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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, April 30, 2005

the burden of success

Up at 7:15, made coffee, highlighted and keyed notes from Twelve Caesars and When Prophecy Fails. I find myself reluctant to do the Roman material, even though I need it for the coming sections of the book. I think it's resistance: I have to do these notes now, and so I don't want to. I feel as though it should already be done--like homework I've avoided. And yet I made a conscious decision months ago to put off my Roman research until I got further along: a "just-in-time delivery" approach. Hence, I spend time in the morning highlighting Suetonius, then keying the highlights--slow going. I make myself do 2 pages a day, whether I feel like it or not. It's only 2 pages.

It's the weekend, so no writing. I need some feeling of break from the daily grind of writing--some days when I'm not responsible for making more pages happen. Then I treat anything I do--including research--on the project as a bonus.

These days I'm feeling underpowered. I wake in the predawn hours with fresh attacks of worry that this whole project is misbegotten. I realize that if I keep at it, it will stretch out for years ahead of me. Will I continue to feel like it? Will it become an obligatory job that I must force myself to do each day? What's it like for those super-successful writers who have huge audiences hungry for their next work? Does J. K. Rowling have to drag her sorry carcass to the word processor to make herself grind out the next Harry Potter? Is her dearest wish that she could be doing something else?

The writer wishes for job security in his chosen field--then becomes burdened with it. I remember reading an interview with the actor Rupert Everett in which he said that once the world finds that it wants something from you, it keeps demanding more and more of it. It will keep demanding that one thing until it kills you.

When I'm not working on it, my project scares me. I'm offended by my own hubris in tackling it. My only excuse is that it inspired me, beckoned me, excited me, seduced me. It wanted me.

Friday, April 29, 2005

so what is my genre?

Not a terrible writing day. I did 4 pages of chapter 15. If I could write that much every day, I'd probably think I was doing well--anyway, I'd be doing a lot better than I am.

Writing about genre yesterday got me thinking again about the genre of The Mission. It's a historical novel, of course, but that's a wide field with many subgenres. I think of my work as an epic. It does not fit the contemporary bookseller's definition of epic, which is a novel that spans multiple generations (Hawaii, Sarum, Vancouver). I'm harking back to the original definition, which applied to poetry. Here is the definition of epic given by Clement Wood in his Complete Rhyming Dictionary:

An epic is a long narrative poem, dealing with heroic events, usually with supernatural guidance and participation in the action.

My work of course is prose, not verse. But there is supernatural action, both at the character level, with Menahem's shamanic excursions, and at the thematic level, since the story itself centers around the relationship of humanity to God, or to ultimate reality. I believe that what makes an epic epic is that its story embraces all levels of reality. Possibly it also requires multiple protagonists, or at least often makes use of these as a way of depicting a realm that is bigger than the individual.

Warren and I have talked about this recently in connection with The Divine Comedy, which he's studying at an adult-ed class in Chicago. To me, it clearly fits the definition: Dante takes a tour through the entire cosmos, with divine guidance, and finally meets God face to face. And it is in verse.

I'm writing a modern epic. If it makes it to the bookstore, it will have to be shelved in the General section, along with Shopaholic and James Joyce.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

the walled compound of genre

Not a very productive day so far (it's 3:10 p.m.). I woke with back pain--a more severe version of pain I started feeling yesterday sometime. It was not relieved by stretching, so I took an Ibuprofen and booked an appointment at the chiropractor.

Did my usual 2 pages of The Twelve Caesars, then keyed more notes from When Prophecy Fails. I checked a couple of blogs, and linked my way on to one called Paperback Writer by a woman who, writing under 5 different names, churns out several novels a year of different genres (the ones I saw on her website were all sci-fi). Her real name seems to be Lynn Viehl. With 28 novels published, she's a seasoned pro. I always experience mixed feelings when I confront prolific professional writers like this. One part of me feels envy at their success: they're earning a living, even a good living, through creative writing. Another part of me feels, even though I have plenty of writing ability, alien to their world: I can't be like them. I've tried.

I can't be like them because I'm not like them. For one thing, I have no more interest in writing their books than I do in reading them. When I walk through a bookstore, I see fiction shelves stuffed with the output of writers like Lynn Viehl--genre works dashed off by proficient, creative people who can deliver a publishable manuscript in a short time. When I say "genre works" I don't mean any disparagement, since virtually all fiction belongs in some genre or other (my favorite novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, would nowadays be filed under the "coming of age story" genre). But what the book world now calls genre fiction--the stuff racked under the genre signs at the store, such as "mystery", "science fiction", "romance", and so on--is characterized, in my opinion, by two defining qualities:

1. faithfulness to the conventions of their stated genre

2. an avoidance of new insights at the thematic level of the book

They are conventional works not only in respect of their form, but in respect of their meaning. We read conventional genre books to be told the same thing again that we've been told before by other, similar books--books in the same genre. We're the little kids who want to hear the same story again and again (for me it was "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" and The World of Pooh).

I think what I'm saying is that these books can be written quickly by proficient authors because they are like miners working an already discovered and developed seam. The other kind of novel, the serious or literary work, is by a writer who is more like a prospector, looking for a new seam of ore. It's risky and time-consuming. Usually it doesn't pay off. But sometimes it does--and then it really does. These writers don't know in advance exactly what they're trying to say: they look, they dig. What they come up with costs them something--sometimes a lot. They suffer for it. This is art.

In storytelling, convention is a convenience, but to me convention can't be the be-all and end-all of the exercise. At that point writing has become merely an industrial product, like soft drinks, toothpaste, or microwave popcorn. From the writer's standpoint it's a pleasant, fun job. But that's all it is. To the extent that it's merely conventional, I'm not interested--not as a reader, not as a writer.

It's not that I can't be conventional, it's that, deep down, I don't want to. When I open a genre book I get a bored, impatient feeling: been there, done that. The characters don't stand for anything I recognize as myself. They have "passions" and "desires", but these don't feel authentic. "Such-and-such a character has this passion because her mother was killed when she was a child." Okay. I ask: Why was her mother killed? Not, What was the motive of the killer, but What is the meaning of this event? What is its significance? This is where the typical genre book does not go. The genre writer can say, "We don't need to know that", meaning, we don't need to know that in order to have a story full of sound and fury, action and adventure. But as human beings that's exactly what we do need to know.

The genre writer stays within the walled compound of the convention. I can't. My output and earnings might be low, and my audience small, but I can't stay there.

Don't fence me in.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


Yesterday afternoon I was delighted to find not one but two packages dumped on my porch by the mailman--two more books I've ordered recently: Columella's On Agriculture, from a small used-book seller in Chicago, and Cato's and Varro's On Agriculture, from Powell's in Portland, Oregon--both translations from the ancient Roman originals, small red volumes from the Loeb Classical Library. They were mentioned as sources in Hugh Johnson's Vintage, and on impulse I decided to buy them.

Over afternoon tea I opened Cato. I wasn't expecting too much; I figured an ancient book on farming might be dull. But Harrison Boyd Ash's introduction (he completed the work of William Davis Hooper, who was prevented by illness), written in 1934, was very good. I didn't highlight material on Cato, because he died 100 years before my story, but when I read Ash's introduction to Varro, I quickly realized this Roman was not only relevant, but very likely will become a character in my story.

His dates (116-27 BC) put him in the right range, but he was also closely involved with the Roman civil war (on the Pompeian side), and, furthermore, was appointed by Caesar to superintend the collection and arrangement of Rome's first public library. This will draw him closely into the orbit of my characters, especially Alexander, who is destined to have a role, if only a tangential one, in that project. So I highlighted much of Ash's introduction on Varro: good stuff.

As for the book itself, listen to how Marcus Cato, stern, upright, old-school Roman, opens his book on agriculture:

It is true that to obtain money by trade is sometimes more profitable, were it not so hazardous; and likewise money-lending, if it were as honorable. Our ancestors held this view and embodied it in their laws, which required that the thief be mulcted double and the usurer fourfold; how much less desirable a citizen they considered the usurer than the thief, one may judge from this.

I loved this dry, cutting observation as a way of getting on to the topic of the farmer, an honorable and noble person by comparison, in Cato's view. I didn't find it dull at all.

