A Different Approach

In the last five years, I’ve written six novels, mostly in the literary genre except for my one venture into science fiction. I completed the first draft of my latest novel, a psychological thriller, last September, but I’ve been meandering through the editing process since then. Having spent some time learning more about the craft of writing, I’ve given less emphasis to the speed at which I finish a book and more to the aspects of crafting and re-crafting the story. Many an accomplished writer has acknowledged that writing is mostly re-writing, and nothing could be closer to the truth. As I’m relatively new to the world of novel writing, I’m still crafting my own approach.

I think it’s important to get the story out. Often, when I have a new story idea, I find myself in the throes of passion for the novel and want to get it on the page. I don’t hold back in this honeymoon phase because it’s more important to get the general idea in words than it is to worry about the structure or inconsistencies. These things can be honed later. Re-writing provides ample opportunity to perfect a story. Imagine making a piece of pottery: I want to get the general form in place and then I’ll carefully smooth out the rough parts repeatedly until I get the final, beautiful (hopefully) piece that I originally imagined. A novel is very much like pottery. In the end, no novel is perfect in the author’s view; the goal is to get it to a level approaching perfection that is cognitively acceptable to the writer.

At the base level, re-writing is no fun. It’s like having to write the same sentence repeatedly as a form of punishment (I can’t be the only one who had to do that in school). The process is very slow and often discouraging. Some things simply don’t work the second time around when I re-read my work. I find it helps to have other projects to work on while I’m going through this phase; otherwise, I’m likely to go crazy. During the re-write phase this time around, I’ve banged out my memoir and written countless concepts for potential novel ideas. Sometimes, I find myself working on other writing ideas simply to avoid re-writing.

Despite my internal reluctance, I have made progress on my current novel, and I’m starting to appreciate the approach. Once I finished the first draft, I re-read it a couple of times, and then, I deconstructed the story and realized that I had two parallel story lines in the novel, but one wasn’t fully fleshed out. I’ve spent much of the past few months writing that second story line. I’m almost done with it, and when I am, I’ll have to integrate it into the first draft and do another round of revisions since several inconsistencies have arisen in the story. I think this approach will work for me. I think this will help me set a good pace for the story and end up with a true first draft that has legs.

What hasn’t changed in my approach is the importance of the characters. I have a tendency to fall in love with my characters and become them in many ways. I love stepping into the mind of a character and letting myself wander around. At the end of the day, when my writing is done, the characters take me to where they want to take me. It’s almost surreal. Before I started down this road of writing novels, I didn’t quite understand it when writers said they let the characters decide where to go. I understand now, and it’s true. The characters own the story.

My goal is to finish the second “first” draft of Into the Caldera by the end of June just in time for my first residency at The Fifth Semester in Chicago. This is the story I plan to cultivate during the writing program. I’m excited about its potential. It’s an enthralling story with a strong main character that I hope captivates readers. Only time will tell.

What I’ve Done

It’s been almost two years since I’ve committed myself to realizing my dream of writing and publishing a novel.  In that span of time, I’ve written a lot, which isn’t that much different than what I was doing before, but I’ve also learned a ton in my pursuit of publication.  When I first decided to write a novel, that’s all I did for a few months.  Every morning, I’d write 1,000 words or more and they’d add up.  In three months I had my first 80,000-word novel in draft form.  The moment I wrote the last sentence of my first novel remains one of the most satisfying experiences in my writing career.  Finally, I had finished a novel.  I printed the 300 pages for my wife to read (she’s always my beta reader), and I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of a stack of paper as I was at that moment.

Actually finishing a novel is only half of the process.  Next, comes the seemingly endless edits.  I like to let a story sit for a while and come back to it later for edits.  I usually move onto the next project before I do any serious editing on a just-finished novel.  This forces me to detach myself from the characters and the story and helps me edit more keenly.  Characters become like best friends after you spend several months with them, and the story is your baby.  No one wants to hurt their baby.  The distance of time helps.

In the time since I’ve started this process, I’ve completed three novels, and I’m almost done with a fourth.  I’m using the verb “completed” rather liberally because until they actually get published they’re not really complete.  Maybe I should redefine complete to mean they’re in a state of wholeness in the sense that the story is there, but it may need to be redefined to get to the publication stage.

One thing that has helped me get closer to publication is that I’ve been engaged with the writing community.  I’ve joined the local writer’s association, Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association (PNWA) and I’ve subscribed to Writer’s Digest along with many other websites that offer resources as well as communities for writers.  I’m learning as much as I can about the trade from professional resources as well as other writers.  This engagement has encouraged me to submit my writing for critiques and enter writing contests, both of which have provided invaluable feedback on my work.

