Tag Archives: novels

The Distracted Writer and His Demons

avatar3The Distracted Writer and His Demons

So I managed to get up by alarm this morning at eight, then wasted a whack of time reading the newspaper, fed the horses, and got to my computer by 10:10. This was to be a back-on-track writing morning. I started off by reading a chapter of a Bird on Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, to get me in the mood as it were. To be honest, it’s a dodge. An avoidance. A distraction.

I love writing when I’m doing it, but when I’m not, I’m running scared–away from imminent disaster. Sometimes I think I should be a drunk or an addict, so the millions who read my books–in the future–can say how I suffered for my art. “Maybe it was his demons that made him great,” you will say, thinking of me wistfully, giving your head a few such-a-shame passes back and forth.

I am writing this blog to keep me away from working on my novel. I’m afraid the novel’s dreck. I’m afraid it will be too short. I’m afraid I’ll change course too many times and none of my sub-plots will untangle. I’m afraid…that I can’t do it.

I wonder if other self-employed workers have this problem with distraction, avoidance, and self-doubt. Does Fred the plumber decide to check facebook for an hour before he goes on a job? Does Dave the drywaller doubt whether he can hang gyproc straight?

I compare myself to other writers I know. One gets up before the dawn and writes for hours, totally committed and focused–a much different personality type from me. My friend M. can write marathons. “I wrote 10,000 words today,” he says. But he’s bi-polar and incredibly prolific in the manic phase–the blessing, not the curse of his condition.

So to help me write, I have a list of guidelines, just for me. And they do help. Here are a few of them:

  1. Write at a particular time, not when you feel like it.
  2. Write or work at writing every day to improve and to build momentum.
  3. Don’t follow distractions such as e-mail.
  4. Don’t give in to doubts about your ability to write. You have a voice unique to you. Use it.
  5. Writing is a right brain activity. Thinking about writing and why you can’t is not. Start writing and get in the zone.
  6. Don’t lose contact with the enjoyment of writing and the desire to write well.
  7. Don’t worry so much about the First Draft. Only be concerned with the words stopping, not what they are. You can take out whole chapters later if you have to (Second Draft), but by persevering with production you may be taken down pathways you never expected or planned for.
  8. Be flexible with your novel or short story plan. Let the characters tell their story. Write to discover what happens. Enjoy.

 

That’s it. Notice that the word “enjoy” comes up more than once? Now I’ve got to get down to my writing.

Writing Historical Fiction

63a0e8af496cf3c10dbe9b3249f7820cIn my last blog, I talked about being open to story ideas when they zing by you, and using the what if helper. For me, history releases ideas like a porcupine throws quills. My novel, Blood Moon Road, grew out of a “write-off” session with my friend and writing guru, Michael Hiebert. A “write-off” is where you sit in a room (or a Starbucks), agree on starting point, and both write for three or four hours. Then you critique each other’s work. Though Michael tells of our writing encounter with the theme of how incredibly distracted I am, my version is that I finally found one idea in the book he handed me–a history of the Middle Ages–that ended up as a novel.

The fact that tweaked my interest that day was that King Canute of England in the year 1027 traveled to Rome for the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor (the Church’s secular head of Christendom). I was taken by the idea of this English king who was actually a Dane with Viking roots, arriving in a Rome that was but a remnant of what it had been under the Caesars. I started with Canute’s longships crossing the English channel, and after a bit of digging to find that Canute had three sons, I posed the question: what if one of his sons accompanied him? I chose the middle son, Harald Harefoot (so called because he was fast, not because he had furry feet), and made the point of view his. As his character grew, I knew he must part ways with his father king and woman must be involved. From there I mapped it out (with help from the writing guru).

In writing historical fiction, one can always position fictional characters close to historical figures, or have them tragically affected by enormous historical events: wars, revolutions, plagues, assassinations. What was that film about the woman who ran the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts planned the killing of Abraham Lincoln? Fascinating. Now that wasn’t fiction, but it could have been. What if Guy Fawkes had a sister? How would she have been affected by his arrest and execution?