Today, pushing on with notes toward chapter 15, I felt I broke through. Again I went back in my mind to where the action left off at the end of chapter 14, and rolled the tape forward, so to speak. How would Alexander be feeling? What would he do? Again I walked the action along, using thoughts and insights from previous runs to flesh out this more step-by-step approach. And when I got to what I think will be the point of attack for chapter 15, it came to me what the dominant thought and feeling for Alexander should be--what will push him forward. Yes! Suddenly he's got gas in his tank again.

Yesterday, at the end of my writing session, I searched out some prose I wrote longhand in the big blue binder I used to launch this project. I set it up while I was still at Gampo Abbey in 2002. Saturday was everyone's day off, and I would spend a couple of hours each Saturday morning in the library, playing with this idea. One day (27 April 2002) I was too excited to contain myself: I just had to start writing this story. I wrote about a page and a half longhand. At that time I thought the story was going to begin with Alexander. Here's how I opened it, just as it appears in the binder:

The sparkles on the water were brighter than stars: they flashed into and out of existence as a relieving breeze flowed up the canal. When Alexander narrowed his eyes the sparkles rotated en masse, turning to Xs, then crucifixes, then little swords of light, swarming, living, and dying, below. Others would see different sparkles. These were happening only for him. What did that mean? It was a private experience. He was alone.

I was writing my own experience of looking out over the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the bluffs of the monastery. I remember sitting on the little log bench near the flagpoles, filled with intense creative desire. I would open with those sparkles on the water, I thought, changing shape as I looked at them.

Three years later--to the day, I suddenly realize--I took those opening words, and the ones that followed, and used them to start my draft of chapter 15. For that is where this scene of Alexander's has wound up: not the opener anymore, but 30% into the book. Since I'd already done some writing for this, I thought, I might as well use that old material as my starter. I adjusted, trimmed, and made it to page 2 of the new chapter. Another chapter begins.

Monday, April 25, 2005

on (not) knowing enough

Tried to start the week with a fresh burst of enthusiasm. I still found it hard making notes toward chapter 15, but still made some incremental progress toward what I call the starting lineup for drafting the chapter. This really boils down to knowing enough to begin writing.

One thing I forgot to mention in my post about Stephen King and his writing advice is that there are potential pitfalls in using the "trust the unconscious" approach. Robert McKee says that often, when we reach into our minds for the first thing to hand while writing spontaneously, what we come up with is a cliche: something that we've read or seen produced before. "Cliche is at the root of all audience dissatisfaction," he says in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Further:

[T]he source of all cliches can be traced to one thing and one thing alone: The writer does not know the world of his story.

There it is. The main problem with dramatic writing? Cliches. The remedy? Knowledge--specifically the writer's knowledge of "the world of his story." The world of the story consists essentially of the characters and the setting. In writing about the ancient world, this knowledge will come largely through reading.

If I let myself think about this seriously, I get a bad feeling. Throughout my life I've been driven by fear of inadequate knowledge, and therefore have spent much of my life studying. If I had focused on one or two subjects, I might have been able to master them. But I have ranged far and wide in an omnivorous quest to know everything. Or not quite: my real quest has been to get to the bottom, to find out what knowledge is really essential.

With respect to my story, there's a huge amount to know. Experts spend their lives studying only small portions of the world I'm depicting. I can't possibly know my story-world in the godlike way that McKee demands--and neither can anyone else. Does this put it off-limits for dramatic treatment? Or will someone (me) just have to take on the sin of inadequate knowledge, and do the story anyway, at the risk of a certain number of cliches working their way in?

Even at the chapter level I can feel overloaded. But what to do? Just chuck the whole thing, now that I'm 30% of the way through a first draft, and have spent years in research and outlining? No. I've got to drag the thing across the finish line, warts and all, to a possible audience of zero.

These sorts of happy thoughts occupy my mind much of the time.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

more reflections on prophecy

Again this morning: 2 pages from The Twelve Caesars, then notes toward chapter 15. I'm trying to tame the overload of things to think about in preparing this chapter by moving from one topic to another in my notes, as the mood takes me. What are the things Alexander must attend to, administratively? Where will Marcus and Gaia wind up being accommodated? Things like that. There is much to think about in trying to answer these questions. Usually I don't come up with an answer, but the quest for it sends me on a train of imagining, or on a research errand (such as looking up how Jews of that period handled their funerals). I spent maybe 3/4 of an hour at it this morning.

In the past few days I've been thinking about my relationship with prophecy: when did it start, in a specifically spiritual context? There might be clues buried in my journals from late adolescence (all of which I still have, locked away in a Rubbermaid box), but I do know that by 1979 I was using the idea of a modern-day millenarian cult as a key component of a novel I started writing, called More Things to Come. I started working on it sometime after returning from my Mexican trip with Brad in June. Certainly I was working on it by fall 1979, my first term at UBC. (My abortive and lonely career there fizzled out by spring 1980--I never passed first year.)

Strongly influenced by Gravity's Rainbow, which I'd read in 1978 while traveling in Europe with my friend Tim (just before the trip with Brad), More Things to Come was planned as a savage satire on the contemporary world with its materialism, frivolity, and spiritual bankruptcy. It was intended to be brilliant, the dazzling launch of an important and precocious literary career. It would be big, and yet only the first part of a trilogy. It would be super-intelligent, but also funny--just like Gravity's Rainbow. It would be a showcase for my talent.

I poured a lot of effort and a lot of anguish into it, writing hundreds of pages of notes and drafting a few hundred pages of first draft. In time it joined the scrapheap of my other unfinished projects--but I relinquished it slowly, reluctantly. I recall working on it as late as 1985, with chartpaper unrolled on the kitchen table in the apartment I now shared with my girlfriend Kim (by that time I was diagramming the story in a kind of rudimentary, self-devised PERT chart). There was probably no decisive farewell. I probably put it away, as I had many times, planning to pick it up again, and never did. I had felt revulsion with it at almost every step of the way. The idea had seemed good...

But it involved prophecy. I had invented a secret society called the International Bi-Millenarians (IBM for short) who were planning for the Second Coming of Christ in the year AD 2000 (at that time, a far-off future date). They were a neo-Gnostic cult who hated materiality and physicality (not unlike the Essenes), and who furthermore had discovered a secret: how to synthesize antimatter by singing certain sacred syllables. Antimatter, when it comes into contact with matter, causes the complete annihilation of both in a blaze of intense energy, much stronger than any nuclear explosion. This annihilation of matter was to them a spiritual act--one they planned to carry out at a time and place of their choosing.

So there were the elements: a spiritual prophetic society with an agenda for initiating an apocalypse in the near future. I was treating it satirically (so I thought), but in fact I was fascinated with the idea, and felt the attraction that such a group might have for me personally. I knew that this attraction would help me write the group plausibly (not at first glance a very sympathetic bunch). Thinking back on it, there were shades here of the apocalyptic zeal of Osama bin Laden and his merry crew. I believe I did sense the coming turn to apocalyptic, world-shattering zealotry.

There is a marker, then, in my literary development. I had taken on the theme of apocalyptic prophecy as a literary subject by 1979, not long after my idea of the "spiritual adventure story" in Belize that spring.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

the perils of reading

Up at 7:00, leaving Kimmie asleep. Unusually, she had been out last night at the North Shore Winter Club, celebrating a surprise 60th-birthday party for a coworker, and had got home sometime after I collapsed in bed at 11:20 p.m. I made coffee and came down to work on notes, just as on a weekday.

More notes from the Julius Caesar chapter of Suetonius, and I opened my chapter 15 notes to type some thoughts in there, feeling restless and wanting to get ahead on my project. I had typed three short paragraphs when Kimmie came down to recount her wonderful time of last night, including much dancing and slipping on soap-film from the bubble machine and landing painfully on her tailbone. That's my Kim: can always be counted on for a pratfall.

Wanting to keep project-energy flowing, I suggested reading chapter 13. Kim said yes. So I read the chapter aloud while Kimmie drank her second cup of coffee and I had a glass of grapefruit juice. It was OK, but for me there is almost always a feeling of letdown when I read out my work. I tried to describe the feeling to Kimmie:

"It's as though you do all this work, and then are disappointed to discover that it's not that good yet. You've done eighty percent of the work, but have only got thirty percent of the quality of the finished product. After a rewrite, you do just a little work, and get a big boost in quality. That's my favorite stage. It's like editing a film."

