I often wonder what folks who aren’t writers think about what writers do, how they create, what are the nuts and bolts of doing this as your main occupation. My friends who are writers probably aren’t going to hear anything that they don’t already know, and my friends who aren’t might find the aspect of the craft that I want to focus on today a little odd.
Or, far more likely, both groups are thinking, “Who the hell cares, man?”
If that’s the case you’ve probably already stopped reading, so I’m just going to fill the rest of this post with nasty rumors about you.
I suppose the most common question that I (and probably every other writer on the planet) gets asked is “Where do you come up with your stories?” That’s a really great question!
No. I’m lying. It’s a really lame question. It’s almost unanswerable. A lot of writers give gallant attempts at intelligent responses, but in the end, they all boil down to variations on two themes.
- I take inspiration from the world around me and my stories come from everything I see.
- I make them up. They come from inside my head.
I suppose there’s a third option, which is an amalgam of the two, but again, that’s not what I’m looking to talk about today.
I want to talk about walking away from a story.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you work on an idea, no matter how much you love your characters, no matter how well your previous writing went, when you get into something new, or even, sometimes, when you deep into something that you’ve been working on for a while, you stumble. Your story seems to falter. Even if you’ve planned and diagrammed, and made character studies and outlines, there are times when you sit, staring at the words you’ve written, or often just an empty screen, and you say, “This really sucks.”
You feel as though you’ve somehow gotten off track. You feel as if continuing to write would just be a waste of time because nothing that you’re putting down is what you want to say. It’s garbage, and you know it.
Yet in many of those cases, you know that, at its core, your idea is sound, your story is good. It may even be a book in a series that you’ve had considerable success with up to that point. You may not be able to discern what the problem is, but you know for certain there’s a problem.
For me, that is when it’s time to walk away. Click “save” and then click “close.”
And walk away.
I don’t mean stop writing. But I do mean stop writing that story. I’m writing this post about this subject, at this time, because it’s something I just had to do.
In February, I began writing the third book in my series of fantasy novels that I’ve called The Tale of Cerah of Quadar, which began with A Dark Clock, (now available) and continues with Many Hidden Rooms which will be released later in 2017.
If I told you that writing those two books was easy, I’d be lying, and I suspect you’d see through my charade. Writing a book is not easy. (It’s easier than selling them, but that’s a tale for another campfire). Indeed, I first conceived the idea of Cerah in 2009, beginning with one sentence: “Cerah was the chosen one.”
For the next sixteen years, that sentence was about as far as the book got. I recently came across the very first draft of the first four pages. The date of the saved file is May 23, 2009. It is vastly different from what eventually became A Dark Clock or for the sake of brevity ADC. Getting from those four pages to my first published novel was, obviously, a long, twisty road.
But frankly, once I revisited the idea in 2015 the work went fairly quickly. I didn’t hit too many stumbling blocks, and although I eventually wrote several drafts and made changes right up till the final day of editing, the overall experience of writing the book was joyous.
The same was true for the sequel. Because ADC ends the way it does, (not telling… you gotta read it yourself), beginning the follow-up was just a logical extension. The first third of Many Hidden Rooms had their foundation in the situations which occurred in the prior work. The second two-thirds went in a direction I had not originally anticipated, but once I started down the path, everything ended up falling into place quite nicely.
I started the first draft of the second book in June 2016 and finished my final draft a few weeks before Christmas. Compared to the span between the genesis of the idea for the tale of Cerah and the completion of ADC, that was a heartbeat.
I gave myself a little vacation after finishing the second book. During that time I worked on a lot of short fiction and collected and polished the stories that eventually became Welcome Home. I played with a bunch of different ideas, knowing even as I did that many, if not most, of them, would never see the light of day. Because here’s a secret:
I have to write. I very rarely go a day without writing something, even if it’s a page or two in my journal, or sometimes just a note jotted in the little brown notebook I carry in my pocket where ever I go. I bought it at the dollar store, and it’s already paid for itself a dozen times over, as it’s captured ideas or fragments of ideas, sketches of dialog, a name I want to use, that would otherwise come into to my sieve-like mind and dribbled right back out. I am always writing. If I’d played Blake in “Glengarry Glen Ross” instead of Alec Baldwin, my big speech would have been “A-B-W. Always Be Writing,” and it would have made the movie much worse. It would have made no sense at all, in the context of the film.
But in the context of my life, it means everything.
Finally, in mid-February, I felt I was ready to get back to Cerah. It was time. I was talking to a friend of mine a few weeks ago, and we were talking about self-doubt. He’s read ADC, so I alluded to the fact the Cerah struggled with doubt for a large portion of the book. He nodded and said, “It took her a very long time to accept who she was.” The point having been made I intended to leave it at that, but then he said, “I miss her. I can’t wait for the second book to come out.”
It warmed my heart to hear someone else who has obviously connected with my character, but more than that it clicked in my head that this was why I started the third book. I missed her. I wanted to take her to the next phase of her life.
And so, I launched into my work with relish. And mustard. (I have always been pissed at the English language for making relish both something you do with great enthusiasm, and something you put on your hotdog, but I digress).
I wrote the first chapter and was relatively happy. The second chapter was a little more difficult, and it ended up working out, but it didn’t give me a good direction for the subsequent parts.
So when I came to chapter three I was increasingly unhappy with what I was writing. With each new sentence, I found myself thinking, “No. This is not right. This is the wrong direction. I’m not pleased.”
In an effort to get myself restarted, I went back and made some improvements to the first two chapters, and returned to the third with renewed hope, but once again it just wouldn’t behave. It would not do as I wanted.
And so, I walked away. I backed up my files, and I didn’t open them for over a month.
Of course, I kept writing and found another, totally unrelated idea that I feel might eventually develop into a novel. I’ve bounced it off my local writers’ group and gotten a positive response. I worked on it regularly for about two weeks, and feel it’s a solid little story.
But two nights ago, I returned once more to Cerah.
The time I took away from the story was time I didn’t even think about it much. It was off the radar. But when I sat down and reopened the file, I knew exactly what I wanted to. I knew where I had gone astray. By the time I’d finished the third chapter, I had a very clear idea of what was going to happen for the next four subsequent sections. Today I wrote about 3000 words of chapter five, and it is a little less than halfway finished.
Walking away was just what the doctor ordered.
It’s ironic because in most areas of my life, walking away is not my M.O. I’ve worked at jobs way longer than I should have because I don’t walk away. I’ve worked through all the issues that one encounters in twenty-eight years of marriage because I don’t walk away, (and thankfully neither does my wife).
But when it comes to writing, sometimes a serious writer must practice the fine art of walking away.