Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
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.