In filmmaking they say that the finished movie is never as good as the rushes, and never as bad as the answer print. After the chaos of production, the rushes (first print of what you shot) tell you that you have a movie, and there is a feeling of triumph. At the first answer print, you're expecting to see the finished product, but are disappointed to find some remaining glitches, and, more deeply, that the end-film is not the thing you envisioned when your first read (or wrote) the script. Well, in writing, it seems to be the reverse: the "rushes" of the first draft is a disappointment, but the "answer print" of a couple of revisions later is usually much better. Small problems really damage a piece of writing.

Although I woke in a good, positive mood about my book, I found that after the reading I was depressed. I felt lethargic and even nihilistic, wondering what's the point? What's the point of trying to arrange words on a page? Why did Robert Graves sweat over translating Suetonius? Who cares?

Kimmie, whose own mood is so much improved, cajoled me into joining her to do our errands out in the warm spring sunshine. To the library, garden center, water store, grocery store, and home. I felt--feel--much better.

Friday, April 22, 2005


This morning: a few notes from Roman Lives, but then I fetched The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius from the shelf and started reading, highlighting, and keying from the chapter on Julius Caesar. Excellent: Suetonius seems pithier, better informed, more trenchant than Plutarch. The translation by Robert Graves also makes it good reading.

Kimmie's mood swung back from depressed to elated sometime yesterday. By the evening she was very "up"--and aware of it.

"I don't want to be this high," she said.

I thought that even though she was cheerful and energetic, she was not abnormally so. She seemed maybe just on the too-bright side of cheerful.

What must it be like to undergo such mood swings without the aid of drugs? Kimmie hates it. It's not a picnic for bystanders either. But things are much easier, more relaxed, more communicative and fun in those up periods. She was cheerfully thinking about how to get a pedicure after work as she bustled off into the morning sun.

On to the writing day. It felt short and not too profitable. I read through yesterday's entry, then keyed a dateline at the bottom of the "15 - Notes" document and started typing whatever came into my head:

The day after the fire there would have been a lot of troop activity, army control of the city and its movement. But there would also be anger and protests by the Jews over the looting and killing at the Emporium. Maybe even a would-be riot, which soldiers had to control.

Chapter 15 is not immediately succeeding action from 14, so I have to think of the intervening events. It's a heavy feeling sometimes: the feeling of starting all over. Almost as though there is no accumulated benefit from all the work done so far. So much new stuff needs to be thought of, all the time. A single chapter starts to feel like a big deal--something hard to start and hard to finish.

I didn't make it very far before my attention wandered away.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

the writer reads

Hadrian's Wall is due back at the library today. I made it to page 137, but am not interested enough to go further. I plan to return it.

I took it out 3 weeks ago because it was recommended by Andy Brozyna, the ancient-warfare buff who runs the website RedRampant.com, where I go for some of my military information. Of the Roman-historical novels he's read, he feels this one by William Dietrich is the most accurate and well-researched with regard to its military details. Readers at Amazon.com gave it only 3 out of 5 stars, but I was impressed enough with Mr. Brozyna's recommendation to check it out for myself. I might learn something.

Dietrich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction, is a good writer, but I suspect he's a better nonfiction writer than he is a novelist.

I dislike most fiction, and to save time I assess a novel quickly based first on its overall idea, then by how it opens. Hadrian's Wall is a nicely produced book published by HarperCollins; it's a full-on A-level product with nice paper, binding, artwork (cool cover painting of the vacant, blackened wall burning on a wintry day), and design. The idea of a kind of love-triangle set on Hadrian's Wall seemed like a decent one, a bit unusual, and written by a man so possibly offering a fresh perspective.

Next: the writing itself. The novel, set in the 4th century AD, begins with a prologue in AD 122. As a rule, I don't like prologues. Most often they are merely gimmicks to try to grab the reader's attention, which is presumed to be deficient and short-lived. The typical prologue has a psychopathic stalker following an unsuspecting young girl and then brutally raping/killing/abducting her. Chapter 1 then opens with good guy cop, hassled by his day, who comes to learn about the crime. The implication is that chapter 1 is too boring to launch the story, and the reader needs a shot in the arm in the form of jolting violence to get him interested. I believe the cure should be looked for not in a lurid prologue, but in a better-written chapter 1.

Having said this, I've opened my own novel with a prologue. I didn't want to, but I felt that a certain amount of background information is indispensable to make sense of the story that follows, and this information would be impossible to provide in chapter 1. I've written a 2-page expository prologue briefly describing the history of the monarchy in Israel from its beginning in 1025 BC to its supposed end just after the return from Exile in 539 BC. It does end with a tease:

But the seed of David lived on, in hiding, awaiting the opportunity to restore the King of the Jews to his rightful throne.

To me this is an acceptable prologue, because:

1. it is short and expository

2. it provides information necessary to understand what follows

3. it gives some sense of why the story is being told

Dietrich's prologue runs 8 pages in the finished book. It's a dramatic prologue, playing out the scene of the emperor Hadrian visiting the northern frontier of Britain and shocking his subordinates by ordering the building of a mighty wall to hold out the savages of Caledonia. We learn things about Rome, about its empire, how it's defended, and so on. But in terms of the story that follows, the prologue merely establishes that a big wall was built in northern Britain to keep out barbarians. Although presented in dramatic form, with characters interacting, its purpose is expository--providing information to the reader. I believe that most readers already know what and where Hadrian's Wall is. Those who don't could be informed in a sentence or two in chapter 1 without slowing down more knowledgeable readers.

In short, I think the prologue is redundant.

Next: the opening sentences. The prologue opens:

The northern wind blew across the ridge with a howl like an army of barbarians.

The metaphor pleased the emperor, who considered himself a scholar as well as a soldier.

This already bothered me. Technically, what the emperor has invented is a simile, not a metaphor. I wasn't sure whether Dietrich was making fun of Hadrian for "considering himself" a scholar when in fact he wasn't one (and yet I think Hadrian was no doubt a scholar--a genius whose reign is considered to be second only to that of Augustus in greatness and achievement), or whether Dietrich himself doesn't know the difference. (As a teenager I saw a talk on TV by Leonard Bernstein on the difference between metaphor and simile as an introduction to a performance of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, and it's always stuck with me.) With the intensive literary education that all upper-crust Romans got, it seems very unlikely that Hadrian would not know his basic figures of speech. Which would mean that if Dietrich were making fun of Hadrian, then he doesn't know Hadrian very well. Either way, it makes the opening problematic--at least for me.

If I were simply perusing the book in the library, without a recommendation, I would have put it back on the shelf at that point. But since I was reading it mainly for insight into Roman militaria, I read on.

My impression improved. Dietrich is very good at description, in some places more than others, and good at characterization. His depiction of the tribune Galba I thought was especially good and believable. Galba fills the role of love-interest for the beautiful Roman heroine, but with much more dimension and plausibility than the run-of-the-mill beefcake in romance novels. Other characterizations are also, over all, good.

But here I am at page 137, not having picked up the book for over a week. I know I never will. For me, there's not an urgent sense of purpose to the story. It's not clear why Dietrich found it important enough to tell. It's not even clear who the main character is--Valeria, the young Roman dish? Galba, the tough but frustrated soldier? At page 137 out of 347, I don't know. And I still haven't been shown too much military insight as yet.

Back to the shelves it goes.

I finished chapter 14 at 23 pages, and started making notes toward chapter 15.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

apocalypse and me

Splendid spring day, in which I did not once venture out, except onto the porch a couple of times.

But I did get back to writing: on with chapter 14, building the turning-points of Marcus's life. I found it fairly hard going, maybe because of all the ex-nihilo creation involved: Marcus's early home, his parents and other characters. They appear only briefly, in his memory, but they need to have some dimension. This is hard, and always feels thin as I'm writing it: I'm aware of the relative poverty of fiction compared with nonfiction--a topic of keen interest to me. No doubt I'll talk about it more sometime.

