Religion in ‘The Book of Ever’

Richard Wright, the author of Native Sononce said:

The more closely the author thinks of why he wrote, the more he comes to regard his imagination as a kind of self-generating cement which glued his facts together, and his emotions as a kind of dark and obscure designer of those facts. Reluctantly, he comes to the conclusion that to account for his book is to account for his life.

Where does the writer end and the writing begin?  To some extent every artist puts some of himself, of his or her own life, into his work.  Sometimes this is intentional.  More often, it is an unavoidable side effect of living and being an artist.  It’s certainly true for me.  I’ve discovered that writing is an intensely personal process for me: my ability to write successfully, such as it is, is intimately tied to my own life experience.  As Wright says, imagination serves as a glue and emotion as a designer, but the stuff of writing is memory and observation.  I suspect this is true of most writers.

It goes without saying, therefore, that there is much of me in my first novel, Exile: The Book of Ever.  In some ways, that reflection is literal: the book is set in New England, where I grew up and still live.  In other ways–in most ways, really–that reflection is thematic.  And one of the major themes of the novel is the question of faith.

The main character, Ever, is a young woman who grew up in a deeply religious community, one who managed to survive the apocalypse by remaining insular and holding true to a firm set of beliefs.  During her journey through the story, she often relies heavily on her faith in God to make decisions and maintain hope and determination.

More than a few readers of Exile have commented (with uniform courtesy and general acceptance) that they were surprised by the religious elements of the novel.  The simple presence of a religious theme seemed unexpected to them.  This isn’t surprising to me, and in fact is comforting in a way: I didn’t write the book for a religious audience, and as I’m currently not religious myself, I wouldn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a Christian writer.  I was pleased and flattered to see that my intent had, for the most part, succeeded: readers seem to see Ever’s faith as a part of her character, a driving force and a motivation.

Another theme of the book, and one I hope I conveyed adequately, is that all is not as it seems: that our reality is, in the end, defined primarily by our current perception and understanding, and that these things naturally change as we go through life.  Ever has faith, but by the end of the novel, hopefully it is clear that her exposure to the larger world and her experiences in it have begun to change her.

Faith is a journey that has no end except death, at which point, hopefully, our questions are answered one way or the other.  I was raised Roman Catholic.  I went to Catholic school for 13 years.  For most of my young adult life, I identified as an atheist.  Over the last few years, that atheism grew into something I like to call, tongue firmly in cheek, spiritual agnosticism.

I’m in the process of writing up an account of my long, strange, spiritual trip, but here’s the punchline: about a year and a half ago, for a variety of reasons, I decided to join the Mormon Church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints).  I was baptized, attended for over a year, and went through their temple ordinances.

I am no longer a Mormon (thank all of the many, many Mormon gods, thank Krishna, thank Christ).

Why?  The short answer is because, at the end of the day, I couldn’t force myself to knowingly participate in a cultish church whose doctrines are not only intolerant but batshit insane.

Religious belief for me is a bit like an electron: hard to pin down, and changed innately by the act of observation.  If you asked me what my religious beliefs were, I’d say that the most accurate description of me would probably be that I’m an atheist.  But it’s a bit more complicated than that, and as soon as I define it the questions return to swirling around in their cloud.  Suffice it to say for now, however, that my long-held, shortly-retired, recently-reacquired viewpoint on organized religion is generally negative.

I think my readers are going to be very surprised by the direction Ever’s spiritual journey takes in The Book of Ever.

The Death of the Editor-Author Relationship

A few thoughts on the traditional relationship between authors and their editors, compared to what we seem to have today.  Imperfect and flawed, I admit; I was trying to get some ideas out.  There have certainly been more intelligent things written about this subject.

My Writing Process, In Bullet Points

Truman Capote wrote supine, with coffee (or sherry) and a cigarette.  Which was the least interesting thing about him.
Truman Capote wrote supine, with coffee (or sherry) and a cigarette. Which was the least interesting thing about him.

I’ve been thinking about writing process a lot lately.  Whenever I’m between large projects or still in a “soft” phase (see below), the process by which I write fiction becomes more present to me than it is when I’m writing one thing determinedly.

Victoria Schwab talked today about “cook time,” a concept which, as obvious as it seems, hadn’t occurred to me before in the context of writing a book, and which actually applies rather aptly to my own process:

I have what I call a long “cook time.” This means that once I get an idea, I let it simmer on the back burner for months, if not years. One of the reasons I do this is because I’m usually working on something else, but the larger reason is that I want to make sure it’s not just a random idea, but something worth pursuing. By the time I take it off the back burner, IF I do, I am fairly confident that it’s not only something I can write, but something I can FINISH. Once I took a project off the back burner, and it turned out it wasn’t quite ready, so I put it back, but once I’ve started to actually write, I’ve never quit a book.

