Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
A few months ago, I came on here to extoll the virtues of bolstering your writing with Google Street View – sinking into the locales you want to write about without having to actually be present there. I also said that there are limitations to this method, as one never quite gets the feel for a place through static images. In my case, I had been using it for walkabouts of Moscow and reminding myself of places I hadn’t visited in more than twenty years, using Street View more to document changes and to jog my memories.
The plot of the same novel that required descriptions of Moscow has now moved beyond the city limits, following the route from the city to the remote village in the Russian countryside where my great grandfather spent the last years of his life. I’ve been using Google Street View to not only reconstruct the actual route there (I remembered certain population centres along the way, but would not have been actually able to wayfinding without technological assistance) but also to take snapshots of what it looked like along the way in order to provide richer descriptions.
I’m not entirely sure yet how this will shake out in a final draft – creating a detailed play-by-play of a four-hundred kilometre drive through the countryside may work in a different kind of novel, but in this book, it would just grind the pace to a halt. So what I had been doing initially is retracing the route, noting anything interesting, then combining the snapshots into single descriptions – sometimes from two or three locations at a time – and then throwing these into my first draft. The goal would then to go through it during an edit and then try to strike that balance between not overburdening the reader and providing the right kind of description and atmosphere that I want to invoke.
This is a perfect illustration of why I’m glad I ditched editing-on-the-go. It would be such a waste of time to figure this out without the context of seeing how it fits in the overall work and how it affects the overall flow. Before, I would make sure to clean up the descriptions into a neat few paragraphs before moving on – and then probably having to go through it again on subsequent edits.
Not to say that I’ve completely embraced unfiltered verbal spew. This was never the ultimate goal and in the end I think would make the editing process a bit overwhelming. So there’s still sometimes dialogue or descriptions that I polish off to a certain degree of satisfaction before including them even in the first draft. But generally throwing words down and moving on is so liberating.
The trip through the Russian countryside presented an additional challenge that I should have expected. The country retreat, if it can be described like that when there was no central heating or plumbing, as close to rustic living as one could get in 90s Russia, is the one thing I’m so nostalgic for about Russia that it almost manifests in physical pain if I think about it too much. It occupies such a dear place in my heart that I’ve had nightmares of finding it demolished, or more absurdly, replaced with a theme park. For this reason, the choice to set part of my novel in the village of Komkino is an exercise in self-torture.
Whether it’s the birch forests, the quaint villages of no more than two dozen houses made of dark grey wood, or rutted muddy country roads, each is a small piece of my childhood that now seems unreachable. I know the area has changed in the twenty years since I’ve been there. More and more homes are being converted to dachas, pushing out the year-round residents, who are likely coalescing in the towns. In a way, I’m fortunate that the village itself and its immediate surroundings aren’t actually available in Street View, otherwise I would have spent hours examining every square inch of familiar locations or else find myself awash in heartache at seeing what’s different.
Best I can hope from this exercise is to use Street View to augment my own memories and present to the reader a slice of a place that is very important to me. Whether it will seem like an unnecessary detour in the novel remains to be seen.
As I spend a Sisyphean eternity editing my first novel, I’m busily working on my second one. It went over the threshold from “idea I’m toying with” to full on project sometime in 2018, but overall it’s been slow going since.
As a result of my weird pandemic productivity boost that I experienced in the months before our third baby was born, it more than doubled in word count and is now at a respectable 40,000, though I recognize that a sizeable chunk of it is first draft bloat. I’ve been enjoying this particular project immensely, and a little while ago I talked about how I was using Google Street View to explore the city of my childhood.
Despite the level of enjoyment and how well it’s been progressing, I have run into some growing pains, which I think is an important subject for writers to be able to talk about freely. Sometimes there’s this tendency to subscribe to one of two extremes – either you’re a writer to the core and enjoy every aspect of it because it is the essence of your being, or you’re a tortured artist’s soul who is but a vessel for your writing, which rips you to shreds as it crawls out of you. Cute, but not the way things work.