I got 3 new pages done, putting me onto page 21. I want to have shorter chapters, so I'd be happy for it to end anytime now. On more session should do it.

I just finished my afternoon reading session: When Prophecy Fails. I'm seeing the evolution of this mini apocalyptic-saucer cult of the 1950s as possibly following a standard pattern for prophetic groups in general. How do they evolve? How do they differentiate and behave as they approach the crisis of fulfillment?

After yesterday's post, I've been thinking more about my own relationship with prophecy. When did I first take an interest in it? I can't exactly remember. I was certainly fascinated and frightened by the idea of nuclear war from the age of about 11. I was in grade 7 in November 1971 when a nuclear bomb was tested on Amchitka Island in the Aleutians, relatively close to Vancouver, and there was a lot of protest in Canada, and talk about it at our school among the teachers and students. Was I afraid of fallout? Maybe a little.

My first effort at writing a novel was at about that time: a science-fiction epic about a group of scientists and astronauts escaping a future nuclear war (set in 1984) triggered by the accidental firing of an orbiting Chinese multi-warhead bomb. Four warheads drop on and around Italy (I dropped a pencil at random on a map), which causes a more or less automatic counter-response by a united and nuclear-armed Europe, which in turn draws in the U.S. and USSR. My people, living near the Cape Kennedy space center in Florida, scramble to take a space shuttle to an orbiting space station, where they will found a new postnuclear society.

I was strongly influenced by The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. Dad had directed me toward a paperback copy of it on his coffeetable in West Van one weekend while Mara and I were visiting. I found it gripping and read it every chance I got (quite a few chances). I liked the idea of a lethal germ riding to earth on a meteorite; I liked Crichton's use of cool technical detail like the printed transcript of a rocket launch and the names of real-life manufacturers of various pieces of equipment; I liked the computer-printout illustrations. And of course I liked the terrifying story of a ferociously lethal alien bug unleashed on planet Earth. I don't know if I knew the word apocalypse back then, but I knew the idea of it, the feeling of it.

So I embarked on my story of nuclear holocaust and the efforts of my scientist-characters and their families in an orbiting space-lifeboat. I didn't get far. Despite poring over maps and reading books on the U.S. space program, I felt I didn't know enough to make it realistic. I got into a research digression that I never escaped, and the project (what was the title? can't remember), after a few single-spaced typewritten pages of prose, drifted into oblivion.

Apocalypse, of course, is the stuff of prophecy. So certainly by age 12 I was keenly interested in the idea of apocalypse, in the sense of the wholesale destruction of planet Earth or humanity, but to me the idea did not yet have any religious component. That would come later.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

administration and the seduction of prophecy

No writing today--just research in the morning and later afternoon. The rest of the day I was out at Mom's place: Harvey's cottage on the waterfront in Cove Cliff, which he bequeathed to her in appreciation for 40-plus years of friendship. The view out the living-room and dining-room windows is spectacular: past the little, tree-crowded islands called White and Boulder to the green mountains of Belcarra, and farther still, across Burrard Inlet, the deep-shaded clay cliffs of Burnaby Mountain with the tower of Simon Fraser University rising above the trees on top. Today was sunny, the first really fine day of spring, and the water traveled in green waves in the fresh breeze. I helped Mom prepare her income tax, and updated the estate workbook on her Dell laptop--a complex set of spreadsheets I built myself from scratch.

In the morning: 2 pages of Roman Lives and finished chapter 8 of Vintage, on the spread of the vine to Roman Gaul. That's all I need from this book; I'll return it to the library.

In the afternoon: chapter 2 of When Prophecy Fails, a description of the origin of the particular end-of-world saucer-cult under study. Interesting, the more so because I have been so attracted to prophecy myself. I think back to 1986, when I was traveling in Europe with Kimmie (we had been together only a year then). While we visited Joyce Schmidt, an old family friend in Silvaplana, Switzerland, I made an overnight sojourn to Geneva to visit CERN, the nuclear research facility (research for a novel I was working on at the time). On the long train trip (all the way across the country) I read a book that had been pressed on me by a young Jehovah's Witness friend of Joyce's sons. It was a little hardback in English called Survival into a New Earth, printed in a modest first edition of 4 million copies.

While I had not the slightest interest in becoming a Jehovah's Witness, I found the book engrossing. In 190 short pages (it's right here in front of me--grass-green with gold letters) it set out the case for the authority of the Bible and its supposed coded prophetic message concerning the end of society as we know it--with a definite timetable. The timetable was seductive, for history was coming to a climax in the late 20th century. (Specifically, the current "world system" would pass away before the generation that was alive in 1913 had completely gone.) Whoah--time was ticking down!

For me, what was really attractive about the message was the idea that the whole meaning of human existence had been completely worked out, and a set of specific instructions given for how to behave so as to ensure salvation for oneself--salvation graphically described as eternal physical life on a renewed physical earth, minus all the problems and suffering that exist today. We'll look good, we'll feel good, nature will be pristine and pure, and we'll have infinite time on our hands to enjoy ourselves--in good ways. And it was just around the corner.

The book itself was well written: friendly, factual, logical--no tirades, no hellfire. A rational, intelligent person could subscribe to this, I thought. In fact, if you accepted their interpretation of the Bible, you almost had to subscribe to it. I liked it because it left no messy unanswered questions, no loose threads: the purpose of the universe was understood, and the mission of each one of us laid out. Look no further: the answers are here. Know everything, and enjoy eternal life.

I felt I understood why there are millions of Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide. I liked their un-traditionalness. They were Bible scientists, ditching all previous interpretations and customs to assess what the Bible actually said in light of modern historical knowledge.

Traveling to and from Geneva, I read the whole book (with a tour of CERN in between--vast underground chambers and tunnels filled with bright-colored European-made high-tech equipment, all beneath a town devoted to high-energy particle physics). My relationship and fascination with prophecy was much longer and more than that one book, but that was a strong experience of seduction for me. But I was delighted to return to Kimmie in Silvaplana: we were so glad to see each other after our first night apart in over a year.

Monday, April 18, 2005

when prophecy fails

Nowadays when I want research books I usually must order them online. Mostly they're not available in my local library or even through Amazon.com. Often I buy them through the Victoria-based website Abebooks.com. It's a treat when a book arrives: one of the few pieces of mail I look forward to. Today was such an arrival day: lying on my front porch at noon was a little package from Crestview ("unique and eclectic") Books in Columbus, Ohio. The package contained a paperback copy of When Prophecy Fails by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter.

This book was mentioned by Egyptologist Mark Lehner in The Message of the Sphinx, in correspondence to the authors in which he was explaining his connection with the Edgar Cayce group in Virginia Beach. He described how he parted ways with the Cayce people and their prophecies about the Great Sphinx and the Great Pyramid as he became more trained in the scientific approach to studying those structures. He mentioned reading

Leon Festinger's work on "cognitive dissonance", in particular his book, When Prophecy Fails. Festinger deals with people reacting to conflict between a revealed belief system and empirically derived information, that is, physical evidence.

As soon as I'd read that I highlighted it, and searched for a copy of the book. I found a low-priced copy in Columbus, and bought it.

Why? Because the Essenes at the time of my story were ardent believers in prophecy, had detailed prophecies derived from their sacred history of Earth, and, according to bible scholar Barbara Thiering, endured many disappointments as prophesied events failed to materialize. As soon as I saw what this book was about, I knew must read it.

Now here it was. It's a 1964 reprint of the 1956 original. Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated a flying-saucer cult that predicted the imminent catastrophic flooding of much of North America. They participated as members, making observations and taking data as they went. Their special interest was in how the cult members reacted to the failure of the prophecy.

Come teatime I sat down with my new prize, highlighter in hand, and dug in. I read the foreword and chapter 1, "Unfulfilled Prophecies and Disappointed Messiahs", a general introduction to the phenomenon, illustrated with historical examples. I really enjoyed it; the old Harper Torchbook is in excellent shape.

One of the authors' key points is that an (initial) failure of prophecy spurs cult members to step up their proselytizing efforts. By winning converts they ease the pain of cognitive dissonance. Fascinating.

