Friday, May 28, 2010

Abuse? None of Your Business


Twenty Eight Days: Day 10

I'm sitting in my apartment and staring at the screen of my laptop, trying to get an early start on my writing, when I first hear the whimpering. And the banging. It's coming from across the hall. The whimpering is punctured by tiny little barks of pain, following by a banging against the door and muttered curses. All of it loud enough to be heard through two sets of doors. I try to wall out the sound. It's none of my business. The whimpering continues. So does the banging. I move to our door and listen. The sound is louder. I cannot stand the cries of pain and I step into the hallway and knock on my neighbour's door. The whimpering stops. My neighbour, a friendly guy in his early twenties, looks askance at me.

"I heard whimpering." I say. "Everything okay?" I pause and take the leap. "Beating your dog is not acceptable."

"What? I wasn't beating her."

"I heard the whimpering and banging. Listen, I grew up working with the local humane society, and it isn't cool."

My heart is throbbing, and my skin feels weak, as if I'm drained of all energy. I don't like confrontation, though I seem to do it quite a bit. My neighbour is not aghast by my intrusion. I know what that means.

"I was hitting the ground with my hand. I would never lay a hand on my dog. I would never lay a hand on them, because it teaches them to fear your hand."

"My wife saw you hitting the dog a few weeks ago with a foam bat or something."

"What? I don't even have a bat."

The conversation is absurd, they always are in situations like this. I'm wondering what to say next. I already feel like an invader, as I've knocked on his door to ask what's going on in his apartment. Two weeks ago however, my wife had stepped around the corner and watched him beat his dog with some type of rubber or plastic bat, whaling away on the helpless animal. She'd angrily asked him what he was doing. His response was that it was his dog and he could do what he wanted. Her response was that if she saw it again she would call the Humane Society. We've heard his screaming from our apartment as well. Friendly, but with a nasty temper. Something I never would have suspected upon our first few encounters in the elevator.

He says something about it being none of my business, but it's a quiet comment. I suspect that has to do with the size disadvantage and the fact I look scary. I don't feel scary. My body feels lifeless and suddenly drained.

"Well, if you heard our cats screeching, I'd hope you'd knock on my door" I say.

I have to let him off because I haven't seen anything, and if I back him against the wall, I know who will pay the price. And it won't be me.

He mutters something and I nod and let it go and head back into our apartment. Bethany is now awake after hearing the commotion, and I tell her what happened. She shares my anger, but there is nothing we can do. I think of my neighbour's four month old puppy and feel my stomach roll. When I close my eyes I can still hear the whimpering. When it comes to abuse, I cannot tell the difference between a human or an animal, because neither understands what's happening and neither deserves it. I wander around the apartment, and Bethany lets me talk. Maybe that will help. I tell her about the first time I intervened in a situation that was none of my business.


I was in Ottawa, living alone in an older, four story building with wooden balconies. I didn't know my neighbours very well, though there were a few people I said hello to when I did my laundry. The area was fairly quiet, though it had its share of hard cases. I'd gone to bed and was just starting to fall asleep when I heard the crash of pots and pans from the apartment above me. Loud shouts and then a crash of broken glass. I lay there for another sixty seconds. My former brother-in-law had been a cop, and I knew that domestic situations were dangerous, that even cops were often reluctant to get involved. But the screaming and shouting, only slightly muffled by the ceiling between us, continued to reverberate through my apartment. When I finally couldn't stand it any more, I ripped on some clothes, hustled up the stairs and pounded on the door. The noise quieted. I pounded again. A small black man, dressed only in a pair of jockey underwear, answered the door.

"What's going on?"

"None of your business!" He said, his accent thick.

He tried to close the door but I used my forearm to keep it open and pushed it wide. The woman, also black with her hair in corn rows, looked at me, her eyes large with fear. Her arm was bleeding. I ushered her out and took her down to my apartment where she could clean up and bandage her cuts.

"Do you want to call the police?" I asked, trying to keep my voice gentle.