I’ve also engaged agents.  I’ve reached out to them and received feedback on my work from them as well.  This has helped me determine what I need to do to better prepare my stories for publication.  It’s definitely a work in progress.  I’m not necessarily in a hurry, but I have my goals in mind.  I’d love to have a long career as a writer.  I don’t want it to become my day job, but I want to thrive in this creative outlet, which really is a sharp contrast to my day job.

The result is that I have four novels that are at various stops along the road to publication.  Below is a brief description of each novel as well as where I’m at with it.  As I progress on each of these, I continue to work on new things and push forward with new ideas.  It’s important to keep working and focusing on the craft while keeping an eye on the things I’ve “finished.”

The Vanishing – Ella Warfield is no stranger to personal tragedy, but when her husband of over thirty years slips into the void of a rare form of dementia at a relatively young age, she finds herself struggling to survive. Alone, depressed, and fearing that she has failed her husband yet again, Ella concocts a murder-suicide plan to put an end to their misery, but her courage and unexpected occurrences threaten to thwart her plan as she comes face-to-face with her own motivations. The Vanishing is a story of survival and finding hope and strength when the odds are against you.  This is my first novel.  I’ve received several critiques on this book and I’m currently going through significant revisions based on the feedback I’ve received.

All Things Certain – Matt and Brad were the best of friends growing up but had fallen out of touch once Brad moved away for college.  Now that Brad has returned to his hometown and reconnected with his old friend, Matt is eager to resume the great friendship they once shared a decade ago, but Brad has changed in ways that are unfathomable to him.  Nothing embodies who Brad really is more than his friend Trevor, whom Matt summarily dismisses based on his own biased view of the world.  The resulting conflict severs their friendship until a tragic event forces Matt to reconsider all that he once thought was certain.  The topic of this novel is decidedly controversial but timely.  I’ve received some feedback on it, and I need to make some adjustments.  I’m getting additional critiques on this one before I send it out to more agents.

That Which Binds Us – By all accounts, Susan Baker’s youngest son, Tommy, has never been an easy child.  Temperamental and under-developed mentally, he often withdrew from the world around him save for his mother, who became his best friend and confidante as he grew into a young man, but nothing prepared her for the violent crime that leaves him convicted of murder and facing life in prison.  Believing he was wrongfully accused and convicted by a community hell-bent on blaming someone for the heinous crime, Susan puts her faith in a pedantic lawyer to get her son a new trial and overturn his conviction.  Despite being estranged from her family for her support of her youngest son, Susan attempts to enlist them to support Tommy at his sentencing hearing, but the family dynamic proves too volatile resulting in a desperate act that changes all of their lives forever.  I’ve entered this novel into the annual PNWA writing competition.  The value of entering competitions is not just the potential to get recognition but also the critiques that you receive.  I’ve also submitted this novel to a few agents and I’m awaiting their feedback.

The Weight of Regret – John Lambert left behind an unfortunate legacy when he surreptitiously abandoned his family over thirty years ago, but a near-fatal crash in a remote canyon in northern Arizona leaves him with a few precious moments to give his wife and three children some answers for his unsolved disappearance on a bitterly cold day in January 1980.  As he scribbles out letters to each of them, he reflects on what he left behind and the reasons for his selfish behavior.  Unbeknownst to him, the lives of his loved ones have played out differently in the intervening years, sometimes tragically, but the impact of his abandonment is never far-removed their thoughts even after three decades.  As John clings to life, he resolves to make things right if given the chance to see his family again.  This is the current novel I’m working on and it’s still in the rough draft phase.  I hope to have the draft complete by the end of April and begin editing it after my beta readers take a look at it.  Once I feel it’s in reasonable shape, I’ll submit for critiques.


Run. Write. Repeat.

I never know when writing ideas will strike.  They seem to come at me at the most inopportune moments like when I’m in the shower, on a walk far away from pen and paper or my laptop, or in those fleeting moments before I fall asleep and I’m too tired to get up and write.  Sometimes, I capture the idea and record it in my virtual notebook on my computer where it will sit idly by waiting for me to flesh it out.  I have a long list of ideas in my notebook, enough to keep me busy for years, but so far only four of those ideas have been turned into novels. and a few short stories.