I was interested to note that one of the groups described in the foreword, Millerism, a millenarian cult of the northeast U.S. in the 19th century, achieved its climax in October 1844, when a final prophecy of the end of the world failed to materialize. I recognized that this was close to the date of the discovery of the planet Neptune. I happen to have clipped an article from the December 2004 issue of Scientific American, "The Case of the Pilfered Planet", about controversy surrounding the discovery of Neptune. The planet was discovered (observed) by German astronomers on 23 September 1846. But its existence and position were predicted beforehand, and separately, by a French and an English mathematician. Astrologically, Neptune rules spirituality, delusion, deception, and confusion. Its discovery was accompanied by the latter three. And the Millerites represented a potent illustration of all four, just as the invisible planet was being searched for by mathematicians, and just before it would appear in the consciousness of the world.

Neptune, as the ruler of Pisces, is of course part of my symbolic palette. I present things to consciousness; the unconscious will deliver up its response; and the work will unfold.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

length isn't important, but...

More halfhearted note-taking in the morning. I seem to be bored with it. Am I taking notes from the wrong places? Do I feel it's not applicable? Or am I finally just getting tired of it?

I continued my length-comparison with published works, using books from my own library. Using the same method, and entering the data in my Palm, here are today's results:

Dance of Knives: 142,000 (sci-fi novel by Donna McMahon, an old classmate of mine)
The Skystone: 194,000
Crime and Punishment: 207,000
Clan of the Cave Bear: 216,000
Moby-Dick: 224,000
A Fine Balance: 245,000
Ulysses: 260,000
The Magus: 275,000
Gravity's Rainbow: 305,000
Middlemarch: 332,000
The Eagle and the Raven: 334,000
The Brothers Karamazov: 342,000
Bleak House: 348,000
The Mists of Avalon: 416,000
War and Peace: 441,000
Cryptonomicon: 448,000

Next, I entered all these titles and lengths into my Mission Excel workbook, along with the ones I captured yesterday in the bookstore. I sorted them in order of length. I updated my own page data to reflect my latest changes to chapter 12, which put my estimated final word-count at 342,000: exactly the same as The Brothers Karamazov.

So there it is: if The Mission comes in at its currently estimated length, I will have a book the size of The Brothers Karamazov. This is large, but not catastrophic. I was afraid that my book might be longer than War and Peace--but no, only as long as Dostoyevsky's longest novel. Whew.

I was surprised to learn that Gravity's Rainbow is "only" 305,000 words long, and that Ulysses is a mere 260,000 words--beaten by The Magus at 275,000. Maybe the biggest surprise was how shrimpy Moby-Dick is, once you strip away the editor's introduction and commentary: only half the length of Cryptonomicon. I had no idea that A Suitable Boy is not only longer than War and Peace, but trumps it by almost 200,000 words--it's almost a Crime and Punishment longer!

I took out my Penguin Classics edition of The Brothers Karamazov and calculated how far into it 100,000 words is (my current coordinate in my own book). I reckoned it was at page 265. I pulled out the old bookmark folded at page 432, marking the spot where I bailed on my last attempt on Karamazov, and slid it in at 265. There. That's where I am in mine. I'd be delighted if my book had the look and feel of this copy of Karamazov, which I bought in December 1984. I like to read a nice, flexible, mass-market paperback. That's what I'd like mine to be.


Saturday, April 16, 2005

the writer's surroundings--and his word-count

Wine time. Our house wine is Frontera, a Chilean Cabernet-Sauvignon-Merlot blend. Kimmie, to cut caloric intake, has restricted herself to drinking wine only on Friday and Saturday nights. It's Saturday, so I've poured us each a glass (frosted green goblets from Mexico) and delivered hers to her sewing-room on the top floor--Robin's former bedroom. She was cutting out a shirt for Trevor while the Moody Blues sang "In Your Wildest Dreams" from her boom-box. I've brought mine down to my office in the basement (fully finished) to write this post.

It's not really a basement, since my office--a full bedroom complete with closet and window--looks out on the brick patio that I helped my brother-in-law Mike build in 1989, just before Kimmie and I got married here in our house. The bricks have settled; moss grows between them; and Kimmie's garden spills over the wooden edges: white-blooming rock cress, erect bluebells, pink bleeding hearts amid a crowd of tender green. The flower bed backs onto the high windowless wall of a townhouse building next door, sided with tan-colored clapboard. A second tan townhouse building stands farther away, and beyond it, across the lane running behind our buildings, another large townhouse building, of which I can see mostly just the dark-gray slope of the roof. Above that, past the silhouette of the landing of my own wooden balcony steps, I see a little square of shining pale-blue sky.

My office, about 15 feet by 10, has become unpleasantly cluttered. My desk, pine-veneered particleboard from Ikea, is covered: mostly with books, but also papers, CD-ROMs, sales slips, file folders. I've run out of shelf space. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves I had built into one long wall in 1993 are full. The three 5-foot-long pine shelves I had built (also by Mike), which stand as a kind of half-wall enclosing my computer table, are full. The bookshelves in the living-room and master bedroom are also full. There's a stack on the floor by my wicker wastebasket (culls that I intend to get rid of), and now, unhappily, stacks growing on the desk itself. I'm distressed to note there is also a small stack on top of the white Ikea filing cabinet next to my desk. In management theory, a problem is defined as "a discrepancy between an actual and a desired state of affairs". I have a book problem.

I forgot: there is also a growing stack on the coffeetable in the living-room--supposedly the books I am currently reading. There are probably 15 books there.

Today, while Kimmie prowled Fabricland at Park Royal for fabric bargains, I checked out Coles Books farther down the mall. Since there was no particular book I was looking for, I took out my Palm and started calculating and recording estimated word-counts for some of the novels there, to compare with my own opus. I picked some books that I thought might be comparable in size to The Mission. I would find a page, count the number of printed lines on it, multiply this by 10 to get words per page, find out how many pages there were, subtract 10 or 15 for partial pages, and multiply words per page by total pages. Here's what I came up with:

Outlander: 315,000
A Suitable Boy: 632,000
Vancouver: 300,000
Atlas Shrugged: 525,000
Sarum: 474,000
Kingdom of the Grail: 201,000

My current estimated word-count is 338,000--just a bit longer than Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. I'm sure I can cut it down to that length, maybe more.

I feel better about the length. I'm not trying to be long. I'm just trying to tell my story. The content is dictating the length--not the author.

Friday, April 15, 2005

on (not) feeling like it

Objectively, not a bad writing day. It feels like slow going in the morning research-notes session. Since I'm rereading Roman Lives and reading Vintage for the first time, I seem to inch along. I manage about 2 pages of Roman Lives and maybe 4 pages of Vintage, including pasting extracts into my Encyclopedia folder.

As for writing itself: I made a few more notes on chapter 14, switching between these and the draft chapter. Feeling not very inspired, I pushed forward, writing dialogue whether I believed in it or not. Pages! I wanted progress. I wove new material into the existing draft, pushing the whole thing a net 4 pages to 17 pages by about 11:10. Then I lost compression. It was anticlimactic: I was simply turning my outline bullets into prose, mainly. Not much came to me while drafting it. I have to trust that it will look better later than it felt while I was writing.

I take heart from something I read in the diaries of Thomas Mann. While writing the story "A Man and His Dog," Mann said one day that it was hard, uninspired work. But he had noticed that when he read over his material after weeks had passed, he couldn't tell the difference between days when he was inspired and days when it was drudgery. The quality of his prose was about the same. I'm hoping for that built-in consistency too. A bit of Mann's quality wouldn't hurt either.

Ever-present danger: "on-the-nose" dialogue. TV and movie characters almost always say what they're really thinking and feeling, whereas real people seldom do. This is one reason why most TV shows and movies are poor. The concealed thoughts and feelings beneath spoken dialogue are known as subtext, and good writers make sure it's there. As a writer you can find it by asking yourself, "What would a real person be concerned about here?"

If somebody says, "That's a nice dress," what are they really saying? Some possibilities: "The dress is nice--you're unattractive." Or: "I'm sorry about how I acted yesterday." Or: "Hey--notice me! I like you!" The key point is that it's not simply a factual statement about the quality of a garment. Real people don't simply report what's going through their hearts and minds; characters shouldn't either. Subtext keeps us interested.