She shook her head. They were from Haiti, and he did not have a Visa to be in Canada. She said that he could stay the night so long as he was quiet and left the next day. I didn't like it, but it was her decision. He didn't live there, and didn't have a job. She also mentioned that she would talk to his mother, and she made it sound as though that would solve some things. Again, I didn't understand, but I walked with her upstairs.

The man was laid out casually, still in his jockeys, and flipping channels as if nothing had happened. As if he was lord and master of the apartment. I could feel the rage boiling under my skin. As always, I felt weak the first moment of confrontation, but it left quickly. How dare he sit there as if nothing had happened? I stood over him and pointed a finger in his face. I could feel the scratch in my throat. My voice was loud and sounded wrong, as if it belonged to someone else.

"I swear to God, if I hear one f****** sound coming from this f******* apartment tonight, I will come up here and tear you the f*** apart, do you understand, you little two-bit, piece of f****** dirt!"

"You can't tell me what to do, man!" He yelled. "This is my place, man! My place!"

"It's her place, you piece of sh**! And if you think I'm kidding, I will f****** throw you on your f****** ass right now!"

He glared at me, but turned back to the television. I felt the rage boil over, but managed to collect myself. I said good bye to the woman, whose name was Elizabeth, and reminded her that she could knock on my door at any time. When I got back to my apartment I felt sick. My body started shaking and I felt nauseous. I went outside to gulp deep breaths of air, and sat out on my balcony for the next few hours, unable to sleep, unable to stop asking God why people were such assholes. Why we were so awful to one another?

Six weeks later, it would happen again. Another neighbour, Stephanie, from down the hall, came pounding on my door early in the evening, clad only in her underwear and a t-shirt. She begged me to go to her apartment, and from there, I walked into hell. Her three young children, two of them naked, were playing on a dirty mattress under the careless eye of a bearded man tossing back a beer. They were both French Canadian, but spoke English well enough.

"He was choking me." Stephanie said.

"I had a few too many beers, and it wasn't for long." He said, his voice slurred.

"You did it in front of the children." She said.

I looked at the kids and then back at Stephanie.

"What do you want?" I asked her.

"I want him out."

I nodded and looked at him.

"Let's go."

Another neighbour, an older woman, had heard the commotion and joined me at Stephanie's door.

The bearded man, who was apparently the children's father, swaggered as he walked past me. A part of me wanted to throw him down the stairs, but I didn't. I escorted him outside and headed back to see if Stephanie needed any help. She said that she was fine, and once again I was back in my apartment, staring at the walls and wondering how cruel people could be.


I wish I had a better answer why people act the way they do. Christians use the word "sin", but we use it so much it has no meaning. We use the word "sin" for sex outside marriage, profanity and dancing 'lasciviously'. We also use it for rape and abuse and murder, as if it's somehow all the same. But it isn't the same. And yet I hear Christians defend this idea by saying that "sin is sin" in God's eyes. If that's the case, than God is an idiot, and I don't think He is… I just think he tolerates them better than I do.

This is also my difficulty with the idea of evolutionary consciousness, which echoes from scientism, this idea that somehow people are evolving on some linear level with the continued "progress" of civilization. I don't have a problem with evolution as a theory applied to science. Two of my best friends are Ph. D. biochemists, and as we've discussed many times (I hung in those conversations as long as I could) the theory of evolution explains a great deal. It's a great aid to understanding the processes of humanity in so many ways, and we have made a number of medical advances that have saved the lives of tens of thousands through its application. That said, it does not apply to our consciousness. Perhaps in six hundred years we will have a better scientific theory. Perhaps not. From what we read of history however, people are just as cruel as they have always been, just as broken and misguided and insensitive. Education alone is not the answer, because abuse is found in both the rich and the poor, the educated and uneducated, even as kindness is found in all situations. Can God help? Does he have the ability to help us? Can we help ourselves?

The only answer I can give is that we all know that abuse is wrong, in every form. That we need to stand against it. But what does that mean? Perhaps it means reaching out to the people around us, ensuring that we do our part, that we don't become bystanders when we witness it in the lives of others. I think back over the years to the many times that I've waded into situations of abuse. I've pulled children from their homes, fought off an angry skinhead attacking me with a golf club, reported to the authorities, and delivered threats to abusers both in person and through email. Maybe I shouldn't have intervened, and maybe I could have done so in a more productive manner. What I do know is that I still hear the whimpers, still see the fear, and know that I will never forget it.

