Last week my novel Fail to the Chief, a political satire that envisions the presidential election as a reality show, was published—less than ten months after I finished writing it.
No, it wasn’t a Nanowrimo novel, although I do attempt that every year. To give you some perspective on my Nano accomplishments, the first time I tried to write my Novel in a Month was November of 2012. At least, I started writing my novel in November of 2012, and I finished in November…of 2014. (Hey, they never said it had to be November of the same year, did they?) That was my last serious attempt at Nano-ing, although I still try to start a big writing project every November and vainly try to convince myself I will hit 50,000 words.
Fail to the Chief came about in a different way. This January I was running on the treadmill when I had what I thought was an idea for a short story. I was watching some 24-hour news channel, and it struck me that the election was a lot like a reality show, with cameras following the candidates constantly and pundits weighing in like the judges on “American Idol” about everything said candidates do. So then I started picturing “American Idol” as “American President,” starting with a “top ten” selection of candidates. That actually worked out well because Idol usually did a top ten or top twelve, and at that time, pre-primaries, there were about ten people actually running for president. I used “American Idol” as a model because it’s the only reality show I’ve spent any time watching, mostly before I auditioned and got rejected twice because the judges don’t know singing talent when they hear it, but ANYWAY…
By the time I got off the treadmill, I thought this was a funny idea for a campy short story about a reality show to elect the president. I had a good idea who some of the candidates were. Because I have an extensive imagination—a side effect of spending most of my life around multiple habitual liars—I was able to invent fictional candidates that bear no resemblance whatsoever to anyone who’s ever run for president in real life. There’s a billionaire named Ronald Chump who only joins the race after being told he can’t direct-purchase the White House. There’s the guy who has more complaints about America’s declining morals than solutions to real problems. There’s the congresswoman who promises to help the poor but mostly helps wealthy corporations line their pockets. There’s the former tech CEO who promises to create American jobs even though she mostly outsourced jobs when running her company. There’s the not-too-bright third-party candidate whose solution to every problem posed to him is “Legalize pot.” And those are just the first half of the candidates.
How to Start a Satire
At first, I wasn’t sure how to start a satire as I’d never written this type of piece before. So I wrote about ten pages of what I called, for lack of a better title, “Reality Show,” and hit a wall. I had the setup for the show but didn’t know how the story was supposed to end, or how to get there. (Remember that I still thought I was going to write a satire short story, and that ten pages was about half of it.) Finally I decided to read it to my critique group in the hopes someone would suggest something that would give me an idea how to finish the damn thing. Or better yet, tell me to burn it, because then I wouldn’t have to worry about how to finish the damn thing, but unfortunately that never happens. There just aren’t enough quitters in my group, I guess.
Nobody provided me with an ending for my story, but I did get one suggestion that indirectly helped me finish the damn thing: “This should be a book.”
Initially, I didn’t agree. I couldn’t even figure out how to make a complete short story of it. How was I supposed to make a whole damn novel out of it? But sometimes with groups, one person says something and everyone enthusiastically agrees, so the next thing I knew everyone was telling me it should be a book instead of how to fix it.
Although I left thinking that this was not going to be my next book project, the suggestion did get me to begin looking at the story in another way. Once I started to at least consider the story as a book and not twenty pages, I realized why I couldn’t finish it—there was too much story for a twenty-page resolution. When I thought about all the things I could do in a book, I realized how easy it would be to finish the story if I had 70,000 words to do it instead of 5,000 or 10,000.
Then I thought about all the things I’d always wanted to see in a presidential election—what if the candidates were forced to work regular jobs, with no aides around to get them photo-ops and tell them people’s names and make them look good? What if they couldn’t escape the cameras, but had to work at a real job all day long and deal with real, angry voters?
If you want to start a satire, my advice would be to think about the ridiculous thing you want to satirize, and figure out how to make it even more ridiculous. Sometimes taking things to extremes is a good way to make a point—or at least make people laugh.
Satire About Trump
It was obvious that satire about Trump, Clinton, and the other candidates would have to include the issues of the 2016 election. I decided each candidate should be assigned a job, selected by the American people via social media suggestions, based on either his/her campaign promises or previous experience. The billionaire who wanted to build a moat along the Mexican/American border would have to personally dig part of it himself. The anti-minimum-wage-hike governor would have to work at a minimum wage job. The former bank president would have to wait on foreclosed customers in his bank. And so on, for all the contestants.
Satire About Social Media
I also wanted to write satire about social media, reality shows, and how those things tie together in the modern world. More people vote for reality shows than vote for president and congressional elections. Was there a way to write satire about social media becoming part of the election process? What if people voted via Facebook poll? Not just for who would stay in the race, but also on things like what the candidates would be forced to do? Could they choose challenges for the candidates? What if America decided the contestants needed to have a debate while hooked up to a polygraph with real-time reporting of lies?
That ended up being the first half of the book. I plodded along, writing a chapter or two a week, which was a good pace for me, for about a month.
Then I got fired from my job. When I asked why, I was told they were “going in a different direction with the department and needed someone with a different skill set.” In reality, I’m fairly certain my job was given to an intern making ten bucks an hour, although I can’t prove it. When I went to collect unemployment, my former employer lied and said I was fired for misconduct, so I got screwed twice.
At that point, I said, “Fuck it, I’m going to finish my book.” And I did. I got fired on February 12 (two days before my birthday, because nothing says happy fucking birthday like a pink slip), and I finished Fail to the Chief on March 4th.
It was a therapeutic process. I’ll admit that some of my anger about being fired just so the company could save money worked itself out in the pages. I also found I had the chance to write about a lot of issues that annoyed me, from unemployment to the cost of college vs. job opportunities/earning potential for graduates. Most of all, I got to make fun of the rich, powerful people who get to run our country, no matter how unqualified. That’s something I still do, now that I write regularly for Humor Outcasts.
If you get a chance, check out my Facebook page and tell me what topics you think I should satirize next. I love to hear from my readers.