Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
There is something to be said of delayed gratification, and that is that plenty about it totally sucks, but also, that it can pay off big time.
Sometime last December, I was thinking that it would be cool if I could increase Royal Road traffic to The Bloodlet Sun by writing a story in a genre that does well on that site and cross-promoting the stories if the new one does well. I had an idea for a fantasy story in the dusty bookshelf of my mind for quite some time, so I thought it would be the perfect thing to use. What I thought I was setting out to do was giving it a fair shot, but it turned into something much more.
Looking for a quick short-term reward, I thought I would be able to launch the story that would come to be known as The Second Magus in late spring, and obviously that didn’t happen. Now we’re a full year since I started writing it and it’s ready to debut – not something I wrote simply on a whim but a story that has grown on me deeply since its inception.
To give a flavour of how excited I’d been to launch it, I put together a cover for it about a month after I started writing it, and I’ve sat on that cover ever since, because I didn’t want to start publishing the novel until I thought it was good enough.
Is it actually good enough? Well, I guess I’ll start finding out January 22, when I submit it for approval and publication to Royal Road. Is it actually the fun exciting adventure I thought I cooked up? Or am I suffering from the rose-tinted glasses of an author – too attached to my baby to realize it’s kind of ugly?
In any case, I hope you can at least share in my excited that comes with not knowing what the outcome would be, and dreaming the biggest dreams I possibly could. In the meantime, please check out the cover that I’ll be using for the story:
As I’m sure it shows, I prefer to make these things myself. Maybe one day I’ll feel like I’m ready to engage a professional. I also know that the whole fire and ice thing is a cliché, but when I sat down to do this, the imagery just felt right and I think the image blend turned out pretty good.
See you here again in January with the link to the story once it’s posted.
Writing away so furiously for the last year, it almost comes as a surprise when I look up and realize I’m nearing the end of the first draft of my second novel. My first novel, meanwhile, languishes in editing purgatory, but let’s say no more on that for now, and focus on the positives.
The thing about Maple Vodka, which remains its working title because I’m nowhere nearer to figuring out what this book will actually be called, is that it’s one of those projects that has been with me far longer than it has taken to write. The idea for it started ages ago – back when I was in my short-lived screenwriting phase, which means it’s been with me for a good fifteen years now. This novel has been brainstormed, outlined, plotted, started and restarted, into absolute oblivion until I finally said enough is enough and that the first draft will be written one way or another.
I feel like it wasn’t that long ago that I was on here saying that the wheels finally started turning and that I had a legitimate project on my hands. And now my main character is on a plane flying towards his climax, which will soon hit him over the head like a ton of bricks, and then off to the denouement, which shouldn’t take that long. If I had to guess, I’d say I should be done before the end of the year, or the very least would close off this draft before the end of February.
Once I’m done that, it would be two novels whose first draft I have written, which, to me, is pretty crazy to think about. Five years ago, I was still struggling with ever finishing one novel, writing only short stories and novel projects that were abandoned before their completion. And now this would mean that I’ve run the marathon that is writing a novel not once, but twice. It means I’ve proven that I can do it, and which means I can do it time and time again.
Actually completing a novel, on the other hand, is a different question. As I’ve said, novel number one remains in editing mode, and I’ve recently talked about which projects are stealing the time away from that. Adding another novel into the mix complicates things, and I don’t know yet how will be able to find time to edit both Maple Vodka and Wake the Drowned. However, that just feels like one of those problems that will find a solution as some point, so I just need to be patient.
What I should be focusing on right now is wrapping up a plot that has been with me nearly half my life. Scenes I imagined for over a decade are about to finally be put into words and I want to do them justice – bring them to life in the exact ways that imagined them. One way or another, the wait is about to pay off and the story of Paul/Pavel will draw to a close. What lessons will our protagonist learn from one day waking up and finding himself in an alternate universe where he never immigrated from Russia as a kid, which led to his life and even himself, turning out quite differently?
I mean, I know the answer. I just hope one day you get a chance to read it for yourselves.
Okay, for anyone who’s reading my blog, there’s plenty of evidence in my entries about how The Second Magus isn’t dead, and is actively being worked on. However, the last major update had me estimating that it might be released on Royal Round in early September, but given that we’re basically there, and you haven’t heard anything concrete from me, means that’s not happening anymore.