I think there’s nothing wrong in recognizing the stumbles we all experience. Writer’s block isn’t a sign of weakness or a disease to be cured – it’s a natural part of the process. It also comes in all kinds of variations from writer to writer and within writers themselves. Not every case of writer’s block is a 100% stupor where no amount of internal turmoil will bring even a single word onto a page. Nice for relatable writer comics, but hardly ever happens.
What I’m going through right now with Maple Vodka (placeholder title, so bear with me) is something I like to describe as a “working” writer’s block. Kind of like “working notice” – where you’re fired from a job but stay on for the duration of your notice period. So in my case, it feels like writer’s block, but it’s not stopping me from actually continuing to write, or rather, I’m not letting it. The symptoms I’m currently experiencing are the following:
The current chapter is overwrought: I feel like the section I’m writing is entirely too long for the pacing of the novel and how much it actually brings to the plot. It started with the protagonist going to work and then moves into him remembering the long journey that led him to this dead-end job. Sure, it’s important to establish that his career stalled, but is this the best way of doing it? I’m not sure. I’ve certainly found the character exploration fascinating, but will it fall flat with readers?
There’s not enough here for a novel: this fear is closely related to the first one – because this particular fiction feels like it’s padding word count, I’m wondering if there’s even enough idea here to stretch into a novel length, or is it all just filler? Sure, it looked good as a synopsis, and then as a full-blown outline, but sometimes when I put meat onto the skeleton I quickly run out of material and end up with a half-dead being of abject horror. Is this the fate of this particular work, or are my perceptions suffering from recency bias, and I just need to get through this stretch to greener pastures?
It’s poorly written: hardly any of us do their best work when we’re forcing ourselves. So the last dozen or so pages haven’t felt like the kind of writing that I should be doing. Maybe that means the whole work is utter garbage and I shouldn’t subject anyone to the final product. Equally likely is that I’m too close to this particular piece of writing, and need some perspective in order to properly assess its merits.
As I’ve summarized them, these might seem like fairly sizable problems. On a bad day, it’s enough to discourage someone from continuing their work, throwing it in the discard pile, and moving onto the next project hoping this will be the perfect fit. As much as I do think sometimes you do just need to cut ties with something you’re working on, a technique practiced even by the most seasoned authors, I think it’s too early to do a post mortem. Like I said, difficulties are a natural part of the process, and it’s an intricate balancing act to learn when those difficulties are truly insurmountable.
In this case, I don’t think the threshold was crossed. Why? I’m not sure. There’s no bright line test here so at the end of the day, I have to trust my gut and believe that the solution to all three of the stated misgivings is: keep writing.
The internet can be a powerful and versatile tool in the arsenal of a writer. And I’m not just talking about Googling weirdly specific forensic questions that in the eyes of a law enforcement algorithm make one indistinguishable from a serial killer. The amount of research a writer can do from their comfort of their own living room is incredible, including visiting faraway places without ever having to leave the house. Or, in my case, revisiting long-shuttered corners of my memory in full colour.
One of the novels I’m currently working on is set in Moscow, and though that was the city of my childhood, I hadn’t been back there in almost twenty years. My main character shares a lot of the same places that I had grown up around, so you’d think it would be easy for me to replicate the setting.
Honestly, if I’d relied on memory alone, it would probably be passable. Any reader who’d never been to Moscow would certainly not know the difference, and even lifelong Muscovites, unless they specifically visited the neighbourhood I was describing, might not immediately notice that something was amiss. That is, won’t notice anything amiss with respect to the general locations and the broad stroke descriptions.
Once we dig down to the details we discover the little problem inherent in the passage of those twenty years. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the protagonist finds themselves uprooted from a life as an immigrant to Canada, and placed into an alternative universe existence where he never left Russia. A lot of the novel therefore revolves around the changes that had happened in Russia and Moscow since he moved, and the contrast to the expectations he had of his homeland after a long separation.
