First line of second (unpublished) novel: Imperfect Machines.

22 Oct

I rebounded from Between Lives by writing three books in a very short amount of time. I was working as an editor for NewSouth Books in Montgomery, Alabama. My bosses at the time—Randall and Suzanne, who I count as close friends—developed a first line test for manuscripts. In publishing, you’re inundated with so many mediocre manuscripts that you have to have some way to cut through the morass. Our’s was the first line test. You can often tell if a book is going to be terrible or great from the first line. It’s the pretty good to very good novels that are difficult to apply this test to. But, our rule was simple: after one or two lines, do I want to keep reading? If yes, then read on. If no, then reject that sucker.

Around this time I also started reviewing movies for King Kudzu, a Montgomery free paper. It was paying freelance work, and I liked it. I would research all the movies coming out and then give little summaries of each one. I was good at it. I also did some book reviews. It was a great, low-key way to cut my teeth on the writing game.

At NewSouth, I wrote all the time. Jacket copy and catalog copy, letters, memos and so on. I also wrote a children’s biography of Muhammad Ali. Pretty good little book, too. I was progressing. I was evolving. I was growing. I had talent and ambition and drive. I also had overconfidence, impatience and a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes novels work. (It has more to do with life experience than technique, although the craft is obviously important. But without the emotional maturity, the lines often come across as fake and forced.)

I started my second novel in a hotel room in Orlando, Florida. I was reading Bukowski’s Run With the Hunted at the time—easily his best book, all the autobiographical pieces of his entire life’s work put in rough linear order, it’s excellent—and came across a poem near the end called “Bluebird.” The poem begins, “There’s a bluebird in my heart/that wants to get out/but I’m too tough for him.”

I was blown away. I imagined a character who was angry, difficult, distant, frustrated, unhappy. And he was unhappy because, unbeknownst to him, his parents had sold his soul when he was a little boy. I called it Imperfect Machines. Here’s the first line:

“There once was a man with a worm in his heart. The worm was a hole, a missing piece.”

I wrote it in a six-month flurry. Three whole people on the planet have read it. It follows a man whose parents sold his soul when he was a young child. As an adult, he sets out to get it back. It’s a road novel, in a sense, with dark fantasy and plenty of strangeness. (He discovers giant machines beneath Disneyworld that are powered by the disappointment of sad children.) It has some bright spots, but the main character is, again, sort of blank. It got promptly rejected by the one publisher I sent it to. I should have reworked it, but I was already moving past it. It has some bright spots, though, and the beginnings of a style.

Shortly after, I wrote a novella that had a tiny print run and received some minor accolades from, well, everyone who read it.


One Response to “First line of second (unpublished) novel: Imperfect Machines.”


  1. Interlude 2: A found fragment. | simoneandthesilversurfer - August 30, 2014

    […] part 2: second novel madness […]

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