But when emotions run high, we become honest. Maybe that was happening to my characters today.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

point of attack

A short writing day. I picked up my mother in Cove Cliff to take her to the credit union and an appointment with a lawyer--part of the long journey of administering the estate of our old family friend Harvey Burt, who died in December 2003 at age 83. In between, she treated me to lunch at Browns Restaurant & Bar at Lonsdale and 18th, a small, trendyish place with dark butcher-block tables and a dark wood-laminate floor. I had the teriyaki rice bowl: sweetish and vinegary.

Kim had taken a couple of hours off work this morning to accompany Robin (her daughter) to a doctor's appointment at Capilano College. Robin's boyfriend Trev drove them.

I had to cram what writing I could in the hour or so before I left to pick up Mom. I hadn't quite done with my chapter 14 notes. I wanted to make sure I understood what Alexander is up to, and wanted to find the right point of attack. This is the place at which a story or chapter begins. It should always be at the latest possible point, so as not to waste the reader's time and to keep the interest sustained. No boring preliminaries: jump into the middle. Start at a run and let the reader sort things out as best he or she can.

I had begun the chapter at the point where Marcus already had Alexander in tow for the temple of Atargatis, thinking, after a quick peruse of the series of events, that this was the point just before the arising of interesting conflict. Now, with my new Alexander beats, I wanted to show the progression of Alexander's feelings and attitude, which meant moving the point of attack up to the first beat, immediately after the end of chapter 13.

I opened the chapter draft and started typing. Yes, Alexander has a bit more life. There's something to tell now about him, albeit from Marcus's point of view. I wrote the better part of a page at the top of the chapter. It's now sitting at 14 pages long.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

back to basics

Sweaty after going for a run. It had stopped raining, and there was even the beginnings of wan sunshine. It felt good to set off down the damp sidewalk, even though I felt heavy and not in the mood for running. There was a cold breeze and a complex sky: crevices of bright blue like canyon rivers behind clouds of misty gray, opaque charcoal, and sunlit white.

Before that I talked with Mom on the phone. She too is a writer, finally in retirement pursuing a lifelong desire, but finding it hard, frightening, and easier to avoid than actually do. I told her this is a universal experience of writers, as it is of meditators: resistance. I believe it stems from fear: fear of failure, fear of being no good, fear that nothing will come to you if you do try it, fear you won't enjoy it, fear of ruining your dream, fear of boredom. And probably many others. The ultimate remedy is to recognize resistance and then choose to step over it.

Every writer knows about resistance. But, as in meditation, resistance is actually a sign of engagement with the discipline. We resist because we're connected, because it's important to us. Resistance is another expression of the value we put on writing. Even in our avoidance we're honoring it.

Chapter 14: today I wrote no prose in the chapter itself. I wasn't happy with how it's progressing. It's too thin--not enough conflict, not enough of the unexpected. I'm writing it from Marcus's point of view, and the other characters are just acting like chattels; they're not pushing into the action, as they should. I opened my Notes document and started:

Need more attention to Alexander's and Gaia's motivations during the chapter, and their behavior. Alexander should deal with the book question before Marcus's revelations.

I went back in my mind to the end of chapter 13, and imagined things from Alexander's point of view. How does he feel? What is he thinking? What does he want? I typed the thoughts that came to me. Then: If that's what he feels, what would he do? How would he react to Marcus's actions? How would Marcus react to his? What would I do in that situation?

I started building a sequence of "beats" for Alexander in chapter 14: his goals and behaviors during the action. When I started looking at this in detail--and it's quite a logical process, nothing particularly mystical or "creative"--ideas came to me. Yes: he would try to do this, and Marcus would stop him, so he'd try to do that. Each character is trying to achieve his objectives without being derailed by the others.

I created a bulleted list of beats for Alexander. The first bullet: "vomiting attack, desperate try to return to shop, thwarted by Marcus." Other bullets followed. As I thought of new ideas I could insert new bullets in the growing list.

This is not the Stephen King approach. It's much more a Robert McKee approach. To me, this is even more free. Why? Because a bulleted list can't be sacred. It's almost asking to be rearranged, have things inserted, deleted. When you write prose, no matter how off-the-cuff, there is a certain attachment. It is your creation, and at some level you resist deleting it or changing it, even though you know you should. Those words are your children. Can you just stuff them in a sack and throw it in the river? Maybe you can--but there is a twinge. But a "notes" document, a bulleted list--these are changeable, disposable.

I enjoyed myself. It was as though these other characters had had their volume controls turned down, and now I turned them up, including them in the mix. They pushed back. They didn't just take what was being dished to them: they resisted, they argued, they tried to get their own way, in their own way. As soon as a character starts pushing back, it forces your other characters to adapt, to get creative. Your creativity is their creativity. They have to think of ways of dealing with each other.

This is how drama takes shape. It's what Warren and I learned to do while writing The Odyssey. Even if you have a strong outline (a very difficult document to achieve), each scene is work. A scene, if you just "execute" your outline, will generally be weak. There's a sense that the characters are just doing what they're supposed to do--what the author intended. When we were struggling with a scene, we usually realized that we hadn't done the preparatory work. It's tempting to skip, because it's time-consuming and rather difficult: it requires actual mental effort, not unlike multiplying 2-digit numbers in your head. Going back to examine the starting lineup of a scene can make you feel ignorant. Don't we know this stuff already?

The answer is no, you don't. You don't know exactly what that character is doing there at that moment, and why. You know in terms of the story, as an author--but not from the character's viewpoint. As far as that character's concerned, why is he there and what's he trying to do? Those are the questions. The first answers you reach for are often unsatisfactory. You have to dig. What was happening just before this moment, and why? What is this character's long-term goal and what's his immediate objective? And how does this conflict with other characters' objectives? How exactly?

It's work. Often strained and difficult. But it can be wonderful: ideas come. Characters think of ways to achieve their objectives, and other characters get in the way, and soon you're generating business in the scene. You feel the tension of characters preventing each other from having an easy life.

I got almost all of chapter 14 reworked this way. I didn't write any prose--but I look forward to the next time I do.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Stephen King and me

A 5-page day. Not only that, but I'd finished them before 11:00--a near-record. I should be happy, but in fact I'm only so-so. There's a certain anticlimactic feeling associated with finishing a rush of writing. And also, for me, a certain guilt at finishing so early, even though I have expressly given myself permission to enjoy some extra free time when I finish early, as a reward for fast work. Part of my mind criticizes me for slacking off when I could be getting more done--in theory.

It's not about speed. It's not about speed. It's not about speed.

Three years ago, when I was returning home from Gampo Abbey on Cape Breton (I'd been temporarily ordained as a Buddhist monk for 5 months, and left early because I'd ruptured my left Achilles tendon), I searched the Halifax Airport for airplane reading and found only one book that even faintly interested me: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I read a good chunk of it on the flight back to Vancouver. It was engrossing.

I'd read very little by Stephen King before (I'm not a horror fan), but I knew he was a good writer. His style is fluent and confident--not schlocky, simple-minded, or uneducated, as I find many "bestsellers" to be. The first third of the book was just a memoir of his writing career. Fascinating. I munched on his little 1-page microchapters like potato chips. He is a natural-born writer; so am I. Maybe I could (sort of) do what he did.

King wrote 5,000 words a day, 7 days a week. When he was young and on top of his game, he could crack them off by lunchtime. But some days they came "slowly," and he'd be "fiddling around till tea time." Did he take Christmas off, or his birthday? No. Why? Because writing was what he liked to do.

Oh boy. My gut kind of sank when I read that. King believes in writing from the unconscious. You set up the situation, then you jump in and start. The unconscious feeds you with better, more creative ideas than you could come up with in a more laborious, controlled process. Sounds great. Could I do that? I'd done writing drills: timed exercises in spontaneous writing in which you simply scribble whatever comes into your head, as fast as you can. I'd written some good stuff that way, poetic--but chaotic. Could this be turned into a "controlled fusion" approach, to produce actual readable prose?