Despite the slow pace of turning these ideas into viable stories, I’m always searching for new ones, whether it’s a concept for an entire novel, a scene for a novel I’m working on, or just a character that just doesn’t seem to work or come to life for me.  Like many things creative, I can’t just make them happen.  In fact, many times when I sit down to write, the words flow from my fingertips like they’re possessed by some unseen creative demon.  I get “in the zone” like an athlete competing in the Olympics and the words just come out.  When I’m done, I’m often relieved like getting it out was a strenuous exercise or an arduous task of some kind; although, I’m aware that anyone catching me in the act of writing while reclined in my favorite chair would think it is anything but grueling.

While I’ve never been able to capture this genie in a bottle, there are some reliably predictable situations where creativity seems to flow in a symbiotic way that feeds my mind.  I’m sure many writers have their methods, but for me, running is that elixir that produces the right volatile mix of exertion and ideas that seem to intermingle in the ether and fuel new ideas, characters, or scenes that help me work through the latest challenge in my stories.  My wife often asks me to take my young son outdoors so that he can play and get his “ya-yas” out.  Well, running is a way for me to get my creative “ya-yas” out, so to speak.

I usually write in the early mornings before I run.  On some mornings, the words just flow like honey from a jar.  On others, the blank page and blinking cursor taunt me like an implacable infant while my words stutter and stumble across the page like a drunken sailor.  No matter which condition afflicts me, a good run will work it all out.  Running after a particularly good writing session just fuels more ideas as if I am writing on the trail with my feet.  Running after a challenging session seems to help me work out the kinks and get back on track.  There’s something to be said about the seemingly mindless act of exerting oneself physically.  It frees the mind to wander and investigate those areas that one may be reluctant to peruse in a more conscious state.  In my case, it helps me through the challenge of writing.  It’s the only thing that works consistently time and again.

After a good run, I’m clear-eyed and alert.  My mind is keenly focused.  I feel like I can conquer any story or overcome any writer’s block that may lurk on that dastardly blank page.  If I’m so inclined, I’ll run and then return and write even if it’s just a scribble on a few pages or hastily typed in my virtual notebook.  A run-fueled surge of ideas is often the perfect cure for all that ails my writing, a nice reset that puts me back on the path to my journey as an author.


The Road Ahead

A few friends have asked why I’ve decided to start a writer’s blog, Facebook page, and Twitter feed now when I haven’t published anything and there’s nothing to “sell”.  That’s a very good question and I realize that all of this may seem presumptuous, but there are actually some good reasons for doing this now versus later.

First and foremost, every author today needs a platform.  Typically, that platform involves a blog, a Facebook page, and a Twitter feed at the very least.  Your platform provides an avenue to communicate with your audience and establish that connection with your readers.  This connection is critical if you hope to market your work at some point in the future.  There are millions of books and authors out there and they are all vying for the attention of readers.  A platform helps you get that attention.  If a reader likes your work, they’ll likely follow you in some way and they’ll be the first to get your new book when it comes out.  In fact, most agents today want to sign authors who have already established a platform, so it becomes the proverbial chicken of the egg question.  Do you need a platform before or after you have your first book in publication?  The answer depends on who you ask, but the safe bet is that the sooner you have a platform, the better.

The reality is that a platform doesn’t just appear overnight.  You can put all the pieces in place and still be stuck in an empty room with crickets chirping.  You have to build content that attracts people to your sites and then you have to promote the sites.  It takes time and effort, and if you want to have any momentum by the time your work gets published, you have to get a running start.  That, in a nutshell, is the key reason I’ve started building my platform at this point.  The road to publication is long and arduous.  It may be years before I get to that point, but I will be ready when I get there with a platform that has a strong history of content and engagement.

The other reason I’ve started my platform now is more subtle and psychological.  For years I’ve been writing in the shadows.  I’ve enjoyed it immensely, but I’ve always told myself that I’d get around to publishing some day.  I’ve been writing a blog for over ten years, but beyond that none of my writing has seen the light of day.  I always seemed to put it off to another day “when I had time.”  A couple of years ago, I committed myself to getting published.  There’s something liberating about making a personal declaration to do something, but there’s something even more motivating in telling the world what you plan to do.  No one wants to fail in plain sight of friends and family, but exposing yourself and your dreams to others helps keep you accountable and certainly motivates you beyond those inevitable down moments when everything seems impossible and difficult.

The road ahead certainly seems exciting, but it’s equally frightening, and I’m putting it out there for everyone to see.  I can’t think of anything more motivating than succeeding in the face of daunting odds.  These are the challenges that make life all the more enjoyable.  I can’t help but believe that my passion and enthusiasm for writing will ultimately lead me to great personal satisfaction.  Anything worth achieving takes a lot of work, and this platform is just the beginning.