This is almost me, with one exception: I often start writing things that I’m not able to finish right away, because the idea in question hasn’t had sufficient cook time.  So I suppose I’m not as patient as Ms. Schwab, but the overall idea is the same: book ideas, by which I mean world-building, plot character, setting, etc., all percolate in the back of my mind for months and years before I even contemplate starting to write.

The false starts I sometimes have aren’t entirely useless, though.  Often the act of sitting down and writing out the beginning of a story (it’s usually the beginning) acts as a sort of threshold test for the idea as a whole: can I write about this?  Is this something that I could conceivably turn into a full story, or is this a passing whim, a throwaway idea, a piece of micro-fiction at best?

Talking about one’s writing process is usually only useful for the person doing the talking, since everyone’s process is different, but most of us interested in the craft nonetheless find it fascinating.  With that in mind, here’s a few facts about my writing process, in bullet points, because for my purposes bullet points are more useful than a narrative:

  • Contrary to what is apparently one of the most-asked questions at writers’ panels, coming up with ideas has never been a problem for me.  I’ve got more ideas for books than you could shake a lightsaber at.  It’s choosing between them that’s hard.
  • The spark of an initial idea is hard to describe–it strikes you like a little electric shock, and you have to go write it down.
  • I write all of my good ideas down, in the form they came to me, in one of my many notebooks.  There’s a good argument to be made that “if it’s a good idea, you’ll remember it anyway,” but nonetheless I like jotting down some notes about the details when it comes to me.
  • It’s from there that the “cooking” phase begins: the idea zooms around in my head like a pinball, dinging against other ideas, setting off lights and buzzers, combining with things, knocking things out of the way.  Eventually, to mix metaphors, it begins to snowball, changing into a steadily growing kernel of a book.
  • Cook time ranges from months to years for me.  The Book of Ever, for instance, had a comparatively short cook time: I took book one, Exile, from concept to finished manuscript in about six months.  On the other hand, I’ve been planning out an epic fantasy series in my head and in notebooks for years now, which still hasn’t fully taken shape.
  • Usually, a project being on the back burner for me means that I’m stuck or blocked in some way–usually in the way of plot.  I often begin things, then set them to simmer, and sometimes take them off the heat, so to speak, if I don’t know the way forward.  Sometimes other things take priority simply because they’re further along and require more attention.
  • Any time something’s cooking on the back burner, I think of it as being in a “soft phase”: I’m working on it, but not exclusively and perhaps not with full knowledge of its content or ending.
  • On the other hand, once I know how to finish it, it enters the “hard phase”: I work on it exclusively until it’s done.  No getting distracted with notes or writing on other work.
  • Do to the amount of cook time, my writing projects tend to come out in something fairly close to their finished form on the first go; I don’t go through multiple “drafts” the way some authors do.
  • That said, I consider myself a gardener, not an architect.  “Knowing the way forward,” for me, means that I have a general skeleton of the story in mind: major events, character arcs, world-building.  I don’t have a chapter-by-chapter outline, and things often change in the writing.
  • Between the soft phase and the hard phase there’s usually a click.  You’ll hear a lot of writers talk about this moment: that moment when everything crystallizes, when the constellation of ideas and plot points and character beats comes into alignment.  The click.
  • The click, whether it’s a big one or a little one, usually happens at the most inopportune time possible.  Like when you’re having a serious conversation, or parallel parking.
  • Once I start writing, I aim for 1,500 words per day.  Ideally I write significantly more than that, but if I write 1,500 then I don’t feel that the day was wasted.
  • I often edit as I write, which is another reason I don’t go through multiple drafts, and also explains why my output is sometimes on the lower side compared to more prolific authors.
  • When I’ve finished the first draft, so to speak, I force myself to take at least a week off.  Ideally it would be longer, but rarely do I have the patience to wait that long when I know a book is almost ready for publication.
  • When I come back to it, I do one substantive read-through, often mostly aloud, looking for major editing issues related to plot, character, etc.  I read on the screen, editing as needed as I read.
  • After that I print it out, do a copyedit, and give it to beta-readers.  Based on their feedback, I either change things or don’t, then do a final proofread and it’s off to the press.  It’s a simple system, but I’m happy with it for the time being.

What’s your writing process like?  What’s different, what’s similar?  The great thing about this conversation is that there’s truly no right answer: everyone’s process is different.  Don’t compare your writing process to that of another writer.  (Except for the fun of it.)

