About eight weeks ago, I submitted a piece of writing to a national contest sponsored by a magazine. (Complete with 40 dollar entrance fee.) Yesterday they informed me I wasn’t chosen.
Part of the deal, however, was that someone from the magazine would send applicants thoughts on their submission. Among other things, they told me that the piece was the work of “an immensely talented writer,” though it lacked the “heart and soul” they were looking for in the contest entries.
I’m disappointed I didn’t win. I appreciate their compliment. I’m somewhat confused by their finding little “heart and soul” to the piece, but it was their heart and soul, not mine.
But at any rate, now that it isn’t exclusive anymore, I’m sharing the piece below. I call it “Literary Lapidary.”
In my writer’s mind, a pick ax dangles ever present on my belt. A landscape of boulders, cliffs, rock faces and the occasional diamond mine surrounds me. From these are hewn, (with constant labor) the phrases, sentences, fragments and clauses-,the lists and letters, plots, points and protagonists. The thoughts and metaphors, remembrances and explanations, all the words I compose.
Particulates of rock dust powder my hair, my clothes, my shoes. Calluses and scabs and scars and fresh, bleeding cuts adorn my hands; they are the price of gaining passage to my voice.
On certain days the ax swings dormant at my side. On other days I call upon reserves of strength and swing away at my own personal Gibraltar. Most days lie in between; I excavate the crossroads of the real world and my mind.
I have uncovered novels in this fashion, and poems in this fashion and essays in this fashion. Into the tumbler of revisions they go, until they shine and glimmer in a manner worthy of my name. These are my offerings in which I am well pleased.
Then, of course, there are the “lesser” finds: The cloudy gems and broken crystals. These are “imperfect specimens”, uncovered far more often as I dig than that which is destined for museums. A turn of phrase, a partial narrative, a character without a home, or a home with no one in it. These I save as well, in my private collection. For they are the treasures I unearth, all be they broken, common, heavily included. I hacked my way through mountains just to reach them, when no other person did or could.
Now, I have known the muse. Here and there, he or she or they wander into my life, and bestow on me a gem already cut and clean, and move on, with perhaps a wink. Thus far, perhaps a half a dozen times I’ve known this gift.
With somewhat greater frequency than this, I look up from my digging, and the dust clears, and a muse is leaning on a distant rock formation, eating an apple or sipping coffee. They throw their hand up, nod their head, and something distracts me. I look back and they are gone. Yet now I hew the ax, as hard as ever, where they stood. With no little bit of sweat I do in fact uncover wonders.
As a rule, however, I am not blessed with constant inspiration. Ideas do not exactly soak my mind like a monsoon soaks the ground. God love the writers who find their ideas that way; I hope they know their gift.
I, however, am a different sort. A geologist of genius, a literary lapidary. The writer’s life does not come to me; I must go to it, and do so over and over again, sharpened pick axe in hand, ready both to swing all day, and catch the muses when they opt to appear.
Stories must be told, and I am here, with my ax. I keep swinging.
But of course, the end always comes for a project. And with the end comes thoughts of the next.My next novel, for instance, will be my fifth. I’ve not started on it yet. In fact, I’ve not even decided what it will be yet, and that’s just a little frustrating.
I’m not used to it, you see. This is the first time I’ve not at least known what my next novel will be about once the current one is published.
Once, I did have to ice one completely, be because it wasn’t working. That was a difficult decision. Yet even then, I knew which story I was starting when it came time to start writing it. That story failed eventually, but it was on deck as I sent Flowers of Dionysus out into the world.
Even when I made the difficult decision to abandon the original “Novel 2,” I knew what I would be replacing it with first.
Like I said, not this time. I’m not a fan of not knowing what the next big project is.
As an indie author, I of course answer only to myself. One could say there is no deadline other than the one I set for myself, and that would be true. But I would rather know what was next and take some time off before beginning, than allow X amount of time to pass without being sure what to begin next.