I’m not sure I can really give a definitive answer as to why my estimates keep proving so wildly inaccurate. I think when I first set out to do my fantasy web novel, I had thought that I’d be able to start posting it by June, and then I had to revise to September and now I’m not even sure what I’m revising it to. Realistically speaking, if I can’t launch by early November, I don’t want to end up competing with Christmas break, so I might end up waiting until January to launch. So I guess what I need to do now is ask myself if I can launch by the second week of November and honestly, I have my doubts.
That is not to say I don’t have plenty of material. Just recently I wrote about how I have 50K words done. It’s the editing that’s been the bane of my existence my entire writing career, and this situation is no exception. I’ve only gone through a single edit of about 24 chapters (my benchmark being 29 chapters before I’m ready to launch in order to have a good buffer) and I won’t be able to consider it as a finished product until I get through at least three edits. So to me it sounds like a lot of work, especially since when it comes to time management, editing for The Second Magus is also competing with editing for The Bloodlet Sun, and I won’t even mention my novel for which I swore I would go through another edit before the end of the year but I actually haven’t touched in months.
There is a little nagging part of me that’s wondering if a commitment to two regularly updated web novels is taking up too much time away from other writing (given how they monopolize my editing time, I begin to wonder what’s the point of writing all the other projects if I don’t have time to finish them into a polished product?), but so far I’m trying to deal with the issue by finding ways to carve out more time for editing. Will I have to reprioritize in the future? Hopefully it never comes to that and I’m able to get my act together here.
So that’s been your non-update on The Second Magus. No hard launch date yet, tough I think I can safely say that it comes it in January at the latest. Maybe I should bite the bullet and declare that official, but for now, optimism will prevail.
With the writing productivity I’ve been having since last year, it’s no surprise that I’m hitting milestones with all my projects. A few nights ago though, I managed to hit two major ones in the same hour – my destined-to-be-a-web-novel fantasy called The Second Magus crossed 50K words, while my second novel whose working title is Maple Vodka has hit 80k.
With The Second Magus, all I had originally set out to do, was to try to bolster my readership for the Bloodlet Sun on Royal Road by producing something in a genre that was more popular on that website and then hoping for some cross-promotion. I started writing it last December and already I’m at 50K, which is hallway into a decent novel length (maybe not so much for epic fantasies, but I’ve got no interest in writing something so voluminous).
What I didn’t expect to happen was just how invested I would become in this. In order to accomplish my original cross-promotion goal, I dusted off an idea I’d been brewing for years, and decided to build something on top. Much to my surprise, I ended up building way more than I bargained for. The amount of story I have going on in my head – I’d barely scratched the surface with these 50K words. And what was supposed to have been a side project, feels very real now. I’ve got the kind of feelings for this story that I have for my long-term projects like my first two novels and The Bloodlet Sun. I want nothing more than for my baby to succeed and I’m putting in as much effort as I can in order to see it happen.
I’m very excited to have shepherded The Second Magus to that much content in less than a year, and I’m getting more and more pumped about eventually releasing it. Last estimated debut date was sometime in September, but now I’m thinking I’ll be lucky if I can get it out the door by early November.
For my second novel, the reason I care about the 80K milestone is because that is generally considered the healthy minimal threshold for the length of a contemporary fiction novel. I’ve recently run into issues with word count on my first novel, since from a 96K I managed to edit it down to 71K, and now have to figure out how to get the word count up without looking like I’m forcing it.
So reaching something like 80K on my second novel doesn’t mean I’m out of the woods yet, since I can always pare it down to less than that, but there’s still a few things to consider here: one, is that there’s still plenty of plot left to tie up, so if I had to guess, first draft will clock in between 100K and 110K, and two is that with all this extra word count I will have a pretty decent cushion to edit myself down to something that is still novel length, and finally, it’s just the sense of relief of being there again – having a manuscript that’s long enough that it can be a novel.
They always say that writing a novel is the marathon of writing accomplishments, and now being in that territory for the second time feels like an important hurdle has been jumped. It’s not some mysterious once-in-a-lifetime event for me anymore, but something that I can do, and something that I can tell myself that I can do over and over again.
If I had to guess, I’ll end up finishing the first draft of this novel either before the end of this year or early into the next one, and then off into the editing process, which is another mental hurdle I’m yet to clear, but that’s a future me problem. For the time being, I’ll just bask in my current milestone, and stoke the excitement that comes from actually accomplishing something instead of just endlessly throwing words onto paper.
Sometimes it’s easy to get swindled by our protagonists. They are the chosen heroes of our story – it is their challenges, their accomplishments, their growth that gets spotlighted, and for this reason, they’re prone to getting a fat head. The plot revolves around them, therefore they’re the most important being in this universe and every other character is merely a tool whose entire existence revolves around the protagonist.
