|My book signing for "The Dark Age of Enya".|
I'm not here to give writing advice. There are plenty of books for that. If you're serious about the craft, you should know the basics: setting, character, plot. You should know the difference between scene and summary. You should understand dialogue and how best to use it. It's like learning how to hold the violin, knowing what strings make what sounds and what those little knobs on the end do (see, I know nothing about violins). After the basics, the possibilities are infinite. There are as many ways to write a book as there are books, but every one of those ways involves hard work. To give you an idea, I am now going to describe how I approach writing a novel.
Before any writing takes place, novels are birthed from ideas. What if I mailed myself in a huge box? That was an idea I had when I was six, which I turned into a story. Ideas can come from books, movies, or better yet, real life. But one good idea doesn't make a story, which is why my mind works 24/7 looking for inspiration. People always think I am aloof; half the time I can't even remember my coworkers names. I suspect this has something to do with the amount of brain power reserved for story telling. Whether at my other job as a restaurateur, or driving, or in the shower, I am always working on writing. I've woken out of bed just to get a sentence on paper. The idea gathering process is ongoing and never ending. Once gathered, potential stories float in the filing cabinet in my head. I may need a name for a character one day, and my subconscious will pull it out. Often, I don't even recognize where the name came from; it might be from something I heard as a kid. Until recently, one character in my book was called Duncan Oakenshield, and then I saw the film and remembered Oakenshield is the lead dwarf in The Hobbit. Many ideas go to waste---because they simply don't fit anywhere. For example, I've always wanted to write about a three-handed giant, since the notion of a three-handed sword amuses me, but I can never find a place to put the idea. Some things fit whatever story I am writing at the time, while others lay dormant, decades from inception. When I've gathered enough ideas that can be linked together in an interesting way, and if I feel excited by the story's potential, I begin the brainstorming process, writing bits and pieces down in a little notebook. I may write descriptions of characters and places, pieces of a plot, maybe even entire passages. Unlike Stephen King, I like to know something of the end before I start. As of this post, there's a notebook full of information regarding my latest, The Princess of Aenya, and I haven't even written the first sentence yet.
No matter how well I prepare, the actual book writing is always preceded by a level of dread. What if I've forgotten how to write? What if my mind goes blank? What if none of my ideas work? These thoughts plague me until that blank screen appears on my laptop. For up to eight hours, I sit possessed, tapping away. Reality melts away and all that exists is the story. Sometimes I can smell the grass, feel the wind, hear the voices of the heroes. If I write something particularly poignant, I'll catch myself weeping. This is the only romantic part of my job. After eight hours of intense focus, reality comes rushing back to me; I stretch, because my back and neck hurt; I'll be hungry, thirsty, and have a need to pee, and I am left with about eight pages of text blinking back at me. My immediate feelings? It's garbage. I suckered myself into thinking it would be good. That passage I was crying about? Melodramatic drivel. I become my own worst critic. So I reread it again, and again, and again. I get a Frappuccino and read it yet again. I read it backwards to unfamiliarize myself with it. And then, simply because I am exhausted, I shut the damn thing off and go home. I'll work on it tomorrow, I promise myself, and then begins a second day of editing, where I chip away at sentences, adding and deleting words like Michelangelo hammering raw material into what will become the Pieta. Sometimes there will be a third day of editing, and then I'll move on to a new chapter, not because I'm satisfied with the first (I still loathe it, and hate myself for sucking at writing) but because if I don't move on, the novel will sit in my brain forever like a cancerous tumor. This process continues, chapter after chapter after torturous chapter. All the while, I am still gathering ideas, many for sections I've already finished. I then have to go back and rework those ideas into old passages, reediting chapters I've already edited to exhaustion. Throughout this ordeal, my perspective shifts and changes, so what I think is good one day becomes terrible the next. Being a writer is a perpetual paradox, because you are constantly battling your own subjectivity; you are constantly trying to do the impossible, which is to judge your work as if you hadn't written it. By the time the novel has an ending (notice I said an ending) many years may have gone by, at which point I experience a new level of dread as I must read the whole thing from the beginning. What if none of it makes sense? What if it doesn't read emotionally? And who the Hell wrote this first chapter? The novel I hold in my hands very rarely resembles the story I wanted to write, because novels are organic things. What seemed great in my notepad reads terribly within the larger context. The characters often want to do their own things, the story wants to take detours I didn't plan on, and the finished piece is an utter mystery. If you sincerely aspire to becoming a writer, this next part may disturb you, because, after all that self-afflicted mental torture, you may just have to throw the whole thing out and start over. This isn't editing, by the way, this is rewriting. Why the Hell would I do that to myself? The answer is simple: by the time the final chapter is down, I've become a much better writer. It becomes terribly obvious as I read through the first draft. The writing quality steadily improves as the novel progresses. Even after thirty eight years on this planet, thirty of which I've spent writing, I am still finding things to learn. By the time I was sitting at Barnes & Nobles touting paperback copies of The Dark Age of Enya, I knew in my heart I was better than what my wares suggested, that I could rewrite the book and improve it by leagues. When will the learning process end? Maybe when I'm dead.
After all this, you may be wondering, why do you do it? It may seem a fruitless enterprise, a grueling, thankless profession, and it is. At the same time, whenever I am not writing, I feel that I am wasting my time. I may work forty hours at the restaurant, play Mario and do homework with the kids, but by Sunday night, if I haven't managed to put thoughts on paper, I feel like a lazy slob. For me, life doesn't have meaning without being written, because it's art that gives life meaning. People like to say, Everything has a meaning, because it makes them feel good, but I am here to tell you that's crap. Meaning is a uniquely human concept. It's something we create for ourselves, to help us endure shit like the Sandy Hook massacre. Even religion, with it's fanciful stories of gods and angels, is nothing more than fiction dressed up like truth. And so I am compelled to add to the global dialogue of the human race. Now that may sound lofty and inspiring, but 90% of the time, it feels like a mental disorder. Writing is a compulsion, something I have to do to get through the week. That's what I call the writers' disease. You want my honest advice about writing a novel? Don't trouble yourself. Pick something easier, like medicine or law or coal mining, or just about anything.
Still there? Really? Are you seething with rage? Are you full of anxiety? Are you ready to ram your keyboard down my throat because . . . you really, really want to be a writer? After all, who the fuck am I to discourage you? Well, if you've read thus far and you still don't want to give up---if you can't even conceive of giving up, because it's in you, in your blood, in every fiber of your being, then by all means, do it. And good luck. Just don't sell it on Amazon for 80 cents. Now you'll have to excuse me. I have to reread this post several more times.