May God grant us all such horrible visions, if only so that we make it our business.


Authour's note: I realize that I'm a bit behind in my blogging, and that I've published Day 10 ahead of Day 9, which is still being edited. As well, I may have to consolidate some days, because as the end of the novel approaches, the amount of work left continues to grow. My apologies.

Authour's note II: I included the profanity here, because frankly, when I intervene, I find it helps. Abusers take me more seriously when I use foul language. I could expound on it, and ruminate on why that is, but it isn't the point of the blog. For those of you who think that by swearing I have sinned, I guess I'll have to live with that. Somehow, I think God doesn't mind. J

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Writing Process


28 days: Day 8

I'm standing in the kitchen, watching my wife anxiously through the screen door. She's sitting on the deck, her brows furrowed, a blue pen in her hand. The loose sheaf of papers in front of her stirs slightly in the breeze. She bends over and writes something on one of the pages. I glance over at my laptop set up on the kitchen table. I'm not writing at the moment. I can't. Micah, my inlaws' friendly dog, is watching me closely, hoping for some attention or perhaps a treat. I scratch him behind the ears. My wife's parents have asked us to cat and dog sit for a few days, and unlike our sweltering apartment, their house is cool. A good place to work.

Micah and I both look up when Bethany slides open the patio door. I'm chewing my nail.

"Well, what do you think?" I ask.

"Good. Really good. I just finished Chapter 8. It's your best chapter yet."

It sounds like a compliment, but I'm immediately confused. If chapter eight is my best chapter, what does that mean about the rest of it? Are the other chapters that poor?

"Is it better, writing wise, or…" I let my voice trail.

She frowns.

"No. I think it's just that everything is starting to come together. You're tying all the threads of the story together."

I'm nodding and then chewing my nail again. Bethany is my first, and only reader. She's become a wonderful editor these past four months. As someone who reads even more than I do, I trust her judgement. She is also my main source of encouragement. If the novel is published, it will be the force of her support that makes it happen.

She smiles and kisses me. I'm trying to give her my attention, but my mind is elsewhere. She knows me well, and she picks up her book and heads back outside to enjoy the sun. I look at my laptop. The cursor is blinking at the end of my latest paragraph. Forever blinking. Forever asking for more. I swallow and sit, close my eyes. Nothing happens. I try again, reading over my last two pages. It won't happen. My created world is inaccessible for the moment, and I'm stuck here in my inlaws' kitchen. I pet Micah and head downstairs to do some research. I'm surprised by the force of my fatigue, though on one level it feels good, as if I'm using muscles long dormant. It does not lessen the tiredness that seeps through me.

Writing fantasy is unlike anything I've ever written, and requires knowledge from a vast number of fields. History, philosophy, theology, architecture, government, economics, weaponry, the list is endless. And yet, Bethany is convinced that it is the right style, the right genre, for me. After many years and many attempts at other types of fiction, I agree with her. It does not make the task less daunting. It does make it more enjoyable.

I'm sitting downstairs at the computer, researching, hoping my world will let me back in some time tonight. I'm worried about Josh. Curious about De Nyara. In the meantime, I'm reading. Ever reading. And as always, hoping that one day I'll be able to introduce you to my world and some of the people I've met along the way.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sex, Dating, and Ignorance

28 days: Day 7


Have you ever wondered why so many fantasy characters know very little about sex? I'm talking about Epic fantasists now, like Tolkien and Jordan and Goodkind. (George R Martin writes high fantasy, a different genre that is far more 'realism' oriented) I mean, the main characters are either idiots when it comes to the opposite sex, or not that interested. (Tolkien) In our culture, it seems gratuitous perhaps to have teenage characters who bumble around with these crazy notions of romance like those mythologized in the 1950's, when everything was supposedly innocent. The 'innocence' of the 1950's is a myth, of course, but Epic fantasy writers are not interested in creating realism, but rather showcasing the time in our lives when we are ignorant of sex, and when our notions of it are silly, idealistic and occasionally, romantic. The time right around puberty when we experience all of the things that characterize early adolescence.