Memory alone would not permit me the experience to write this well. Short of going back to Russia for a tour myself, something that is presently not possible for me, all I’d have to rely on is hearsay. Not only would someone familiar with Moscow likely see through the inevitable missteps, but it would compromise one of the integral themes of my novel and would be a slap in the face of an ever-changing home city and country with which I share a complicated relationship.
So out came Google Maps. I touched on this process in an earlier post about the novel, but this time, I took a stroll through my own neighbourhood, taking intermittent moments to catch my breath while nostalgia and the slightest touch of what could probably be best described as homesickness gripped my chest. Following the path of my protagonist who traced my own childhood steps not only allowed me to remark on what has changed and what stayed the same, but also lent some more ephemeral elements to help with storytelling. A little old lady captured by the Google Street View camera would turn into a side character; a specific piece of graffiti would inspire an internal monologue in the protagonist. It almost felt like plagiarizing real life.
Each of my own observations could be downloaded into the protagonist, since he was essentially experiencing what I was – taking in familiar surroundings after a long separation. When it comes to the first draft, I’m pretty much throwing everything and the kitchen sink at it – every observation, every unlocked memory, gets tossed into the narrative. It’s probably too much at this point. As the novelty wears off and the novel eventually enters subsequent drafts, I’m sure a lot of these tangents would be pruned. In the end, I’m hoping the result is something close to an authentic experience that combines vague memories with refreshed visuals to create a picture of a city.
It’s sometimes easy to forget the kind of information available at our fingertips these days. This is an opportunity that just wasn’t available to our predecessors. To write even remotely believably about a place, the writer had to either absorb a multitude of first-hand accounts to paint their own picture or actually be present there physically. Now, for any major city around the world, a simple click of a button and we’re looking up at world-famous landmarks, sneaking around forgotten side streets, or cruising through the countryside. It’s a convenient and reliable way of providing support to a setting we may not have personally experienced.
A word of caution is that this is in no way a panacea. I’m not entirely convinced that this method of research would be sufficient for an entire work taking place in a setting that the author has never visited. Visuals go a long way but the feel of a place is harder to pin down through a computer screen. Not to mention the flow of life, its people and its culture. More serious research is required here, though I believe a reasonable product can be achieved here as well, made that much easier by all the other research tools that are brought to us by technology and the internet.
The need for proper research, and perhaps some self-reflection as to the advisability of the story/setting combination in the hands of the author, is heightened for certain settings, depending on their relationship to the author themselves. An ethnically WASPish North American author sitting from the comfort of their desk chair may be able to set their whole story in a rural Indian village or the streets of Caracas, but should they? A special sensitivity to place, culture and people is required here, and a reminder that technology is just that, technology, a tool, not the end all and be all of human experience.
So like any literal tool in a handyperson’s toolbox, tools should be used with caution and for their intended purpose, but I encourage playing around with dropping yourself into a setting you’ve never been before, and using that to grow your writing.
Talking about writer’s block feels a bit like talking about being tired. We’re all tired, we’re always tired, talking about it won’t fix it, and in the end, no one cares. However, given that it has been scientifically proven that if a writer doesn’t spend at last half their waking hours lamenting about writer’s block, they literally detach from the cosmic plane and stop existing, I feel I need to put my quota in lest I suffer such a gruesome fate.
For me, writer’s block doesn’t feel like a wall, rather, it’s more like a writer’s valve. Some days, the valve is open full blast, others days, it’s a moderate stream, or a trickle, or we’re in complete shutdown mode and I’m staring at an empty Tweet for five minutes convinced that I have lost the ability to communicate. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve suffered through one of these partial shutoffs. It’s not like I couldn’t write anything, but my production was slowed. And when I did write, I generally didn’t feel good about the product. I mean, I know that’s what editing is for, but it still doesn’t feel good, you know?
