first hard copy of HTKTP. After four years had passed, I only had about two hundred and fifty pages transcribed out of, potentially, seven hundred. The heavy revisions on almost everything I transcribed were still afflicting me. For the most part, only dialogue escaped untouched. I wanted to finish, but I couldn’t unless I came up with another process. I decided to go back to the beginning: This time, instead of recording fresh material while I drove, I listened to my original recordings and then made new recordings, which were basically a second, cleaner draft. I then used Dragon Naturally Speaking after each driving shift—and even when I was home—to transcribe these new recordings. It took six more months, but on July 1st, 2015, I had my first hard copy. The word count was 325,000.
By this point, some of you are probably wondering how I ended up publishing in EQMM or being asked to write for this blog. At the beginning of December, 2015, my daughter Halle (who is an English major at Missouri Southern State University) asked if the two of us could each write a story for the NeoVerse short story competition. I’d been tinkering with the idea of writing a detective story ever since I listened to several Travis McGee novels and Black Mask audio complications from Audible.com. Coincidently, two nights earlier, I had spoken to a friend of mine, who is a Kansas City police detective, and asked him about evidence processing and police procedure. Then, almost as if it were ordained, I was laid over at the Norfolk Southern Rail yard in Detroit Michigan on December 8, and wrote a forty-four hundred word first draft of “Angel Face” (using two fingers, not recoding) in the sleeper compartment of my truck. I thought what I wrote was pretty good, and although there were cash prizes, I hoped to place in the top twenty-five of the contest. It would make a good addition to my eventual query letter for HTKTP if I did. I did several more drafts and submitted it to NeoVerse just before Christmas, 2015. Then I went home.
In April, NeoVerse announced their top twenty finalists. I was not among them. I know that every writer thinks the same thing, but I thought I had written a good story. I didn’t want “Angel Face” to end up in the dead-letter file next to all my other unfinished work, so I decided to submit it to a magazine. Around the same time I wrote “Angel Face,” I listened to the Stephen King short story, “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” which features EQMM prominently, and so I decided to try them. EQMM contacted me in April 2016 and told me that they wanted to buy “Angel Face.” I signed the contract in July, just as I was entering the last phase of work on my novel. I used some of the profits to treat myself to a box of Mark Twain Memoir cigars.
Don’t worry, I’m almost done
There were no more tricks left. Once I had the hard copy of my novel, my recording days were over. Everything from here on out needed to be done the old-fashioned way, and despite making a few renewed efforts to work on HTKTP during my off hours, very little progress was made until November 2015. That’s when I discovered that the company I was leased to would be downsizing and closing eighty percent of its terminals. My options were to work locally, by running auto parts to the Ford Assemble plant in Kansas City, or lease my truck to a new company and continue to stay on the road. In a fantastic bit of luck, I was offered the same pay to go local as I would make on the road. I would never be more than seventy-four miles from home, which wouldn’t allow me to go home every night, but I would have the weekends off. Best of all, I would only be working seven or eight hours a night, which, after fourteen years of fourteen-hour days, was amazing.
The final leg of my journey to finish HTKTP began on January 4, 2016, after the Ford Assemble Plant’s Christmas shut down. My base of operations was Pour Boys Truck Stop on HWY-210 in Kansas City, Missouri, which was only four miles from the rail yard I worked out of. I preferred the very corner spot in the truck-parking isle, since it offered the most privacy, but also because I only had to deal with a single truck beside me at a time. (I even customized this spot, creating
my own check-in location on Facebook called Mike’s Corner Parking Spot. It’s still there.) I woke up every morning at 11 AM, made coffee in my microwave, and ate a small Atkins friendly breakfast (using the Atkins diet to lose that fifty pounds I mentioned earlier). Then I got to work in the driver’s seat. If I reversed the steering wheel, it made a nice nook to rest the laptop on, and a portable, folding wooden tray from home held the mouse pad. I worked, most days, from 11:30 A.M. to 5 P.M, then drove to the Norfolk Southern Rail yard and pulled auto parts to the Ford plant until 1 or 2 A.M. I would drive back to the truck stop and repeat the process Sunday through Friday, spending Saturdays at home.
Working at the truck stop wasn’t without its difficulties: For example, there was sun glare, which often forced me change parking spots several times throughout the day. Anytime a truck with a white trailer would park right next to me on a sunny day, the glare was so bad I’d have to move again. Eventually, I learned to just keep my front window curtain closed while I worked. During the relatively mild winter of 2016, I was able to keep the engine off for hours at a time, but I needed to run the engine for the air-conditioner once spring rolled around. I wasn’t using voice recognition anymore, but the noise was still terribly distracting.
On Friday, August 19, 2016, six years after I finished my first recorded draft, I finished HTKTP. The word count was 186,000.
My wife did the first proofread of HTKTP, and in mid-September I sent the manuscript to a professional editing service. The editor added a note at the end saying it was one of the three best manuscripts she had edited that year. In October, I began looking for an agent. NOTE: I suspect a few of my readers believe that 180,000 words is way too long for a first-time novelist . . . and they’re right. After many months without a request even to read it, a sympathetic agent advised me that the manuscript was almost twice the acceptable length for a thriller. This was good advice and I spent a month (this time at home) reducing the novel to 89,000 words, which I believe has made the story better. I hope I created something that other people will eventually enjoy, but I am aware that just because HTKTP was created under unique circumstances, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. I hope it is.
All photos courtesy of M.C. Lee.