My First Novel: What Happened And Why

Dear Michael and Caroline,

When I turned 30, I started to write my first novel. By then I’d wanted to write a novel for maybe 10 years, all the while knowing I was far from ready. But something about approaching the milestone of 30 decided me.

I stumbled through an early draft, then kept stumbling, and finally stopped. I picked up the project about four years later – by then I was a fulltime freelancer – and really buckled down.

The novel would be about a standup comedian, moderately successful, who suddenly finds himself no longer funny and suffers panic attacks, and then, in order to stage a comeback, tries to “scare himself brave,” mainly with risk sports such as rock climbing.

It would have some humor – hard to do a novel about a standup comedian without some humor – and it would depict the standup landscape, terrain I learned a little through interviews with comedians such as Jay Leno and visits to comedy clubs and articles I wrote for Playboy and Penthouse. It was more than a little autobiographical – I have a reputation for being funny on occasion – and it was called “Laughing Matters.”

For a year or two I worked on my novel, setting aside almost all other freelance assignments. My writing career was going pretty well at that point. I was publishing pieces in many major magazines, from Esquire and GQ to Glamour and Self and The New York Times, covering health and sports and business and family, in investigative articles and so-called service pieces and personal essays. I was even making a decent living, earning more than I had at the job I left. So I felt kind of full of myself, ready for the final frontier in literature, the novel.

So confident was I in my abilities – and in the likelihood of reserve funds from my family, particularly my grandmother, should I need any – that I all but stopped making money for at least a year, instead drawing heavily on our wedding money. I went through pretty much all of it – maybe $10,000 or $15,000, and this was back in the mid-1980s, when an annual income of $25,000 was respectable for a guy in his early 30s – because I saw it as a bet sure to pay off. Some big publisher would swoop in to snatch up my book and insist on giving me a chunk of change, plus a contract for a second novel, and all the reviews would hail the newcomer to the literary arena.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

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