As the calm rational individual that I am, I go into full panic mode every time my fingers don’t go berserk the moment they hit the keyboard. Am I sleeping enough? Of course not. Am I eating atrociously? Absolutely (screw you, never-ending Halloween leftovers). Is work super busy and invading my thoughts? Wouldn’t be myself without it. Yet none of this really any different than the status quo, so what’s the problem. Why is my creativity so sluggish that the new novel that I was so excited for just a month ago now has placeholder dialogue like “Sergei says something” and “Then Andrei says something”? I couldn’t answer it, until yesterday.
So what happened yesterday? Despite having no sleep, snacking ferociously and being up to my eyeballs in work, I had a breakthrough in that same dialogue, and managed to move the conversation through poking fun of the protagonist and discussed shitty pirated Russian dubs from the 1990s. It wasn’t perfect but I was happy with the result since the scene was now moving along after a couple of weeks of grinding to an almost complete halt.
So here’s my theory: my reading feeds my writing. Now, it’s a pretty common sentiment that to be a good writer you need to be a good reader, and I subscribe to that. I’m not going to put some arbitrary gatekeeping minimum that writers should read, but I do believe a good writer needs to read. Yet this idea hasn’t quite hit home as it did now.
For about the last month, my leisure reading has consisted of finishing up a biography I had been reading on and off since last October. Now, we’re talking about a 730 page dense tome written in a very different writing style than fiction. So the period of me reading this biography in earnest coincides approximately with the length of my latest bout of writer’s block. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to crap over non-fiction. While the bulk of my reading comprises fiction novels I do enjoy the occasional non-fiction book and biography and find them both educational and useful in my craft. But dig this: the moment I finish this book and read the first twenty pages of The Hate U Give, the very next day the valve is opened and my writing pours out.
Of course, this could be pure coincidence but I choose not to see it that way. As much as a biography is great writing it’s not the writing I do. It doesn’t really contain dialogue, it doesn’t set the scene in the same way, and the “plot” while mostly linear has its own ways of meandering that’s not reflective in fiction. Maybe it is a little worrying that my “writing muse” is so fickle that it leaves whenever I spend more than a couple of weeks not reading fiction, but hey, writers are a fickle folk. For me, this has been a lesson to not stay away from reading fiction for too long, unless I want to see that writer’s valve tighten on me again. Variety is the spice of life and maybe here I need to take a more organized approach at keeping myself spiced up. Some might balk at any suggestion that I should regiment myself, but if Douglas Coupland can recommend eating dark chocolate to get those writing juices going, then I will fully endorse reading good fiction as a possible cure for writer’s block.
Today I want to introduce you to a novel project that has been very dear to me for quite some time. I’ve recently discussed my struggle with transitioning into my next novel, and blamed this on my addiction to outlines. A half-dozen ideas are all percolating still in my mind for varying lengths of time, but one project has now crossed the magic 10,000 word threshold for when I consider a novel to actually be in progress. And the two main reasons why this one seemed to pull ahead are that it’s my oldest unwritten projects that I’ve had and because, unlike the rest, it has a fully-fleshed out outline. Old dogs, am I right?
The novel doesn’t yet have a working title, partly due to the fact that titles are a bit of a weak spot of mine (or one link in a chain mail armor of weakness). What it does have is a code title for the document, so for ease-of-reference let’s just use that until something more acceptable comes along than “Maple Vodka”. The reason why I refer to it as “Maple Vodka” will become clear soon enough, but first let me tell you a meandering background tale that I insist, at least to myself, will not bore you to death.
As you’ve seen from my introduction to my first novel, Wake the Drowned, I brew ideas sometimes for years at a time before they ever see their first words committed to paper. Like Wake the Drowned, Maple Vodka has its roots from over a decade ago.