Epic fantasies, at least most of them, are working within the parameters of medieval times when the awkward age would have come much later for men and women. (The age of puberty has dropped greatly the past 100 years, due mostly to the food we eat and the resulting shift in our hormones.) In Forerunner, Josh is eighteen and awkward around girls. (Especially one) Although he's past puberty, he was raised in a small village and did not have much contact with girls. As a result, he's something of an idiot – and a romantic – when it comes to women. I'll be honest, this awkwardness is not difficult for me to write. I remember it very well. And when Josh tells me he's frustrated over not being "cool", I understand.

When I was in Grade Six, I liked this girl, Kathy, for four years. I could barely speak when I was around her. (And she's now a friend on Facebook. Go figure.) In fact, I had trouble speaking around girls, period. Getting braces in Grade 8, long before it was cool, did not help. That said, I still regarded women romantically. I was past puberty, but I didn't view them through the lens of sex. When the pretty girls were around I became nervous and said silly things, things I always wanted to take back when I went home. Safe in my room, I would replay the conversations in my head and then say the cool thing, imagine them nodding at me in appreciation for my wit and overall coolness.

Today, many cultural critics decry our lost 'innocence', they note that children are too mature and too sexed. Some of that is true. I don't like seeing seven year old girls doing a sexy dance or wearing 'slut' clothes. (I also don't like 'modest wear' for women either, but I digress) But that time of nervousness and ignorance still exists however, it just does so at a different age and in a different way. Puberty is still puberty. Observe a bunch of eleven or twelve year olds at a school dance, and you will find the same butterflies and nervousness and silly comments that we delivered during our own spring dances.

Towards that end, the idea of fantasy is not to recall what the current society has lost, (because no society has ever been guilt free) but to create a world that reflects both our ideals and our humanity. A good fantasy reminds us that the first time we went through the awkward phase we were aiming towards something bigger than ourselves. And a good fantasy reminds us that we can always go back. That we can always start over. Speculative fiction is as much about recreating our childhood as it is reliving it, in the hopes that when we fulfill the quest, when we finish the journey, we will remember the awkward dreams of our childhood. That we'll remember and come out on the other side just a little bit changed, formed the way we always imagined we would be when we were young. And innocent.


Friday, May 21, 2010

God as a Woman?


28 days: Day 6

Psychologists and theologians tell us that our first impression of God is our (human) father. This is especially true in monotheistic traditions, where God is depicted as male. The question, one often ignored, is whether or not this is a good thing.

The problem with the 'father' association is especially poignant in abusive homes, where many children grow up with an image of God that is harsh and cruel. No wonder those individuals have difficulty believing in a loving Creator. Frankly, I've never understood why certain Christians insist on the maleness of God. Their insistence that God, in both the Old Testament and New Testament, chose to be known as male, seems both patriarchal and self-serving. It's here that we see one of the many logistical holes when we take the Bible literally, how we actually diminish Scripture by insisting on a meaning without cultural context. For one thing, Israel's concept of God was radically different than our own, particularly expressed by the idea that Yahweh was 'kadosh', or Holy Other. The Creator was Holy Other than humanity. For the Israelites, YHWH could never be compared to their human father.

In Forerunner, the Creator's identity is primarily feminine. The characters always refer to "Her." After so many months of living in this world, it has become increasingly natural for me. Now for most believers, we understand intellectually that God is neither male nor female, that it is merely a reference point (and yes, I know Jesus was a man) but the implications of our association have been, in many cases, highly destructive. What if we thought of God as our Mother? It neither changes the character or substance of God if we do, and yet it completely alters how we think about God, doesn't it?. If we thought of God as Mother, would we be able to so easily justify the religious wars and violence as we have throughout our history? If we thought of God as Mother, would our first instinct, the instinct of fundamentalists, be to remind people that they are sinners and that God is holy and righteous and wrathful?