Writer’s block isn’t the issue though. Not the conventional type, anyway.
I tend to have a cue of potential novel ideas sort of “lined up” in my head from which to choose. It’s no small thing once I appoint which one of these comes next. All things being equal, whichever of these takes root in my mind the most while working on a previous novel becomes the next project. I have such a collection of broad ideas now.
The problem is mood. Most of the shadows that are on deck would tell rather somber stories. There Is Pain Here is not only on the somber side itself, but my life was in many ways somber while writing it, much of the time. Even when my life ceased to be somber, I was drained a bit, and actually couldn’t work on the novel for a few months.
It’s time for a more upbeat novel. One in a lighter mood, with a lighter tone while still telling a good story.
By my own standards, I don’t have such a story in my cue into which I can jump right off. Hence my current frustrations. I can either wait who knows how long until I can come up with such a potential story, (or until the muses bless me with same,) or I can proceed with one the somber story ideas already in my cue. My mind wants something that is ready to go, regardless of mood. My spirit says that if I am going to spend the next year or more in a setting, with certain characters, it needs to be a fun journey this time around.
In general, I’m not a total “pantser.” I’m not wild about the idea of just writing and seeing what story comes about. (Besides, I wouldn’t want it to be another somber one.) I’m not a total plotter either, but I almost always have scaffolding before I begin. I’ve got no scaffolding for an upbeat story right now.
As I’ve mentioned, there are solutions to this problem of a sort. Plus others I didn’t mention. But mood matters, and I don’t want to be neck deep in the wrong mood, a darker mood for the next year. I need some light. But I don’t want to just throw together a lighthearted story willy-nilly.
As with most creative endeavors, time will almost certainly provide an answer. But I’, not used to waiting, and this time, my mood matters.
Well, There Is Pain Here is launched and available for download. I’ll be working on some paperback editions in the near future, but the process of this novel is for all intents and purposes, concluded. I’ll be marketing it for a while of course. I even managed to be included in both an online summer reading list, and an author’s event at a local cafe. (More on those things as they get closer.) But fundamentally, the creation aspects of the book is over.
Every novel is obviously a different experience. But the process of writing this one was not only different, but in some ways unusual.
To begin with, I experienced a total freeze on working on the early drafts that last for months. Then I realized during early revisions that a major plot point was not going to work, necessitating a larger rewrite at that stage of the game than I am used to. Not to mention several other personal issues during the writing.
As a result, I’ve spent more time with my version of James Garfield, and his fellow characters in this novel, than I have with any of my novels, save the very first one. (Which took longer to write than the others.)
Is this a big deal in its own right? Not really. Not if that means a deep emotional catharsis of some kind. I’ve mentioned previously how the end of any novel, any long creative work has a certain awkwardness to it for a few days. There’s a difficult-to-describe sense of blandness when a novel is finished and out there for purchase for the first time. That blandness fades of course, especially when work on another project begins, but it remains a brief normal aspect of this writer’s experience.
Yet I can’t ignore the fact, all be it mostly innocuous, that I “worked” with these characters, in this setting longer than most of my books. The Overlap. James Garfield. Theodore. The Rogues. (Buy the book if you want to know!)
More than this, though my book is a fantasy, the Garfield character was very much influenced by the historical James Garfield. Maybe more than I originally thought would happen. This is perhaps the most unique component of this experience. Though my version is a total fantasy version, I have nonetheless spent more condensed time with the real James Garfield over the last almost two years than any other real person from history. So much so that part of me feels I owe him a degree of homage.
One way I hope to do so is to visit the man’s elaborate tomb in Cleveland, Ohio sometime this year. I’m already assembling a road trip crew to see if this can happen. But even if it does not, I’ll have a unique perspective on this fascinating real-life person because of all the time spent with my fantasy version of him; I didn’t expect that.
Would it have been so had I not taken longer than normal to complete this novel than the others? To tell you the truth, I have no idea. But it did take me this long, I did spend this much time with it, and before I depart from the author side of this and immerse myself in marketing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the effect, even if it doesn’t last long.
