Writing the ‘Vigilante Priest’

Vigilante priest
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Last year, 2016, at the end of June, I began writing a new novel. I had already tried out a few opening chapters, none of which seemed to work. One chapter in particular starts in media res with a cat burglar breaking into a rich person’s home and robbing him of a valuable painting. He gets past the alarm system in an ingenious way, steals the painting and then… well, and then nothing. It was one of a clutch of opening chapters I had tried in an attempt to fertilize the fallow ground of my imagination to produce something that could possibly last for a whole book. Nothing seemed to work.

I quite often do that, write out an opening chapter (somewhere in the region of 2k-3k words) to see if it works and whether there is enough material/interest/potential to carry through to a whole book-length manuscript. Usually I end up disappointed – except to say that quite often there is enough spark in these ideas for a short story (but nowadays who writes publishable short stories – and who, for that matter, reads them?)

The only one that caught my interest was the cat burglar idea. It’s just that I couldn’t see how I could generate enough surrounding back-story to pursue the cat burglar for 70-90k words, the usual minimum length of a novel in my genre. Then one evening I was sitting discussing various writing ideas with my long-suffering wife, who, like me, is an English major and, unlike me, is an expert in the critique of the novel. Out of the blue, she said: why don’t you write a novel about a priest who has some moral dilemma. And that set me thinking, for some obscure reason, about the cat burglar. What if the cat burglar was a priest? What if he had some really good reason for burglarizing people’s homes? Could there be such a reason? I thought about it for a while and came up with a very good reason why he would want to do such a thing. (I’m sure if you think about it hard enough the answer will come to you, but if not you’ll have to wait for the book to come out.) I gave it the working title of ‘Vigilante Priest.’

So I started writing this story on June 21, 2016. Things went steadily and well for a few weeks and I managed to chalk up 17 chapters in the space of as many weekdays. Normally, life doesn’t afford me that amount of time, but I just happened to be in between translating projects (normally I’m translating books and other materials from Italian, French and Spanish into English) so I had a blessedly free schedule. Then, in the middle of July, my wife and I went off to Colorado for a conference. When I came back, a week later, I found that the novel had stalled at the end of chapter 17 and I simply couldn’t get it started again. Part of the problem was that life took over. Various other things had to be attended to and it was difficult to find a sustained time in which to write.

Also, I had lost momentum. The story wasn’t as clear in my mind, after a week of distraction, as it had been before I headed off for higher altitudes in the mountains around Colorado Springs and so I left it sitting there in a folder on my laptop. When that sort of thing happens I always wonder what goes through the mind of my protagonist when I’ve left him in a sticky situation without any resolution to the problem. Does he resent me? Does he get depressed? Not from what I’ve seen. Usually the guy is ready to go when I am and doesn’t seem to bear a grudge.

During the rest of that summer and fall I engaged the bookish part of my mind with poetry and marketing non-fiction books I had already written and published. At last, I found a decent break in work and enough energy and commitment to revisit the Vigilante Priest. As I predicted, he was still there saying mass, hearing confession and purloining an astonish volume of artifacts from unsuspecting, though rich, members of the public. I reread what I had written before – all 38k words of it – took a deep breath, and began to write the next chapter. I got back into the swing of things with biting dialogue, elaborate though satisfying descriptions, unobtrusive exposition and just as much action as before (although, I guess only an objective reader can be the judge of that). So far I have got to chapter 30, with much jeopardy and hand-to-hand combat in between, which leaves me about three or four chapters left to write.

Hopefully I will be able to complete the manuscript and then relish the delectable prospect of sending it off to publishers and receiving multiple rejection letters before it is snapped up by one of the Big Five for an exorbitant six-figure advance. We can dream…