Don’t believe their lies.
Your protagonist may strut around like a peacock, drowning out every supporting character with the massive egos, but as the writer, you need to be smarter than that. If a supporting cast does nothing but offer themselves up to the protagonists’ story, then they’re no longer characters but props – toys to be played with by a spoiled child. If everyone around the protagonist sacrifices their agency to the protagonist’s needs, then they no longer feel real, and the world around the protagonist collapses.
I’ve recently encountered this issue in my second novel. The most important non-protagonist character in my book was spending some time with the main character and I started to find that everything she did or said was specifically geared for the MC’s story. Everything she said boiled down to prompts for the protagonist to reveal his feelings and motivations. Everything she did seemed to have followed what the protagonist was doing. It was a perfect recipe for not only having a weak character, but also for establishing an unhealthy gender dynamic between the characters. When I found myself writing another dialogue where the opening line was the other character asking the MC a question about his life, I knew that I was on the wrong path.
I hadn’t exactly uncovered a new problem – strong realistic support characters are a hallmark of good writing – it’s just that I recognized the flaw in my current WIP. But knowing that something is a problem is a far cry from fixing it. So here’s my proposed solution to resolving this particular shortcoming – imagine your supporting characters as protagonists of their own work.
We are all the heroes of our own story. Realizing this and reminding ourselves of it regularly is how we practice empathy, and so too it should go for fictional characters. Everything in your book revolves around your protagonist, they are the sun of your story. But planets that orbit the sun are centres of their own systems – they have their own moons revolving around them. What you need to do is flesh those moons out, and don’t forget about them when writing interactions between your characters.
So the approach I took is taking a moment to imagine if I was writing a book about the protagonist’s friend instead – what is her current main conflict, what are her goals, how are those goals being met or not, how do the actions and words of the protagonist impact her story?
It’s not like I haven’t thought of a backstory for her before, so she didn’t exist in a vacuum. A backstory, though, places too much emphasis on the “back” – focusing on what led her to the events of the book, but then losing sight of their continued existence as the story progresses. For this reason, I want to think of it more as a concurrent-story – the life the supporting cast is leading while occasionally intertwining with the main plot. It’s almost like a subplot that never makes it into the main work.
Having gone through this exercise, I found that the dialogue now flowed more naturally and smoothly. The opening of the conversation was no longer protagonist-driven, but rather led by the thoughts and feelings of the supporting character. I maintained the depth I’d developed for her without subsuming it to the main character’s story. Next time I’ll make sure to keep my eye on this for the entirety of writing process.
So the next time you’re writing, might I recommend keeping track of these “supporting character as protagonist” stories in parallel to your main plot, and you’ll find yourself a much stronger cast of characters.
I think I’m starting to lose my mind.
I’ve been with my current novel a long time. You can read about it’s more detailed history here if you’d like, but long story short, I started writing it more than a decade ago and the first draft was finished about five years ago. That’s five years of editing that I have poured into this thing, and I’m having a hard time figuring out where I go from here.
My first draft wasn’t great. Even my wife said so which really probably means that my first draft was much closer to a steaming pile of crap than I would have hoped. That said, I’ve been banging away at it for years since, sometimes crossing out entire paragraphs and pages, adding new chapters, and heavily revising everything in between. If I had to estimate, I would say at least half of the original novel had been binned entirely, while the rest has been revised, reduced, chopped up and rearranged.
It’s not the novel that formed my first draft. But is it good enough?
I’m familiar with the feeling of never being quite satisfied with your own work. The saying goes that an artist should always be one’s harshest critic and never happy with the work produced. I think that last part is taking the general advice too far – not sure how good it is for your mental health to never be happy with your craft. If you’re not happy with your craft, then really what’s the point? Yes, it works for some people to fully assume the role of tortured artist, but for most of us, you have to draw the line somewhere and be satisfied.
Problem with this particular work for me is I’ve been with it too long, and it’s been with me through pretty much my entire growth as a writer. I’m miles ahead of where I was when I first started writing it, and there’s still shades of that old author that can be found throughout that book. I’ve tried my best to purge it, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if I think someone is a good idea or sentence because it’s actually good or because it’s been with me so long that I can’t let it go.
All I know is I’m getting close. Maybe not to the sense of satisfaction I yearn for but at least that cutoff where I say that it’s the best it’ll ever be and I should repurpose all my energies that I’m still putting into this project into something else.
Where I’m losing my mind is I’m not quite sure how to get there. Should I still be adding more chapters, doing major cuts and moving things around? Or should I focus on polishing my prose by micromanaging my word choices? This week, I’ve decided to focus on the latter.