The process of writing this novel has altered my ideas about God, and how our perception can be so easily changed by simply changing the gender reference point that we have all grown accustomed to.

Consider this: Studies have shown that complimentarianism, the dominant view of the family throughout the history of the church, leads to more family violence than any other worldview. The patriarchal ideals, the ones preached by men like John Piper and James Dobson, are responsible for widespread abuse, abuse that makes it difficult for many people to reconcile the idea of a loving God with such a nasty father. And yet, those same individuals and churches would be the ones least likely to consider altering our reference point by referring to the Creator as "she". (For the record, I would never use the word 'goddess', which is a misogynistic term that immediately implies 'the female version of the real (male) version'. It's the same reason I refuse to use the term 'actress.')

And yet, after saying all that, it's only through the writing of this book that I have become comfortable with addressing God as 'she'. It just goes to show you, no matter how much we talk about change, it's still uncomfortable, if only because it forces us to address things we thought we'd already worked out.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bracing the Darkness... begins

28 Days: Day 4

It was nearly two months ago when my wife pointed out the small library tucked behind the shopping centre near our home. She mentioned it again a week ago when I complained about my inability to get a seat at two of the local Starbucks to write. I wasn't excited by the possibility. I'd tried working in libraries before, and it had always proved difficult. Unlike most cafes, they're filled with children and young teenagers. As a former youth worker, I love kids, but in most libraries they are very loud and very annoying. I'm tempted to say that kids today are more rude than they were when I was young, but we adults have a tendency to forget just how loud and annoying we were. Kids are kids. Anyway, she convinced me to take a look, and sure enough, it was a particularly tiny branch, with three small sections of tables divided by shelves of books over a single floor. It did however, have quite a few electrical outlets, a necessity for my 1999 laptop, and a cozy feel to it. The red brick and maples out front only made it feel smaller, which I liked. It has become my new writing spot. And so here I am, tucked away in the back corner behind the rotating shelf reserved for teen fiction. The hum of conversation is distant and mingles with the sound of turning pages. It feels like home.

The 28 day experiment has become a fascinating experience for me, if only because I can't recall being this focused. In the words of my wife, I tend to "flit from one thing to another." A blog, an article, a book, my research. Sometimes having a number of interests can be a curse, as I am easily distracted by any number of things. Which is why I can't go home. The lure of the internet (my laptop is too old and not equipped to handle it) and the bed and sometimes television means the writing must happen away from such temptations. These days, I am particularly hooked on Facebook, and if you're unfamiliar with the social networking site, feel free to look it up. But be warned. It's addictive. Especially when your tendencies lie towards discussion and discourse. From politics to religion to health care to sports, the only way for me to ignore that particular siren is to stay far away from her shores.

On the positive side, those discussions allow me a glimpse into the workings of human tendencies, especially my own. And when it comes to various topics, especially politics and religion, it never ceases to amaze me how involved and passionate they become, how the rhetoric so easily leads to personal attacks. How is this positive? Well, when you write speculative fiction, you're responsible for world creation. My novel is set in the late 13th Century (comparatively, as it is a different world) and it is dominated by the Cursh Empire, built through the centuries by the spread of its church. A single country, Dioneysia, has managed to maintain its independence. The politics and governance of those two entities, along with the number of small communities that exist as either part of or separate to the larger ones, means that the issues and discussions on a forum like Facebook inevitably find themselves played out in my work. People have not changed, and while the issues change as our culture changes, the mind sets and systems stay remarkably the same.

This past week I was involved in what became a rather heated exchange on Facebook. I was so upset that I took a day to think about what had upset me and why the discussion had escalated. I realized, rather belatedly, that while my views had changed over the years, I was still stuck on proving that my system, my ideology, was the correct one. And so while the content of my beliefs had changed, the style had remained the same. It was a disheartening revelation. An apology followed, ending the discussion, though it did little to ease my frustration for my inability to see the forest.

