This week I got to the point where I needed to print off a copy of my manuscript so as to have something to heft. Looking at the screen was getting stale, and the story is taking sufficient shape as to need a fresh approach as a form of reality check.
Writing a book is like going on a long trip. So long that you don’t know when you’ll come back and you can no longer assume that everything will be the way it was when you left home. So long that the stuff you packed gets worn out and needs to be replaced along the way. So long that your girlfriend dumps you and moves to another state without leaving a forwarding address.
Cranking it out
In the authoring business they say a successful writer should put out a new book every year. By that measure I should have started this two years ago, but I simply did not have the “fire in the belly” to make it happen. To produce the first book, I wrote doggedly three hours a day for eighteen months, while teaching fulltime. I got up at 0500 every day, and got to the office a half hour later. From there I stepped into the word-processing transponder and spent a few hours at the hospital in Nepal. Okay, well not in the physical sense, but – mentally and psychologically. Travelling through time and distance that way was brutal, but the book explored darker themes of life and death, and brutality was justifiable. Writing was a catharsis for me, anybody who read the book knows that I was deeply affected by Nepal, and the book served to exorcise the personal demons of the first trip abroad where my eyes were opened.
When the trip is long enough, the destination ceases to be a concern.
The first book was not written overnight. The first draft took seven months. And since it was narrative nonfiction, I did not have to invent the plot, the major episodes, or the characters. If I wanted to add descriptive elements I could refer to my photos or my notes or my daily diary. That simplified the process considerably.
Not every reader knows….
There was one reviewer who wrote “Joe’s writing improved by the end of the book” – but what they didn’t know was that THATEOTW was not written from start to finish. A book does not have to start at the beginning and end at the end, and it is not written that way either. Oh sure, there must be writers who do it that way. But I wrote the half-dozen or so major episodes first, then backtracked to fill the spaces between. I knew at the time that it would be more suspenseful if I re-ordered the events differently, telling them out of chronological sequence, but I also knew I was not good enough as a writer to pull off that feat.
There were times when I just dropped it for a week or two, then came back at it. Even after some chapters were finished, there was a sculpting process, in which some aspects got explored more and others less, so as to have a consistent pace through the whole thing.
I’ve heard about writers who simply poured out a story in an exciting frenzy of writing, and in fact, the chapter of THATEOW about the Snakebite incident was one such event for me. Ten thousand words in two hours. It’s like competing in a sprint, when the overall event is a marathon. It would take incredible talent to and energy to sustain for the whole distance.
After the bursts of simply pouring out a story, there comes a time when applying “the writer’s craft,” takes over. Craft is an underappreciated term, but it’s a form of editing that goes beyond spellchecks and punctuation. From college decades ago I recall using Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” but I needed something beyond that. So I went to the step of buying a creative writing text-book, and adopting the exercises from it to guide my craft. Improve the descriptive elements. Study concepts such as “showing versus telling. ” Write dialogue. Explore the deeper motivation of characters. Use strong verbs to produce “vigor” – such worthy goals! As I studied each chapter of the text I would make a pass through of the manuscript to find opportunities to apply my new skills.
Sometimes I lose perspective by staring at a computer screen. They say JK Rowling still writes on yellow legal pads….. Just this week I printed a hard copy of the manuscript, so I can take it to the beach and/or peck away it at without firing up the computer.
A Through-hike of the Novel
When not writing I have taken some long walking trips (I.e., 300 miles or more…) And the mental toughness of hiking is similar to writing. I’ve been writing for two months now and that’s about how it feels. I know I will be working on this for at least six more months. You have to pace yourself.
Fiction versus nonfiction versus historical fiction. And of course, the intended reader.
The first book had limitations. The characters were “fixed” and so were the events. It was a chronology, and of course, there was no romance or evil villain or sweeping backdrop of drama. I wrote it to illustrate the truth about health care in a low income country. I accomplished that goal, and got a small readership. I hate to admit this, but I want to reach a wider audience, and the only way to do this is to get beyond the above limitations.
The conclusion is that I can still educate about the challenges of low income healthcare, using elements of fiction set against the recent history of Nepal. My four trips there produced lots of detailed info about an exotic setting, not just the geography but the culture and day-to-day life. In particular how hospitals work, and about the type of people who tackle the challenges. Like James Herriot I have a barn full of “you won’t believe this” medical stories from which to draw.
Nepal’s civil war lasted eleven years, in a deeply spiritual Hindu and Buddhist country. There is an innate drama about Buddhists who conduct terrorism and brutal military work, and about the way a Buddhist society addresses violence in general. (Hint: it still occurs). So, I decided to use a particular battle of the civil war as one of the main dramatic events of the book. I am using contemporaneous accounts of the battle for research, and plan to visit the location during my 2013 trip.
There is a love story, which allows me to write about the role of men and women in Nepal. Generally, women are not treated well in Nepal. This will help hold the attention of certain readers.
anyway, as of today there are 74,500 words on paper, and the ultimate goal is about 110,000 words.