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.