So, here’s not only to There Is Pain Here, but to the true James Abram Garfield: a man of humor and honor. A flawed but open-minded man. A scholar and loving husband and father. Orator, writer, man of faith and man of service. I hope his spirit, wherever it actually is, would not be displeased with my little adventure yarn.
I have arrived once again at the final week before the launch of one my novels. This time, the fantasy adventure There Is Pain Here.
The final week before release has always felt the same to a certain degree. Relief. Anticipation. And more than a few spoonfuls of, “I can’t quite believe I managed to write this novel.”
Yes, it doesn’t matter that this is my fourth novel, or seventh book. There is always a slice of confused amazement that I get it done. Pride, yes, but more of it is a sort of transcendent wonder. There is a slight dissociation from it all once I get to the final week. It is a time wherein I feel removed from the process I spend so much time immersed in for so long.
Not that my entire life throughout the duration of writing a novel is a blur; it isn’t. But while during the writing process writing a novel is ingrained into my routine, sometimes requiring extra effort to make room for in a busy or tiring day, once the novel is ready to launch, there is a small portion of my consciousness that doesn’t register to effort any longer. It is as though to that part of my mind the manuscript suddenly came into existence.
It is particularly notable for this novel, because not only did it take me longer than usual to complete, (there was a months long period when I could bring myself to work on it for reasons uncertain), but things in my life were a strain. At the middle point of this particular process it seemed further away from realization than any of my other works, with the possible exception of my very first novel.
How ironic then, that this story was designed to be the leanest, most action-oriented adventure of all of my novels thus far.
One always spends a great deal of mental time and energy on one’s characters, but usually it is confined to one’s imagination. Yet in this case, I’ve spent just about two years spending time with the 20th president of the United States, both my version and the essence of the real one. James Garfield, someone who really lived. I have seen photos of him, read letters and speeches composed by him, in our world. I’ve done regular, even if not vigorous research on the man, despite writing a pure fantasy. No doubt I will read and learn more about the man in the future, but for now, the intense consideration of him has for the most part come to an end. Odd to let that go as well.
As with all of my novels, I don’t know how There Is Pain Here will be received. Hopefully well, of course. I won’t pretend that I somehow don’t care about people reading it, because I sure as hell do want you to do so. But in this final week before launch, I will, once again, try to look through the fog of dissociation and remind myself I successfully finished another novel.
There Is Pain Here launches one week from today in ebook form. (Paperbacks to follow a little later.)
Everyone is part of, and interacts with, organizations, institutions, groups and so on. Whether realistic or fantastic, narratives usually require at least some mention of social-political orders, large or small.
What rung on the proverbial ladder are your characters on during the course of your story?
I stumbled upon a website this weekend that makes for a useful starting point for answering that question.
It appears to be infrequently updated, and isn’t the most academically rigorous source of information. It may however, as it did for me, act as a solid quick-reference when detailed research is not required.
I’m not being compensated for mentioning it, or anything like that. Just passing along what I found.
Hierarchystructure.com is exactly what it sounds like. While not the smoothest-sounding web address, it provides charts and brief descriptions of power structures and office positions for scores of different institutions and organizations. For example” churches, large companies, police forces, sports leagues, and so on.
We lend realism as needed to our fiction when the appropriate levels or offices of an organization are utilized throughout the narrative. The term “archbishop” sounds dramatic, and lends a certain gravitas. Yet, if your story is about a suspicious private detective confronting odd activities in the local, poorly funded urban Catholic parish, he’ll be interacting with the priest, and possibly only the deacon of the parish. If you’re character is confronting an Archbishop in person, the scope and scale of your narrative needs to be much more significant, political and, depending on the type of novel, dangerous.
The site isn’t a source for in-depth scholarly research, as I’ve mentioned. But for a quick reference to any number or organizations (with colorful charts!) you could do worse than bookmarking this site into your author’s toolbox.