I was still riding the high of having one of my short stories adapted into a short film, an adventure whose telling is best left for another day, and was trying to explore the lucrative screenwriting career I was obviously going to have. Back then, the regrettable Kevin Spacey’s production company, Trigger Street Productions, ran a peer-review site for amateur screenwriters. The premise was if you read and reviewed other people’s scripts, you could eventually post your own script and have it reviewed by complete industry noobs like yourself. For a year I eagerly worked to add my piece of garbage onto the communal landfill (to be perfectly honest, I did read a couple of scripts that were, in my opinion, worthy of Hollywood productions, but the overwhelming majority was similar to my own puerile attempt).
After having that script excoriated by the reviewing community, I decided to move onto my next project. This one would serve two purposes – my next script to be offered up to the Trigger Street masses, and also a way of outlining my next novel. As an outline, this was actually a decent idea because it allowed me to hash out my dialogue, which at the time was by far the weakest point of my writing. So I wrote up the first couple of scenes, made the most skeletal of outlines, and like every other large scale project I touched up until that point, off it went into the Land of the Forgotten, sort of.
When I decided to take Wake the Drowned to an agent, I thought I would hedge my bets. After bits and pieces of my novel swam around in my head for about four years, on a long walk around the city I decided to hash out the same full outline that I did for Wake the Drowned. The idea was snuck into my email to the agent and because they never addressed it, instead choosing to opine on Wake the Drowned, nothing came of that outline, but it sat there for years on my hard drive whispering into my ear every so often.
It's both a project that I’m excited to write, and one that terrifies me in its scope. I describe it simply enough – an alternative biography, a sort of personal alternate history. At least, that’s how it started.
Imagine if, at the age of thirteen, I never moved to Canada. What kind of person would I have become? What parts of my personality and my future were shaped by my environment and what was inherent to me? Could I really be considered the same person? These are all the questions my protagonist, Paul, ponders during one of his identity crises, until one morning he wakes up, and finds out he never actually moved to Canada and has to deal with the person that he became in his native country. You see? Russian immigrant in Canada? Maple Vodka? As far as working titles go, I’ll say this one isn’t half bad.
In the decade since I first thought of this idea, there have been significant changes, both to myself and my story. Firstly, even though it was going to be a literal exploration of what I would have been like if I had not moved, Paul had slowly diverged from me in terms of personal experiences and personality. Sure, he still shares a lot of my childhood experience and certain traits, but changes needed to be made to provide at least some objective separation, and artistic liberty was required.
The novels relationship to the origin/destination dichotomy had also shifted. The novel was conceptualized to show a very obtuse picture of Canada being good and Russia being bad. But the country I had not visited in almost twenty years has changed in unprecedented ways. At least in Moscow, beautification projects have changed the face of the city, modern apartment blocks repaved outdoor farmers’ markets, pedestrian crossings have transformed the streets.
But at the same time, whatever hope remained in the 90s seemed to have been sapped. The country has reshaped itself as a pariah, as one against the world, steering the people against external enemies instead of the internal ones sitting at the top of the food chain. Not only that, but I myself have developed a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between person and place. We are a product of our own free will as much as we are about where we are from. The novel has thus become more introspective to the main character.
So as I’m starting to work my way through the first quarter of the novel, all these things are rearing up and threatening to scare me away into safer waters, you know, the ones where I’m bouncing from idea to idea unable to commit. I’ve embraced the challenge of writing about a country I personally haven’t been to for more than half my life, but one that has given me an inexorable part of the soul that longs to write. I’ve got a few windows into Russia I can still use, so I’m not flying completely blind. I also know that this can’t be a long-winded essay about my own opinions. Paul needs to be real to me, he needs to be thrown in this situation and genuinely try to find his way out of it, to genuinely react to the face that he sees in the mirror.
So there it is, what is likely to become my second novel if things go well.
Meanwhile, I should write some outlines, otherwise I’ll have nothing to do once this one is done.
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.