I opened up my spreadsheet that helps me track my editing efforts and went to what I lovingly refer to as my “shit list” – the list of words that are either week or overused. Examples include ‘like’, ‘just’, ‘very’, ‘know/knew’ and ‘feel/felt’. Words that don’t necessarily need to completely not exist in my writing, but those I could use less of.
Earlier edits would simply highlight the words throughout the text and I would edit them out as I go, but this time, my approach is more methodical and far more mind-numbing. I’m going through each word in the list and then using Ctrl+F to find each instance, spending some time to figure out if it’s a candidate for deletion, revision, or keeping around. Going through two hundred instances of the word ‘like’ in a 70K word manuscript is probably the least glamorous thing I’ve done as a writer. It hurts not just for its tedium but also not being fully convinced that I’m actually accomplishing something.
It doesn’t matter how well it’s written if it’s just not good.
Yet these are the depths I’ve descended to with Wake the Drowned. It’s my first novel – the first amongst many that have drowned before reaching the end of the first draft. I feel like I owe something to this accomplishment – to sink my absolute most into a story that has become so intimate to me, and not just because of how long we’ve been together. Maybe I’ll get completely sick of it before I finish editing and it will go into that dusty drawer of “also rans”.
Whatever happens at the end, I’m sure I can mine enough lessons learned from the project to fill many my blog entries. And heck, maybe I’ll actually learn something while I’m at it.
I am sometimes in complete awe at the kind of technology that is available to writers on a daily basis. And I don’t mean specialized programs like Scrivener, which I don’t use because I’m a Microsoft Word using normie, and like the proverbial old dog, new tricks come pretty slow for me. What I’m talking about here are things as simple as the Ctrl+F function. Our predecessors that toiled prior to the advent of computer word processors had no such luxury – a perfect shortcut to clean and tighten up their prose. Now, you can throw in any word whose use you want to cut down on in your manuscript, and you’re off to the races.
In previous posts, I’ve talked about combining this technique with the use of word clouds to pin-point your crutch words, and also about how I’ve used it to zero-in on my uses of the word ‘but’ in order to vary my sentence structure. In today’s entry, I want to go through a few examples of common words that can be trimmed using Ctrl+F – a simple and quick exercise to improve your prose. Please keep in mind that these are only suggestions and by no means should every instance of the identified words be deleted. I don’t advocate for any hard rules, so please use your judgement.
The English language is rich with synonyms that render the word “very” redundant in most cases. “Very angry” can be “livid” or “furious”. “Very wet” can be “soaked” or “sopping”. And “very hot” can be “sweltering” or “burning” or “scorching” and so on. As you can see, there are subtle differences in meaning between these various substitute words, so be careful not to start fishing for alternatives in the thesaurus. However, also don’t be afraid of using a word you’re not entirely comfortable with – as long as you have beta readers or others in your life whose opinion you trust, they can help you refine your word usage.
As an example from my own writing, as I edited my novel Wake the Drowned, I’ve gone from 44 instances of “very” down to 15. I didn’t eliminate it entirely, nor do I intend to. Even a word like “very” has its uses. For example, in dialogue – it’s perfectly natural for a character to use “very” as there is no reason for them to talk in the style of your prose. Another potential use is for contrast, like in the following sentence from my novel:
“[…] still undecided as to whether I should eat a late dinner at my desk or a very late dinner at home”
Another good way to use “very” is to intentionally set a particular tone. For example, this sentence from the same novel:
“Middleton was not having a very nice day.”
Here, we can potentially use a synonym like “lovely” or “pleasant” or “wonderful”. But that would not have the same impact. I wanted specifically to use the word “nice” and slapping “very” right before it hopefully struck the flippant note that I wanted it to.
So while there’s a time and place for everything, overall “very” serves as a marker for where a stronger word can be used, so go ahead and make those edits.
While “very” can indicate where the sentence is thirsty for a synonym, a lot of uses of “that” are just straight up redundant. “I thought that”, “I saw that”, “I knew that”, etc. setting aside for a moment that these are fairly weak verbs, the “that” following these in most instance can be dropped completely without affecting meaning and only tightening up the prose.
The best part about this particular edit is that it is mostly easy and mindless. Although you can pretty safely go delete happy, there will be instances where you have to try your new sentence on for size and sometimes will decide to keep it anyway. For instance, here’s one I have from the opening page of my novel:
“[…] only the occasional tire swing or empty dog leash gave any indication that there were houses hidden on the other side of the trees.”
