Why My First Novel Was a 500-Page Mess (& How I Fixed It)

by Bryan Fagan and his editor, Jo 

Writing My First Novel Without a Roadmap

What inspired me to write a novel

Bryan: I always wanted to write, but every time I tried I didn’t. Looking back I had a lousy work ethic and a million excuses. But one day two little girls changed everything. 

When my daughters were little they loved to draw pictures and write stories. One day they asked me to join them, and that is how I became a writer. 

When I wrote Dempsey’s Grill I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew what I wanted and somehow that got me through some rough times. I saw three people about to turn thirty with nothing to show. Their pockets were empty, their hearts broken, their hopes shrinking. In other words, me at that age. So I took my pen and notebook and went to work. 

How did I find the whole process of writing?

Bryan: At the beginning I had a decision to make: Is this a pipedream or a reality? Dreaming is fun. There’s no work involved. You just let the mind wander and hit play. Reality is hard and scary. Sometimes it has a bad ending. Somehow, through all this, I knew now was the time. If I didn’t sit down and create a realistic plan, my book would be nothing more than a dream.

How I Ended Up With a 500-Page Manuscript

Bryan: The good thing when it comes to writing a book is that you get to write a lot. The bad thing? Well… sometimes you write too much.

I was having a great time writing about the lives of people and all things real life. Their days were filled with regret, dead end relationships, jobs and dreams. It was easy to show their panic and loneliness. But somehow, don’t ask me how I did it, I made a sharp turn to the left and jumped down deep into the nearest rabbit hole and I have to say….it was fun while it lasted.

It was exciting. Not only did I have people living their lives and doing a bad job of it, I came up with a brilliant plan to create a hamburger grill that turned people into Zombies. What could possibly go wrong. Right? 

The Reality Check: Feedback on my Novel

Bryan: When Jo read the hamburger grill turning their friends into Zombies addition, to say she wasn’t thrilled is probably a huge understatement. 

On my end it was a cool and amazing addition. What’s not to love, right? Sadly, Jo disagreed. I know, crazy huh.

As my Zombie grill became epic, so did the pages of my book. With the ending nowhere in sight my book had reached 500 pages with no turning back. I believe Jo had a name for it. Something to do with a shit-storm. 

To Jo I had created a story people can relate to and shoved it into a Zombie loving blender. I tried to point out that blenders are a great invention. Who doesn’t love a margarita smoothie for breakfast. But deep down I knew she was right.  

The Reality Check: An Intervention

Jo: I met Bryan in 1985 and we became practically inseparable, so naturally we would sometimes talk about what we hoped to do with our futures. As far back as that, he was telling me that he was going to write a novel someday. As our lives progressed…school, marriages, children, etc, we always kept in touch.

Over the years, as we mailed letters back and forth, Bryan occasionally included one of his short stories or maybe a story-in-progress. These were, of course, hand-written…still his preferred way of writing. Yes, I do still have these stories, by the way. (That revelation probably just made him cringe.) When he told me he was in the process of writing a full-length story, I wasn’t surprised at all; I’d been waiting years for this news. The surprise came when he asked me to edit it. I very much wanted to be a part of this experience with him and I’ve been honored to be involved with his books.

When Bryan first told me what this story was about, honestly, my first thought was…mmm, that’s sort of generic…but, at the same time, I know how his mind works so I knew it wouldn’t actually BE generic and was excited to see what he made of it. As he sent each part of the story to me and the characters developed into their unique-ness, I would have moments of ‘Aha, there it is!’ that confirmed that he was making this entirely his own, with amazing results. 

I didn’t realize the story was too long until Bryan told me that his publisher said he had to cut down the word count. We’d been emailing this project back and forth, from the rough draft as he was writing it to the final draft that he submitted, over the course of, I think, 2-3 years. We were both so immersed in it, that it didn’t dawn on us that there was any part of the story that didn’t need to be told.

When he broke the news to me, I was devastated and argued with him. I was up on my soapbox lecturing about how Stephen King didn’t listen when he was told that his story was too long, and just look at him now! I’m pretty certain Bryan had to comfort and solace me a lot more than I had to for him. In the end, scenes did get deleted and I feel that the reader is really missing out on some great reading, but it accomplished the goal.