One of my favourite historical novels is The Eagle of the Ninth, by the wonderful British writer Rosemary Sutcliff. She took two events: in the year A.D. 117, the Roman Ninth Legion marched north from Eburacum (now York) to put down a rising of the Caledonians, and was never heard from again; eighteen hundred years later a Roman eagle, standard of the Roman legions, was unearthed in Hampshire. Sutcliff wove a superb tale of a Roman centurion forced to retire after an injury, who travels north of Hadrian’s Wall in disguise with his slave/friend to find out what became of his father’s legion and to recover its missing eagle. A marvelous read (and now a passable movie: Centurion starring Michael Fassbender.)

Another great use of a minor historical fact is Geraldine Brooks’ book, The Year of Wonders. In 1666, the town of Eyam in England quarantines itself to prevent the spread of plague. Given that one fact, Brooks creates a strong female protagonist in a town that becomes a small microcosm of believable characters dealing with sickness, death, and betrayal. The story really belongs to the protagonist, Anna Frith, whose character arcs superbly. The result is one of those unforgettable stories that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

To successfully spin fact into fiction requires an enormous amount of research, but that is a topic for another blog. Until then, if you want to send me story ideas or interesting historical facts you think might be launch points, please do.

Garth out.

Separation Anxiety

coat of armsI’m suffering from separation anxiety.

No, my wife hasn’t left me, and empty-nest syndrome hasn’t kicked in, though my three sons have gone. The loved ones who are now far away have names like Harald, Selia, Gwyn, Gudrun, and Cnute. Then there is Yngvarr, Ravya, Xaviero, and Floriano. All are precious to my grieving heart, for they are all my creations. I finished my historical novel, Blood Moon Road, a month ago. My main characters headed home to northern Europe and left me in Italy, spinning my eleventh century cart wheels.

Not having been left as a babe in a basket on the steps of St. Agatha’s, abandonment is a new experience. When the novel first began to take shape, I awoke one morning to find that Harald Cnuteson, my protagonist, was making decisions for himself–drinking too much ale and pursuing a beautiful woman. I reacted to his Pinocchio-like transformation by running about the room crying, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” (my apologies to Victor Frankenstein).

When I calmed at last and sat down at my computer, I discovered that I was unable to keep my Anglo-Danish hero from continually running headlong into danger (I refuse to say “in harm’s way”). What proceeded was a half-year chronicling the trials and tribs of myfriend and his companions as we explored Europe in the Middle Ages.

The great British novelist Graham Greene said, “The moment comes when a character does or says something you hadn’t thought about. At that moment he’s alive and you leave him to it.” I suppose that is the most exhilarating aspect of the writing process. Though you are the prime mover in your book’s universe, developing characters act in keeping with the truth of themselves. For the writer–at least for this writer–it is the experience of a reader losing him/her self in a great book, taken to the next level.

Years ago, I set out to learn the craft of acting. I advanced far enough to get paid a pittance for my work, and managed to learn a few things in the process. I learned–or used the concept–that to become a character you had to reach down deep to find where that character’s anger or bitterness or joy lay either realized or in potentiality inside you. From that place you spoke and moved and reacted.

Creating characters on the page is much the same. They all exist within your psyche, layered in life experience. I don’t recall who said that all characters are but different reflections of yourself, but I wouldn’t disagree. Even the evil that befalls you becomes a part of you.

I have always enjoyed flawed but heroic characters, for when they soar, so do I, whether as reader or writer. And creating a love interest for my hero is to put the ideal of perfect union within my own reach. So do I live life vicariously through my characters? Shit, ya.

My friend, Mary, the wise-woman and seer-ess of The Chilliwack Writers Group, told me she had been advised by a prof to expect sadness and a sense of loss to follow the completion of a major writing project. So what I am feeling is normal. I guess I’ll have to toss ideas around for a sequel and try to track down my lost characters. Blog writing is okay. But I do miss the swords.