It’s a bit less obvious that the “that” here can go, but reading the resulting sentence out loud several times convinced me that it should. It is on the borderline, so if you feel like you prefer to keep it, you should follow your gut, as there should be no hard rules when it comes to editing.
Watch for context though, as not every “that” serves the same purpose. For example, this sentence:
“There’s only one way out that isn’t the terrible mouth of the beast.”
“That” in this instance serves an absolutely integral grammatical function and the sentence reads “wrong” to most English speakers. For this reason again, exercising judgement is key and mindless deleting could do more harm than good for your writing.
The word “little” is a sneaky one in that it serves a very clear descriptive function, yet I’ve found that not only that it’s similar to “very” in the sense that it can indicate the need for a synonym, but even when it can stand up on its own, it adds little value to prose. My growing dissatisfaction with it as an adjective can be evidenced from the frequency of its uses through the drafts of my novel: coming down from 249 to 77. Here’s a couple of examples of sentences that ended up losing their “little”:
“I throw my head back in my chair. It rolls away a little bit, detaching me from my desk.”
Then four drafts later we have this:
“I throw my head back and my chair rolls away slightly, detaching me from my desk.”
Sure, I’ve replaced the use of “little” with the oft-maligned adverb, but I generally reject the persecution of this part of speech and think the second sentence works much better.
Here’s a somewhat different example:
“Along with Danny, she was the last of the little dolls that Charlie’s father had given him […]”
This sentence currently reads as follows:
“Along with her husband, Danny the Foreman, she was the last of the figurines that Charlie’s father had given him.”
My problem with this particular use of “little” was that I had previously clearly established the size of these figurines by saying that they fit within the palm of the protagonist’s hand. So what is the point of describing them again as “little” when the reader already knows what the approximate size is. Ideally, each word you use serves a very specific purpose. This isn’t a standard that’s plausible to reach, but with it in mind, it should improve your writing tremendously.
I’ve pulled three fairly arbitrary examples out of my hat to illustrate my point, and there are plenty of other words on my delete list that I can profile in more detail with examples from my own writing. Hopefully you’ve found this useful, and I can certainly continue exploring this in future posts and talking about other words.
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.
Despite the fact that I don’t bring it up here all that often, I’m still very much working on my first novel. The reason it doesn’t really come up is that it has been undergoing an editing process for more years than I’m willing to count. It may not be as glamorous as using Google Street View to explore the streets of Moscow, or coming up with character names for a sci-fi setting, but it’s honest work.
I feel writers generally steer clear of discussing editing or even acknowledging its existence. Sure, there are those strange creatures that profess to actually enjoy it, but those people are either lying, or are gluttons for punishment. Editing is grinding work; it’s tedious and sometimes mentally crushing. It’s where all the self-doubt and self-criticism that I would normally block out come to roost and become an essential part of the craft. Was that the right word? Does this sentence make sense? Is the pacing of this chapter off? Is there even a point to this novel or should I send it to the proverbial trash bin and take up knitting instead? (I should take up knitting anyway, but that’s a different story).
I share insights into my editing process here and there – from general advice to how I use word clouds to clean up my writing, but beyond that, I have a hard time describing the process. You just dive into your work and comb through it, over and over until all the tangles have disappeared and it’s as perfectly coiffed as Tan France’s hair (if you don’t get this reference I recommend binging “Queer Eye” on Netflix, or if you're that short on time, at the least check out the following few seconds of Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” music video). For me, I find I have too focus on the blemishes too much and it becomes too easy to lose sight of how my work can ever reach the stage when I’m satisfied with it.
When it comes to Wake the Drowned, I currently only have one chapter left before I complete the fifth draft. In terms of next steps, I already have one wonderful friend who provided me with detailed beta reader comments, with more hopefully drifting in. As far as I can tell, though it’s hard to predict with these things, I’ll need another three edits at most, ideally two, so either way, the job is well more than halfway done. That said, at my pace that could still be another two years.
I’ve got some mixed feelings about this edit. Some stretches are turning out really well – two or three pages can go by with only a few minor revisions. Other sections are still giving me serious pacing concerns. I think one of the main focuses of the next edit should be aggressive deleting, which may put me in trouble with the word count, but I can solve that problem when I come to it.
I’ve been with this project for so long it’s hard to conceive that one day, win or lose, it will be set aside as the best I can do for this story. My sincerest hope is that I will be able to share it with the world, but if not, at least it will live on in the rest of my writing through the lessons I learned along the way.
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.
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.