When I got home and read further, King gave an exercise in this technique. He set up a fictional situation, titled Dick and Jane, about a young man who had recently endured the trauma of his ex-wife attempting to kill him. (King had switched genders on the familiar plot of psycho-hubby-stalks-wife.) Now she has just escaped from jail. King's instruction:
Narrate this without plotting--let the situation and that one unexpected inversion carry you along. I predict you will succeed swimmingly...if, that is, you are honest about how your characters speak and behave.

King gave a few more details to set the scene (the father is just dropping their daughter Nell off at a birthday party). Before I could let my mind get polluted with thoughts, I jumped in. Where would I set it? Quick. Here in North Van, where I grew up. I'd set it right in the house where I grew up, the old 1916 shingled house on the steep upper reaches of St. Georges Avenue. Cheap enough for a single mother back then, kind of pricey now. Oh well, don't think--write!

I opened my binder, uncapped my Staedtler ballpoint pen, and started writing. Go. Don't think--write! Faster! Here's most of my first foolscap page:
"Okay, bye-bye, have fun--"

Richard Charteris made a move toward kissing his daughter's head, but she was out of range, swept into the exciting vortex of the party.

"See you in three hours," he said, abandoning further effort to hold her attention, more for the benefit of Monica, mother of the birthday-girl, who acknowledged him with eyes that were laughing crescents and a big goodbye salute. Little Nellie, extrovert, was already drawn into the growing action on the decorated lawn, now a venue for well-dressed five-year-olds.

Man, how kids can shake off worries, Richard thought. He stood watching her for a few seconds more, reassuring himself that she did not show obvious signs of being dressed and groomed by a man (nope: twin pink barrettes in her brushed sandy-brown hair, pink gingham dress, white socks--fully competitive, Richard thought). Making their daughter look beautiful was another thing he'd learned from Jane. She had a lot of good qualities--a fact that had become lost in the ordeal of the past months. Now, presumably, there would be breathing space to reflect on Jane and their life together, the good as well as the bad. He was conscious that a daughter had to have a positive image of her mother, even a mother who had just been found guilty by a jury of her peers of attempted murder.

I cracked that off in just a few minutes. Getting into it, I wrote on for another 6 pages. It really was fun. The honesty that King talked about was easier when you weren't thinking. When you just grab for something, it's honest (as long as you want to be honest). I didn't complete the exercise, which was to develop the action after the point when Jane unexpectedly shows up in the house, escaped... I develop action slowly, so I only finished the setup. But I still got the feel of the exercise.

I was not displeased with the result. For a cracked-off first draft, it was pretty good. It was fun to do, and it read well. Cleaned up and published, it could be in a decent paperback, I thought.

But it's not me. It's not my type of story. Just thinking up a nifty setup and then letting 'er rip is not my way. I'm not really interested in stories that can be conceptualized that way. In screenwriting, it's death to simply roll a sheet into the typewriter (as it were) and start typing. Stories need to be structured. Revelations need to happen. I'm guessing that those higher-order events must come into the work in subsequent drafts.

And another thing: Is a story about an escaped-convict ex-wife going to say something that's important to me? What will the theme be, what McKee would call the controlling idea? What value will be brought into the world? Of course, writing like this, part of the excitement would be discovering this for oneself as one went along. That might be exciting. Maybe I should try it.

But even though I'm fluent enough to write off the cuff (as with this blog, for instance), it's not my approach for a serious work. King's method was to take a stock idea, twist it, and go. For me, it's taken decades to arrive at the subject-matter of The Mission. I spent well over a year just outlining it. Writing, like almost all other human endeavors, benefits from planning. Hence I find King's writing fluent and readable, but a bit thin: it's not the work of a writer who has struggled to unearth his theme--at least, that's how it strikes me.

And I just can't do anything 7 days a week--except relax. I can do morning coffee and teatime 7 days a week, but for the task of actually building my Great Pyramid, I need breaks, and I take them.

I'm not Stephen King. Big surprise.

The last two-thirds of a page of my exercise read as follows:

Richard suddenly knew that it had not been intuition that had sent fear through his bowels downstairs; it had been a faint trace of perfume: Escape. His heart hammered, accelerating, punching at his throat. Fear swarmed through his groin. He heard a sound: the stairs. She appeared in the doorway, quiet, unhurried, calm. Their eyes met across the room.

"Hi Dick."

She wasn't in prison clothing. She wore shorts and a pink sleeveless top. Her multicolored sandals Richard recognized as his mother's. And hanging limp at her side was her pale arm, casually gripping a black automatic pistol. Her greenish eyes were mild.

"I said, hi Dick."

Richard did not respond. He stared at her, paralyzed, mouth dry.

"Turn that shit off," she said, pointing the gun briefly at the TV....

Monday, April 11, 2005

life's peaks

A relatively productive morning. I was able to launch into writing Chapter 14, which in this portion is basically action writing: portraying physical action without letting myself as narrator get in the way. I made it to page 8, then found my focus dissolving. The brisk action was done; the story was to turn toward dialogue. Could I take it at least one more page? That way I could get to my semi-official quota of 5 pages for the day.

Hm. Wait--I had a phone call to make. Had to phone a guy in Toronto about how to apply for compensation from the Shell polybutylene claim fund (a fund set up by Shell Oil as a result of a successful class-action suit by owners of houses built in the 1980s with polybutylene plumbing). Sure, had to take care of that--I'm president and treasurer of strata corporation VR1715, the entity to which the owners of the 9 townhouses in my building belong. So I called Earl. Yes, the news was unfavorable: each of the owners would have to apply individually for compensation, unlike the DuPont USA fund, to which I'd been able to apply on behalf of the strata corporation as a whole. Maybe that's why Earl never called me back, despite repeated promises.

I thanked him, made notes on the call. Then: is the Mercury retrograde over yet? I got up to check my ephemeris. Let's see...Mercury is direct again by midnight...but just barely...probably turns direct sometime mid-afternoon our time. And what about my own transits? How are they doing? What about my culminating Saturn, which is supposed to be harvest-time astrologically? I'm an astrologer; I'd tell someone who had Saturn culminating over the midheaven of his or her chart, if I were asked, that it meant the harvest: whatever you've put effort into, especially over the past 14-15 years, will have its result.

Saturn has been culminating over my midheaven in what's known as a triple transit since last year. It will finish that culmination next month. This morning, while typing notes from Roman Lives on Pompey, I had reached the part about his return to Rome after conquering much of Asia. Back in Rome he would celebrate his third triumph on 28-9 September 61 BC, his 45th birthday. As Philip Stadter put it in his note to the text, "He was at the high point of his career." I thought, while I keyed this, "probably had Saturn culminating on his midheaven."

For that is what culminating Saturn represents. Usually it is a time when we're at our most public, have our greatest responsibilities, when we have the most people reporting to us, when we're working hardest. Often it coincides with that long-sought promotion or victory. New responsibilities can come on suddenly, although not, as a rule, unexpectedly, since Saturn is all about earned rewards. Astrologer Zipporah Dobyns calls it "the report-card planet."

So here I am with culminating Saturn--where's my triumph? Where are the accolades and kudos? It's not likely they lie anywhere this side of completion and publication of The Mission, and not much more likely they lie on the far side either, although I believe my work can touch a large audience--possibly a very large one. Once again I felt I was running late. I'm behind. There was Pompey, at age 45, younger than I am...

This is nuts. Comparing myself with Pompey (and look how he ended up). Pompey, for his part, compared himself to Alexander the Great (and look how he ended up). I know it's nuts. But moods are not banished by simple truisms.

I became depressed. Looking ahead to Saturn's further progress, it will be going opposite my sun and conjunct my moon by summer. Those are hard transits: obstruction, frustration, low energy, low self-worth, feelings of failure. It's as though I can taste them already...

Well, I never got back to Chapter 14. Better luck tomorrow.

Friday, April 08, 2005

research detours

I started writing Chapter 14 yesterday ("Marcus Seeks Shelter"), got 2 pages drafted. Today when I tried to press on, I found that I wanted background on my fictitious temple of Atargatis. What did I know about Atargatis, or Fish-Tailed Aphrodite, as she was known in Ashkelon, one of her major centers of worship?