In writing Forerunner, I have discovered characters with whom I disagree greatly, characters that I wish would just "grow up." That they can not and will not speaks not to their immaturity, necessarily, but to their humanity. Recent neurological studies have helped us in this manner, by revealing just how soothing certainty is, and perhaps revealing why Pundocrats like Ann Coulter can be at once so polarizing and so popular. Life is uncertain, and it is difficult to live peacefully when we can never be sure of anything. Perhaps that's why so many of us are angry or depressed, or get so easily wrapped up in a rhetoric that ultimately becomes personal.

Josh (my main character) stands in a unique position. Raised in a country home by powerful parents who gave up much to affect change, they unwittingly forced him to live a lie, although they consistently reinforced the importance of truth. In fact, the Bishop (Josh's father) risked exile in publishing one of his works, which the Church considered heretical. And yet now, Josh stands alone, pushed forward by those who believe that he stands in the gap between the Creator and Her creation. Everyone knows what is right for him, what is true. But in Josh's experience, truth is the playpen of our own ego. Everyone thinks that they're right and everyone can prove it. Yet his desire for the best in those around him leads him to the confounding ideals of conflicting systems, all of which promise certainty. All of which have large holes in which some people are favoured above others, holes where the system becomes blind. No matter where he turns, equality remains nothing more than a hopeless ideal.

The path Josh takes is the one we all take, I think, in our search for ultimate truth. The search for a system that provides answers for the brokeness of our species. I am unsure how his journey will end just yet, he has not shown me, but how we handle the balance between our frailty and our ideals is something we can all relate to, if only because it is the essence of being human.


Empathy, Harry Potter and the Necessity of Fiction

28 Days


The sun is bright this morning and the birds seem louder, as if relieved by a day that promises to be both warm and bright. There is no wind, and the trees below the balcony do not stir. The distant roar of cars along the highway fades easily into the background.

It has been a while since I have found myself so involved with the characters of a novel. (one of my own) It is a strange and compelling experience, in that I am continually forced to view life through a different lens. I can't help but think that such an experience is a good thing. That said, you do not have to be a writer to experience other lives. You experience it when you read as well. I've often reflected on books like the Harry Potter series, on those who grew up with the novels and shared the lives of those characters. What a wonderful gift from J.K. Rowling, to give her work such depth that readers became lost in the story, to the point where they assumed ownership of it. I am certainly no Rowling, but I believe that this is the experience all writers are trying to give their readers. Something magical happens when we find ourselves in a new story, even if it is only borrowed for a time. It enlarges us somehow, and helps us see the blind spots in both our beliefs and ourselves. People sometimes ask me why I love fiction so much, or why I would write something that isn't 'true.' What I usually tell them is that fiction – story – is the only way people ever truly understand one another, because it is only through story that we are ever given a window into other people's experiences and what it means to walk in another person's footsteps. Without that understanding, without empathy, love is impossible. And without love, life really isn't worth that much.



One of those days when the thought of any thoughts is beyond exhaustion. Will post tomorrow.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Inside a Writer’s Head: Day 1 of 28


Lots to do. It's a bit overwhelming what's in front of me, so I'll try to keep it simple. What's interesting is the sense of… blessing I feel in making this attempt. Somehow in trying to wrestle with the dimensions and theology of the world I've created, I sense more God's presence in my life. And yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds, but there it is. Having read far too many books about Neurology, I'm sure that 'sense' can be explained biologically. However, I am growing increasingly comfortable once again with mystical ideas about God. Shutting off that tap seems like folly to me, because every generation thinks – likes to think – that they have it all figured out. Reaching for the Divine through rationalism eventually leads to a claim on divinity, and if there is one thing I am sure of, it is that I am not God, nor even partly God.

If there's one concern going forward, it is that the book will end up as nothing more than an extended cliché. The 'same old' fantasy that has already been written a thousand times. The only way to fight that, I think, is to inhabit my characters, listen to them as they tell me their story, and write from their perspective.

Another fear is that the best works of fantasy are greatly and lavishly detailed. My rewrite will be easily be bogged down in simple description, since I find it the most difficult aspect of writing. The good news is that Josh has separated himself for me, and while he is quiet and insecure, I am his biggest fan and supporter. His heart is in the right place, for all the mistakes he seems to make, and that matters a great deal, I think.