Editing a First Draft

My first substantial story/content edit of a first draft is the most important one I do when I’m writing.  I write more slowly than some; the first draft of the novel I just finished, for instance, a post-apocalyptic young adult sci-fi story, took me around five months to finish.  That’s an estimate, because I started writing it on a lark and ended up switching gears from my other project to finish this one, and as a result I wasn’t working on it full time right away.  So had I sat down to write that story alone, in other words, it might have taken less time.

My writing process is somewhat nontraditional: rather than blast through a truly rough first draft and polish it with multiple, successive edits, I tend to linger over the first draft, working on the prose and pacing and details more carefully than some.  This is just the way my mind works; I find it very hard, often distracting, even, to block out a story roughly, which is in direction contradiction to the way we’re all supposed to be writing.  What, after all, do most writing guides tell you?  Something along the lines of: don’t worry about your first draft!  Your first draft is supposed to be horrible!  Just get it on the page, and worry about making it good later!

This may work for some writers, and despite my sarcasm, I don’t actually see anything wrong with this technique.  It’s how many, if not most, artists work.  Oil painters paint in layers: first brushing on a background wash, then blocking out major shapes in differing values of neutral colors, then gradually adding layers of bright color, light, and shadow, before finishing with minor details and nuances.  Sculptors who work in stone must first carve out a rough shape before chiseling in the fine features of a statue.  I often find that by not working this way myself, I run a greater risk of being bogged down in details when I should be focusing on the bones of my story.

That said, I don’t regret my methods; they seem to be working for me.  I might even go so far as to say they’re more modern: sophisticated word processors like Microsoft Word allow us to make changes on the fly, whereas writers of yore were constrained by the limitations of typewriters.  Even pen and paper is more compatible with the traditional, phased method: the physical effort and comparative mess of writing freehand discourages too much ad hoc messing around.  It used to be much more efficient to write a rough draft, edit it longhand, type it up, then edit again…repeat, ad nauseam.  Today we’re able to truly play with each sentence as we write it, which is both a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing because we can take full advantage of being in the moment while writing: our fingers, if we’re decent typists, move more quickly on the keyboard than they do with a pen on paper, and can come much closer to keeping up with the story unfolding in our heads.  Moreover, it gives you the speed and efficiency with which to take advantage of a sudden, inspired turn of phrase–even if you think of a better way to say something five minutes after you’ve finished a scene, it’s the work of mere seconds to go back and edit it in Word.

This might all seem a bit remedial, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I edit this manuscript.  I do most of my editing on the computer screen, rather than on paper, which is also, traditionally, a no-no.  But I find, again, that it’s more efficient.  I can try different things more quickly, see if they work, and make changes to the text live rather than making chicken-scratches all over a paper manuscript only to have to go back later and actually make the changes.

The down side, I suppose, is the detriment to posterity.  Readers and writers of the future will have less access to physical copies of early drafts, which give insight into a writer’s process.  On the other hand, it’s certainly possible to track changes with Word, much more effectively than by hand, so the preservation of the digital file would solve this problem.  And it’s a minor one, anyway, isn’t it?  What matters, in the end, is the end.  The end product, that is.

Editing, even more than writing, is where you first find the methods that work best for you.  The initial process of writing, after all, is dead simple: put one word in front of another and repeat until you have a novel.  (Don’t let anyone tell you it’s more complicated than that, incidentally.)  But editing is much more like work; hard choices must be made, a pace set, discretion and judgment utilized and prioritized.  Editing is where the real work comes in, in other words, and doing it is the best way to learn how.

Back Burner Stories

I have a veritable library of unfinished short stories in my Dropbox, neatly archived into their own individual folders.  Some are ancient: a few hundred words I wrote on the fly late one night, or a writing exercise I saved more because of OCD than any desire to ever do anything with it.  Others are more recent, mostly incomplete ideas: vignettes, descriptions of settings, characters without stories.  In additional to all of this dead prose, however, I usually have at least a few stories in progress that I’m actively thinking about.  One of them is a far future science fiction short story about a sort of first contact attache overseeing the early phases of introducing advanced technology to a planet seeking membership in a galactic confederation.

This one is a true back burner story, in the sense that I’m actively working on it but in a secondary, low-priority way.  I’ll literally keep the file open behind whatever my primary project is (in this case the YA novel I just finished and am now editing), and occasionally switch over to it in moments of boredom or inspiration to add a few lines.  I never write more than a paragraph or so at a time.  I’m interested to see what kind of first draft this produces, and whether it’s a viable way to work on minor projects.

Does anyone else do this?  Work on things piecemeal, a few hundred words at a time?