Turning Chaos into Cohesion

Jo: Having a friend ask you to edit and critique them is HARD! At first I would say “Oh, I like this part” or “This is good”. It took Bryan saying “I don’t want a cheerleader, I want a drill sergeant. Make me do it right.” for me to find my voice and to understand my purpose. I realized that I was playing a partial role in making Bryan and this book successful. If he submitted a poorly organized manuscript full of typos, it was my fault. From there, we fell into an amazingly cohesive rhythm. He would send me the chapters as he wrote, and I’d send them back with spelling and word corrections or observations about timelines and characters. 

Bryan had an amazing vision of the story he wanted to tell but, he did get slightly off-track which led to the silliest, but longest-lived, feedback reality check we had to have. Part way through the book, the characters are reminiscing about the best hamburger joint in town when they were kids, then proceeded to talk about this hypnotic grill that would send out the most mouth-watering smells that would entrap people for blocks, drawing them to stand in line, zombie-like, to buy a burger. I was taken by surprise because 1) Bryan isn’t a horror-genre person and 2) why introduce the ‘horror’ halfway through the story? The conversation was cut and dry…

Me: “Is this story about people or a supernatural grill?  Because you can’t have both in this story.”

Bryan: “Why can’t I have both?”

From there it went like this:  Bryan… “What if….?”, “Could we just….?”, “Pleeeease?” , while I just gave the same, one-word answer each time…”No”.  Apparently, this was slightly traumatizing, because he still brings it up….

Crafting a Leaner Narrative

Bryan: After a bout of pouting and a failed attempt to sooth my male ego, I gave Jo a call and told her she was right. My hamburger Zombie grill addition would have to go.

The hardest thing for a man to do is tell a woman she is right. It doesn’t matter how well our mothers or grandmothers raised us. The male ego is one of nature’s biggest mistakes.

So now I had a decision to make: Am I writing Dempsey’s Grill for me, or for an audience? I could only choose one and if the answer was an audience I knew what had to be done. 

Embracing constructive criticism from people close to us

Jo: I think that knowing Bryan personally is why this experience worked so well for us. As friends, we could rationally talk about the reasoning behind my assessment and/or his reason for insisting a particular part stay in the story. We were open-minded to what the other was seeing in the written word. Those conversations usually resulted in a realization that we were both semi-correct, but that a little more development of a scene was needed to make it work as he envisioned because he hadn’t actually written everything he had in his head. It wasn’t unusual to say ‘But, look at that page, that’s not what you wrote. Tell the rest of the story’. Alternatively, he sometimes just had to say ‘wait and see’ because I got ahead of him and would question or criticize a scene that wasn’t complete until a few pages later.  

Lessons Learned: from the Writer

Bryan: The first thing I learned was to listen without emotion. Try it sometime. It’s not an easy thing to do. When someone tells you something you don’t want to hear it’s easy to get pissed but I learned something that day. For the first time I learned to dial it down and listen.

Constructive criticism is a wonderful way of making a writer better. Once I understood that, I was ready for the next novel and now, with two books published and hopefully a third, I am happy to admit that listening is a good thing.   

By trimming the fat of all things Zombie Grill, Dempsey’s Grill became a novel people can relate to. The story was real life, real problems with soon to be 30-year olds trying their best to make their world better. The story made the reader understand they were not alone. Hopefully Dempsey helped someone make better decisions. But most of all I hope whoever read it felt better about themselves at the end. 

Lessons Learned: from the Editor

Jo: I said this to Bryan when he was struggling and I still feel strongly about it:

Don’t be a people-pleaser. You are writing this story from your brain, your heart, your experience and emotions. If you’re worried about what your mother-in-law will think about a sex scene or what your spouse will think about the scruples of your characters or whether your friends will hate your book, then you start to write for them, not yourself. You aren’t telling your story; you’re telling the story you think they want to read and that…that could get stressful, because you’ll never be able to please them all. It becomes labor, not creativity and joy and accomplishment. 

Love your characters and get to know them. Characters will write themselves, so give them free rein to develop into their own entities, then stay true to them when portraying them to your reader. They’re going to be your close friends throughout this experience, so give yourself time to grieve for them when you’ve finished and have sent them out into the world between the pages of a book. Mourn and rest and then… make new friends to tell us about!


Bryan: Dempsey’s Grill was a 500 page mess and then it wasn’t. It took Jo, and my ability to listen, to make it happen. Writing a novel is messy. It’s cooking the tastiest dish in the world and having to clean up afterwards. It’s playing in the mud or having a sweaty workout. But in the end something special happens. 

So get ready for the mess. Prepare yourself to listen. But most of all, find your Jo.  

Jo: What the heck, Bryan! You made me tear up with that. Thank you for letting me take part in this experience.

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