I started writing a novel last October, after hitting a wall with a play I was working on. The idea for the play was (is) really solid, but I was focussing so much on scenes and sets that it became tedious, and so I put it down. Putting the play down, however, didn’t mean that the creative energy just disappeared.
I’d had an idea for a book for a few months, and decided to push my energy in that direction to see if anything stuck. Whenever I had the opportunity, I’d write. It felt good. Really good. But between work and home, there was hardly any quiet time to sit down and have anything like contiguous thought (a requisite of writing in long form, I’ve learned.) Whenever I could find a couple of hours, I’d go back and reread what I’d written to familiarize myself with where I’d been, but would end up editing the whole time and then the quiet time was gone. My creative energy was being wasted on editing.
Noting my mounting frustration, my wife agreed to let me go away for two weeks to try and finish what I’d started. She found a cottage in Blowing Rock, NC, and I managed to get out of work for two weeks – and then on April 27th, I left. Taking a car full of provisions, my laptop, and my 14-year old Australian Shepherd with me.
The cottage was perfect. The weather was dreadful. It rained the entire time I was there. And for the first nine days, thick banks of fog would roll in around 5 pm and leave around noon the next day. Plus, there were massive ravens in the trees around the cottage which made it feel like I was stuck in the movie Excalibur. In other words, it was a perfect writing environment for a book about a man who goes crazy.
But here’s the thing – I didn’t know how to write a book. I’d started dozens of them over the past twenty years, but never finished any. I’ve penned hundreds of 500-word blog posts, written plenty of poetry and short stories, and of course hacked through more ad copy than I care to admit. But never a book. A book was uncharted territory. Still, I went up to the mountains expecting to do just that. And yet by the time I got to the cottage, I’d scrapped everything but the ending.
Back in April, I read “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. That book helped motivate me to get serious about writing. On the drive up to Blowing Rock, and for the first day there, I listened to Stephen King’s “On Writing.” Both books helped give me an idea of what to do. They both basically said, “Sit down to write and trust what happens.”
I had no idea what to expect. But what transpired was something like magic. Twelve days later, I finished. I’d written a book. 225 pages of real, contiguous story. Way more than I’d ever written before on one topic. It was work, yes. Damn hard work. But good work. The kind of work I could get used to.
During those twelve days, I learned some things:
* It turns out I’m an afternoon guy. Mornings were still for routines: cooking breakfast, cleaning up, taking the dog for a walk in the rain, managing my fantasy baseball team, showering, making the bed, etc. I’d sit down to write around noon and go until dinnertime. At night I’d watch baseball, talk to the family via FaceTime, and sometimes write a little before hitting the sack.
* Cooking is not my favorite thing. I’ve never been anything like a foodie, and this trip confirmed this fact. I didn’t eat much (only when necessary), and as a result I’d say that I went home with about half the provisions I took up with me. Still, other than driving into Blowing Rock for pizza a couple of times, I cooked every meal. And did not enjoy it.
* I write best in complete silence. I tried writing against the backdrop of baseball and music, but unlike writing 500-word rants for the blog, I found that the long stuff likes quiet. This bodes well for the future as I’m nearly deaf in my right ear.
* People like to tell you to stay away from social media when you’re away writing. I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m no robot. Connecting and sharing on Facebook and Twitter was my touchstone to sanity. Though I certainly didn’t live on the social networks, I did check in a couple of times a day. And other than for the Braves, the TV was off the whole time.
* My dog thinks she’s my mother.
* Sitting down to do the work is the most important thing. We’ve all heard about muses, and if not for experiencing that phenomenon in miniature a few times leading up to my trip, I’d have not spent the time and money to go. I believed in the idea of muses. Only, the muses don’t just show up and help you when you call for them. They require that you are in the best position to let them work through you. There were many times those first few days of my trip when I didn’t have a freaking clue where my story was going. I knew how the story ended, but didn’t have an outline of how the plot unfolded. Rather, I kept my fingers on the keyboard and amazingly, words came. The right words. Words I didn’t expect. It quickly became clear that I wasn’t really in control of the story at all. About halfway through I did end up plotting to the end, but only to help stay organized. I mostly let the muses do their thing. And it was good.
