Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I have this vague recollection that in a previous blog entry I vowed to update more frequently. Upon recent reflection, it would appear that I’m a shameless liar. Aaaaaaaaaanyway:
In an earlier blog entry I shared with you my mild obsession with my bullet journal – something I use to log, track or otherwise organize various aspects of my life. Some of these trackers, like my words-per-day chart, are geared directly towards my writing. Others; however, have more general everyday application, like my exercise log. It’s because I’ve reached a very significant milestone in my tracking since I first started the practice at the end of 2016 that I wanted to share with you another one of my bullet journal entries. Hold onto your hats, folks, this one’s colourful:
I would like to say the chart is self-explanatory but I’ve made that mistake in the past and I’m not about to do it again. Apparently not everybody can readily understand what’s in the mind of a madman. Each “block” of varying size appears underneath the label for its respective month. As you can see from the very depressing months of November and December 2017, it starts as a blank outlined square. Once I do an activity that constitutes exercise, I fill in one square.
There’s a legend at the bottom of the page that indicates the kinds of activities that make it in here. Some are fairly straight-forward, like running, swimming, and yoga. Others have some caveats. The biking one for instance, refers to actual hard-pedaling for distance (although I suppose calling my pedaling “hard” is being a bit generous). The 30+ minute walk usually refers either to a straight walk longer than 30 minutes, or a couple of intense walks at around 15-20 minutes each. Even if I ended up walking for hours that day, I still give myself only one light green square for that day, otherwise the light green would be too dominant here.
The most flexible category here is “gym”. This has included everything from an actual trip to the gym, to a particularly intensive chore day, to a half-hour session of Beat Jedi on the VR. And if you laughed at that last one, how about you try swinging your arms for 30 minutes to the tune of “Gangnam Style” and then tell me it wasn’t a workout.
So long story short, any time I exercise, I fill in one square on the chart, completing them in a sort of spiral pattern. To better see how the spiral works, look at the following months in succession: May 2017, March 2018, April 2018, December 2016, and so on.
So in the end you end up with a log that not only allows you to see the types of activity you’ve been doing, but also the relative volume of said activity month over month. I like this particular chart also because of how much time is captured in a single 2-page spread. Here we see 21 months worth of exercise, and as you can see, much can change over that time.
Early on in the process, there was a lot of running and swimming, and generally I was pretty active. Then it all kind of fell away for over a year (and there’s reason for that, if you feel like reading up on it). Running was replaced by biking due to another in a string of running injuries, and swimming never went back on the table because I switched jobs and no longer had a YMCA within walking distance of my office. I guess the other couple of things to note is the brief appearance of Yoga, which had to be put on hold due to lingering wrist sprain, and the last ice hockey game I’ve played so far, owing mostly to a busy life with two kids and the rink being a half-hour drive away. But hey, I scored two goals in that game, and was apparently dubbed the “Winter Soldier” by the team captain. And if there’s one thing I love collecting, it’s badass nicknames (it’s a very small collection).
Then after hitting rock bottom late last year, and then slowly getting out and walking in the spring, I finally turned things around, and had my most active months yet. This culminated in the most recent month where I set another record for having times I’ve exercised that month.
Some of you may not see this as a particularly big deal, but between my work and my hobbies, I’ve never been the most active person. A lot of this takes effort for me. Exercise has to be squeezed in before work so most of the time I’m up at 6 am to get this done. Walks are fit in at lunchtime, and thank goodness for Pokemon Go to help me get out of the office for a bit of fresh air.
And I think having this tracker helps as well. Not only does it add that one extra piece of motivation – being able to go home and fill out another square, but it also allows me to see how far I’ve come, and how much I’ve overcome. No matter what life throws at me, whether family tragedies, or injuries, or change in jobs, no matter how much I falter, I end up picking it all up and not abandoning my overall fitness goals.
And I think this one of the important things to accept about life, sometimes goals don’t arrive in the way you expect them to come. Sometimes there will be a drought. And this relates to writing as well. Whether a string of rejections or a prolonged case of writer’s block, life is a marathon and not a sprint. There will be ups and there will be downs and when you’re in a down it’s important to recognize it for what it is – temporary.
Let me first preface this with the disclaimer that I had completely lost track of how long it had been since my last entry. I guess between work and some issues that required my full attention on the Board of our Housing Co-operative, I was all tapped-out for creativity. I had told myself when I started this endevour that I wouldn’t let my entries lapse this badly and I had a good streak going for about two months. Hopefully this is just an aberration that will result in some lessons learned and I won’t go this long without an update again.
Now, getting back to the entry I first started writing almost a month ago, I find it a bit amusing that despite it being my major current project, I have actually devoted very little time to discussing my novel. I kind of mentioned it towards the end of my first blog entry, but beyond that, I don’t think I’ve given it much attention. I suppose one of the reasons is that I’m currently in a love-and-hate struggle with it, but the bottom line is I was about to sit down to share with you some of my editing struggles and realized that I haven’t actually provided any context to what has been a decade-long process.