I'd be remiss not to mention his mother, De Nyara. She was born, something of a miracle child, in her own right, and forsook her place as one of the most powerful persons in Dioneysia to marry Josh's father, Caleb, a rogue Bishop from the Empire. She married out of love and with the hope that they could unite the two states peacefully. What she gave up to attempt that, however, was more than her place of power. Sometimes I feel her looking at me through the pages. Be fair, is what she tells me. I do not know why she emphasizes that so much, but I try to honour it just the same.



It's nearly 8pm on the first day and I'm feeling whipped already. The screen is blurry and I'm trying to figure out why I'm doing this in the first place. Oh, right. This is what writers are supposed to do. Got it. The one hour workout at five o'clock has helped, along with the fifteen minutes of prayer and meditation. Did I mention that I have prohibited the use of any intoxicant, beer, wine, rum, for the duration of the 28 days. No celebrating until it is over. Of course, by then I probably won't be able to handle more than simply smelling the caps. The good news is that I am so immersed in the story it is much easier to hear my characters. And there is this strange sense of… work, in what I'm doing. I mean that in a good way. Writing, like any creative activity, is not like cooking or accounting or programming, but sometimes we (writers, artists) use that as an excuse not to work. In that sense, today feels good.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Inside a Writer’s Head

The Race to Finish a Novel

Sunlight filters into the living room, past the blankets currently serving as curtains. I glance up from my spot at the table, and rub my eyes. It's cold for spring, enough that I've hooked up a small heater on the floor that hums loudly in the silence. I've been writing for forty five minutes and already I'm distracted, my mind drifting to the latest discussion on Facebook with my friends. Having trained a client two hours earlier as the dawn broke, I have the rest of the day to work on my novel, which has stagnated over the past two weeks. Despite having written over four hundred pages, I'm finding it difficult to do much more than an hour or so a day. This past weekend I didn't work on it at all. For most people, this is not a problem. Writing is a hobby, something to tinker with on holidays and spare time. For me, however, like many writers, I've created a work schedule that panders to my writing. In other words, I work to pay the bills so that I can have more time and more space – emotionally and creatively – to write. If I'm not writing however…

I glance back at the screen but decide I need more coffee. My wife is still asleep, and our two kittens have curled up in their favourite chairs. By any measure, it is the perfect time to write. Except that I'm not. I'm doing everything but write. I pour the coffee and clean up the few dishes around the sink. By the time I sit back down I realize that I need more water, and take my time filling a new glass, which also needs to be washed again before I use it.

When I first realized that I wanted to be a writer, nearly thirteen years ago, I quickly learned that the mystique of writing, of coffees and cafes, of pubs and pints and cheerful puffing while engaged in deeply thoughtful conversation, was patently false. A myth. It wasn't quite the tortured, sell your soul and bleed type of commitment that I'd read about in some writer's works. It was lonely however, and a seemingly endless craft to pursue. No matter how strongly I felt about a piece, it could always be improved. A perfect score was unattainable. And even if something close to perfection was achieved, it was no guarantee that a publisher would agree. (The list of rejected classics was endless) So why write at all? Why bang my head against a shifting and impervious wall.

Of all the things written about writers, the one that had stayed with me more than any other was this: writers write because they must. This meant that I was stuck writing crap for the first few years, almost all of which was unreadable. I finished a novel, and had it rejected by a number of publishers. Undaunted, I wrote another one. This one was better, and it caught the eye of a few publishers. I signed on with a literary agent and shed a few tears in the process, joyful that the years of hard work were about to pay off. Unfortunately, a religiously themed novel about a stripper who gets caught in up in a South American cult was impossible to market. (What shelf do you put that one on?) My agent stopped calling me and never did return my phone calls. By that time, I could feel my insides tightening up when I sat down to write. I'd dedicated too many years to writing however, and it was too late to make a career change. Not that I could have changed, but it was a nice thing to dream about. I started thinking about what it would be like to be happy working 9 to 5 in an office somewhere, having money in the bank account, being able to sit and play video games without feeling guilty about the wasted time. It was no longer me, if it ever had been. There was nothing to do but write.