* Writing fiction is like sitting in a room alone and telling yourself a story that you make up as you go.
As far as the book itself, Minor King is the story of a man who rises from hopelessness to reach the American Dream only to discover that sometimes dreams change. I’m currently in the process of editing it– and I have to say, it doesn’t completely suck. Yes, there are things that I have to tone and tighten, and no, it’s not Hemingway. But it’s good. I’d love to say it’s great, but I don’t think I’m capable of great. Good will do. If you’re a fan of adverbs and adjectives, however, you’ll hate it.
I’ll let you know as I get closer to publishing. Thanks for being an inspiration to me to finish this first one.
17 CommentsLEAVE A COMMENT
May 22, 2013
No small feat to finish a novel! I think there is a story in all of us but only writers have the sense of purpose to write those stories down.
May 22, 2013
Congrats again, Jim. That pace is very impressive. And “On Writing” is one of my favorite books, well, on writing.
I look forward to reading “Minor King!”
May 22, 2013
May 22, 2013
Thanks for posting this, Jim. You’ve kept me interested with your social media updates about your experience on this writing retreat.
I know you’ve said you didn’t do much outlining or planning for your writing, but I’m curious about chapters. A 500 word blog post is easier because you don’t have to worry about the structure beyond breaking down the post into paragraphs.
You said you wrote a chapter, then several more chapters. How do you know when one chapter is done? Do you have a general word count in mind? Are some chapters much longer than others? Did you find yourself merging some smaller chapters together or breaking up larger ones? Thanks.
May 22, 2013
You’re welcome, James. So the chapter length in Minor King is totally arbitrary. Basically I broke up chapters in terms of how the story transitioned from idea to idea. There are some chapters that are very long. For example, the first chapter in MK is something like 40 pages. Others range from 8-18. I just broke things up when it felt like they needed to be broken up. Even in the editing process, I’ve merged two, and broke another apart. I didn’t think very linearly about this – just went with what feels right.
May 22, 2013
Your post is terrific — I could not be happier for you, this news has me beaming.
I’m so relieved you made the switch from playwright to your true calling… and can’t wait to buy and read my own copy.
Enjoy the edit ~
May 22, 2013
Thank you so much, GirlPie.
Jun 3, 2013
Jim, congratulations! As someone slogging through a less disciplined/focused attempt to write an extended piece of fiction (being any more specific as to form terrifies me), I have an idea of how drained and exhilarated you might feel. Looking forward to news as you complete and publish. Best wishes and thanks for the encouragement that your story brings.
Jun 4, 2013
Thank you, Jim, for sharing your experience. While I can’t get to Blowing Rock anytime soon, you’ve given me the incentive to create my own modified BR right here in Raleigh. I look forward to reading your book. If it’s anything like the writing you share with us on Copywriter’s Guild it’s bound to be a hit.
P.S. Beautiful photographs. Love your dog!
Jun 4, 2013
What a great post, Jim. I look forward to the book. Congrats!
Jenifer Olson (@jenajean)
Jun 4, 2013
Great post – can’t wait to read the book! What an awesome accomplishment!
If you don’t already have a publisher, you might want to check out Michael Hyatt at http://www.michaelhyattt.com. Good information there!
By the way, I think you must have a wonderful wife! 🙂
Jun 5, 2013
Jim, what an awesome story to share! I too am trying to discipline myself to transfer the book that exists in my head onto paper. That cottage looks so peaceful and obviously helped to keep you centered. If you don’t mind, I’d love to share your quote ‘Writing fiction is like sitting in a room alone and telling yourself a story that you make up as you go,’ it is so inspiring! Again congrats!!
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My novel – Minor King
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