The novel I’m trying to finish, whose working title is Wake the Drowned though my wife has informed me it sounds like the title of a high school essay, has its roots in one simple image. I was no older than seventeen, likely still in high school, taking out the trash in the parking garage of the condo complex we were living in, and whistling some unnamed tune. I locked onto that image, of whistling a tune while walking through a long tunnel, and somebody waiting on the other side to meet the mysterious source of that tune. That’s it. That’s all it was. Not particularly original or awe-inspiring but it was the spark that ignited a fire that was very slow to catch.
The image kept coming back to me, time and time again, until I figured out who would be emerging out of that tunnel and who was waiting for them (I would say who that would be here, but I’ll let you savour the moment if my novel ever sees light of day). And so other ideas built on top of that. The protagonist formed soon enough, a loitering man-child whose character became more and more nuanced until the “man-child” concept was dropped and reworked into something different. The tunnel became the exit out of a perfect little town called Middleton, and contrary to the first line of the novel, Middleton quickly stopped being so perfect.
Most of these concepts were churning freely in my head for many years, all through undergrad and into law school. It was then, in our little first-floor studio apartment in downtown Toronto when I finally sat down to write the short story that had been stuck in development hell until that point. This must have been about ten years ago.
The reason it started as a short story is that short stories were kind of my thing, and they still make up a good portion of the words I commit to paper. I’ve flirted with novels before, and as recently as the summer before law school managed to get almost 50,000 words into a manuscript about a love affair between a Russian Count and the poor relation of a powerful Countess (that one is still officially a work in progress). So when I set out to finally write down the ideas that would form my novel, I very much intended it to be a short story.
That is, until I found myself 5,000 words in and not even having scraped the plot at that point. This was a curious sensation. Probably one of the first times something in my writing had organically developed without me intending to. I wanted to know where it would lead me, and over the next few years and many distracting shiny projects (some of which had now been accepted for publication, so yay!) I decided that about 18,000 words in, I would try my hand at finding the book an agent.
The sheer audacity and naiveté of sending an unfished (let’s be honest, barely started) book to an agent is both impressive and mortifying. But I was greeted with kindness, and though she politely told me to come back with a finished manuscript, she had given me many important pointers that have blown the book wide open. Five chapters in and I was already heading for massive rewrites. This was around 2012 and of course with that much reworking, I had lost steam and motivation, and the book mostly lingered for the next couple of years.
That is, until I hit another breakthrough and the final piece of the puzzle slid into place. The “what” that my novel is about had been made clear to me. It was a work that snowballed atop a single image, but it had not found its purpose. Only after my own thankfully brief struggle with PTSD did I realize what story the novel needed to tell. It needed to be about mental illness, it needed to be about alienation and how we sometimes fail those in need, even the ones we love. The realization was so striking that I remember where I was when it had, driving in the evening over the Oak Street bridge heading home.
That’s when the floodgates opened, and chapter upon chapter poured out of me. The first draft of the novel was complete within a year of my epiphany, after having not even been a quarter-finished six years after I had started writing it.
And that, of course, is when the hard part actually began.
Brimming with excitement over my first finished novel, I subjected my poor supportive wife to it. She read it, but informed me that instead of pancakes I had given her raw pancake batter and to never do anything so horrifying to her ever again. The point was taken, even if it was a hard pill to swallow.
But I believed there was yet a finished pancake underneath all that batter, and so I set to it, reading through it with the most critical eye I could muster. There are plenty of editing techniques other than just rereading that I employed. I’ve already discussed my use of word clouds, and at some point I’ll talk about my plot graphs and dialogue editing. In the first edit I managed to get a 95,000 word manuscript down to 75,000. Just imagine typing out 20,000 words and then deleting them. It felt both jarring and somehow liberating.
It’s that second draft that I’m currently butchering into a stubborn third draft. I’ve added about 10,000 words worth of new chapters while the overall word count has remained steady. Which means now more than a third of the original manuscript is completely gone while the rest is heavily rewritten. Chapters are being cannibalized into three or four other chapters, some getting moved from the last third to the first third of the novel.
It’s like a renovation project for a house – completely overwhelming and just when you’ve torn out all the drywall you think you’ll never be able to finish. But as you move along, and the house starts looking almost habitable, hope blossoms.
I’ve been in the editing stage for almost three years for a number of reasons, and the fact that editing is a whole new beast I needed to learn is one of them. The other is simply life. I’ve got two kids now. My father passed away last year and I’ve gone through three jobs in two years with hopefully having found some stability now. I’m feeling better about Wake the Drowned and I’m ready to finish that third draft and dive straight back into the fourth. I look forward to sharing my work with other people, but I have to be patient and take it one day at a time.
And thanks for joining me on that journey.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.