The next book was a spiritual memoir, In Love with a Stranger, where I wrote about my struggles with faith and life. My efforts to sell it to publishers were half hearted at best. After that, I kept up the notion that I was still a writer, although I'd hit my mid-thirties and could no longer be considered young. I kept up my web site and started another thriller, but after 150 pages I lost interest and I let it go. A year passed. Then two. Somewhere in the back of my mind I kept wondering if I was done, if the dream was over. But writers write because they must, and unlike other areas in my life, like my failed attempts to get organized, I was stubborn. The past summer I'd finally started another novel, only this time I was going to write about the things I loved: theology, philosophy and adventure. After spending two months on a basic storyline for a three book arc and the background of my new world, I was ready.


I feel a brush of fur against my leg. Nelson, one of our two black and white spotted kittens has come off his chair and is looking for some attention. (We named him Nelson after Lord Nelson of the British Navy due to the black spot across his nose. I tend to assume anyone with a mustache is either British or a 70's porn star.) I scratch behind his ears and he starts purring, stays for a few more moments and then goes back to his chair and curls up again. It's a hard life. I look back at the screen but I've lost what little momentum I had and forget where I am in the story. If I was more organized, I would not be going back to rewrite because I would have a clear plot outline. Unfortunately, I find it difficult to write that way. I reassure myself that I have the whole day, and that there's nothing wrong with a break. I head out onto the balcony with my coffee and watch the trees blow in the wind. They make a shushing sound that reminds me of waves breaking on a beach, and I sit out there for a while before heading back inside.

What I need is a deadline. I don't want to set one, but as the morning passes, and I barely manage to edit eight pages, I decide that it's time. I will give myself four weeks to complete the first draft. Twenty eight days. No more. With roughly twenty five thousand words left to write, not to mention finishing the current rewrite, I'm not sure it can be done. I have to try.

I also decide to blog about the process. It's a question that even an aspiring novelist gets quite a bit. (How do you go about writing a book, Steve?) So for the next four weeks I'll keep you posted on the process. This will be, unlike many of the things I've posted on this site, much closer to a typical blog. I can't spend much time refining my daily comments, so I'll beg your forgiveness for grammatical errors in advance.

The story I'm writing is, like most works of fantasy, a simple one. My main character is Josh, a tall, awkward teenager who has just turned eighteen and can neither read nor fight. He has two sisters and lives in a small village near the coast. His father is a carpenter and his mother is a housewife. Or so he thinks. On his eighteenth Nameday, assassins show up and kill his father. He escapes with his family, and learns for the first time that his mother is no housewife, but the former Commander General of the Dioneysian army, and his father a powerful Bishop who served at the Palace with the Emperor. The Empire has waged war on Dioneysia for centuries, and it has decided that it is time to crush Dioneysia for good. Josh does not understand any of this, and is suddenly thrust into the midst of a political and religious battle that is about to write its final chapter. It is a time of medieval warfare and crusading religions, a time when the Lesser gods interact directly with humanity, and a time when myths are held as truth and the truth is buried in legends.

Through it all, one prophecy still sings. A prophecy that the Church will do everything to hide, and one that will ask Josh to become what he has never known and then give it away. Insecure, gawky, and confused, Josh's greatest gift is his ability to see the good in those around him and his willingness to tell the truth. Armed with a coterie of friends he makes along the way, but unable to escape the memories of his childhood, he sets out on a journey that will take him from the Paltyc Ocean and across the great Sepanni desert to the Mountains of the North.


I look at the screen and save what I've written. Certainly, I've outlined the plot, perhaps even written something that could appear on the back of a book cover. But there is so much more to tell. Especially about the journey that an author takes with their protagonist, and how their lives become separated even as the writer explores his own darkness to find the truth in their characters. I look out the window and shut down my lap top. Today will be a lazy day, thinking about my characters and the path I'm about to travel with them. For those of you who have wondered what that road looks like, here is a chance for an inside look. Come along, if you like. Fell free to ask questions, though I may not answer until my time is up. But now, it's time to rest. Josh and I have a long way to go, and only a short time to get there.