Not enough. I opened up The Oxford Classical Dictionary and keyed extracts from its entry on Atargatis into a Word document I opened for the goddess. I searched for snippets I'd already keyed on her, and found them in A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, and in Aion by Jung. Because fish were sacred to Atargatis, I also looked up fish, sacred, in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, and keyed what I found. Then I looked it up in Cirlot's Dictionary of Symbols, and keyed what I found there.

You can see that this can form quite a detour from the writing process. But I can't just let fish slide: my project is The Age of Pisces--the sign of the fish. At some level, I'm all about fish! This is what happens to me: I want to know something, and an hour and a half later, after a blitz of information-collating, I'm staring at my story again, feeling a bit drained. Am I any further ahead?

I must be. As the storytelling guru Robert McKee says, the word author is the same as authority: you must know what you're writing about. Otherwise, why should anyone read you? He also says that personal experience is overrated as the writer's main source of inspiration. What makes you an authority is understanding your experience.

I agree. And of course, if one's personal experience is the only valid source for writing, then fiction has no valid place in literature. Whatever one's experience, the writing must trigger a feeling of authenticity in the reader (that word-root again).

So: I spent a good part of my morning writing-period typing information on Atargatis, fish, eunuchs, and ritual transvestism. I was able to write another page of Chapter 14, cracking it from page 3 to page 4, but then I was spent. My mind starts wandering, and I know I'm not going to be writing any more.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

the hard way

More reading and keying from "Pompey" in Roman Lives, as well as from Vintage: The Story of Wine by Hugh Johnson, which I got from the library. Since Marcus comes from grape-growing and wine-making stock, I need background in this. Johnson's book seems just the ticket. I set up a document for it in my Research folder, and started keying excerpts while I scanned the text.

Was delighted to receive an e-mail from Warren in Chicago. He was delighted with Chapter 9 (Menahem shows up at the Baris in Jerusalem to petition Herod for the return of Matthan), which was a morale-booster as always. It encouraged me to open up the chapter again and look at it through his eyes, so to speak. I like the chapter myself, and have mostly forgotten the effort required to make its action flow and get the characters generating conflict. So I enjoyed it too, and read the whole thing. Then I popped open Chapter 10 and read that, more superficially, before mailing a copy on to Warren. Woops, there went an hour. But I was happy.

The enjoyment of previous chapters, seen through a reader's eyes, was a spur to get my story moving. I reopened Chapter 12 and wrote more material near the top about Marcus's reaction to the death of Pompey. I wrote freely, trying to portray Marcus's sense of catastrophe. I want to be able to break through like this more often, to write in a gush instead of with my usually measured approach. But writing in a gush also takes preparation: you have to reach critical mass with your research into character and background. Then you can gush. There are no shortcuts.

One of my favorite quotes I learned from a book on the life of English landscape painter John Constable. In his worrying about his own art he took heart from his older and (then) more famous and successful contemporary, the portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, who said, "There is no easy way of becoming a good painter." I remember reading that while holding the lovely art book propped on my knees in bed, and feeling a deep feeling of assent. I only needed to substitute the word writer for painter, and Reynolds was speaking to me.

There is no easy way. Consider what that means. Every way to quality is a hard way. There is no easy way.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

inside the character

Heavy, cold rain.

This morning I keyed notes only from Lesley and Roy Adkins's Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, chapter 4, "Towns and Countryside". This is an excellent resource for writing about this period. I hadn't yet read this chapter, so I would read a section under my little hot-pink desklamp in the cramped space to the left of my keyboard, highlighting the material I wanted, then type the highlighted text into my Word document for this book. After typing each section I would copy it and paste it in another Word document, set up by subject, such as "Rome - Towns" or "Rome - Countryside". Between episodes of highlighting and typing I would take gulps of fresh, sugared coffee.

I pushed myself further than usual because I wanted to complete the notes up through the section on villas. I started at about 6:15 and went till 7:45, when light was shining through the closed venetian blinds of my office.

The reason I wanted to finish through "villas" was that I wanted to feel a sense of Marcus's original home. What was his house like? How big was it? How old? How many people lived there? Hot on his backstory, I felt behind on researching his part of the world. I had deliberately put off my Roman research because I had more urgent things to research first while drafting Part 1. So I'm typing right from the book raw, instead of my usual two-part process of reading and highlighting during my afternoon tea, from about 4:30 to 6:30 each day, and then typing the highlights in the morning coffee-session in my office.

In the writing session this morning I made a few notes, but then copied another version of Chapter 12 and, like a dog to its own vomit, returned to rework the "first" draft again. Marcus is lacking inner life, and I must give him this, at least a beginning of it, before I move on. I started writing about his reaction to Pompey's death, and the beginning of his dark reflections on his own life.

Maybe because of my screenwriting experience, I feel a strong desire to let only the visible and audible actions of my characters tell the story. In a screenplay, you must write this way--only what is seen and heard. No thoughts. I find myself reluctant to narrate a character's thoughts, as though this were cheating. But it's part of the point of prose-writing to be able to do this--so I must find my own comfort level here. Generally, I enjoy narration that is cinematic: writing that puts you there. I strive for that, but the beauty of words is that they can be used for anything.

Wrote about a page and a half at the top of Chapter 12.

Monday, April 04, 2005

searching for character

The document I've been working in lately has been "Character Profile - Marcus". Here I try to tease out his character, discover it for myself. As an Aquarian writer, I have always loved ideas, and for me it has been an effort over the years to improve my presentation of character. I make James Joyce my role model here: a fellow Aquarian, not necessarily best known for his characterizations (although he created some of the most famous literary characters of all, such as Molly Bloom), but whose treatment of character was superlative. Like a magician he could throw a few words onto a page and life would step forth. One of my favorite instances was in the story "A Painful Case". Here's the first sentence:

Mr. James Duffy lived in Chapelizod because he wished to live as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen and because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern and pretentious.

The long first paragraph is essentially a description of James Duffy's room. This room and its contents reveal the whole flavor of this man's personality and life. Paragraph 2: his appearance. Paragraph 3: his habits. Paragraph 4: a summary.

By the end of paragraph 4 we feel that we know this James Duffy almost as well as we can know any human being. He is vivid, unique, has strong attitudes, and makes a powerful and lasting impression. How many of us can say the same? Joyce's conjuring of human life in two pages is as striking as Yahweh's on day 6 of Creation.

So I study how Joyce does it. I'll never equal him, of course--but I can improve. This I have tried to do over the years.

Each of my main characters gets his own document. There I type character-building notes, descriptive ideas, anything I think might help me realize the character. Sometimes a character will come to life quickly, if you can find that conjunction of attitude and presentation. Other times it seems that no amount of effort can make a character sit up from the table. The heart paddles are turned up to "high", "clear!", zap, and nothing. You tried.

I know that Marcus has potential as a character. He has a certain solidity and life to him--I felt it when I reread chapter 1 after a long absence. "Oh! This guy has his own thoughts and feelings--he's real." And yet I still don't know him well enough to really be able to write him. So I'm back in his document, pasting in snippets from my research notes that might apply: material on Heracles, Stoicism, the Roman army, the life of Pompey. I've decided he comes from a wine-growing family in Etruria. He loves the countryside and the art and science of winemaking. How'd he wind up as a soldier?

I feel his career changed course early on, probably involuntarily. Yes, as I read up on Roman history at that time, around 83 BC, when Marcus would have been 17, the country was in chaos--paroxysms of violence as strongmen struggled to dominate. Easy for something terrible to happen...

A seasoned veteran now, he's killed a lot of people. How does he feel about that? What's his attitude?

So I wrote about 3 pages. His document is about 22 single-spaced pages. And still I'm searching for his essence, what makes him what he is...


Sunday, April 03, 2005

awake in the dark

Heavy rain. Awoke around 2:30 with feelings of worry and pessimism about this project. Is this what happens to someone crossing a desert, or kayaking across a sea? You get a third of the way across, then panic. What to do? Apart from dying on the spot, one has the option of turning back. I have the option of dropping this thing and moving on. I've done it with many projects before.

It's not because the project isn't expressing what I want to express (I think it is, although I'm not sure!). Rather, in the dark of the rainy night I worry about the lack of validation--the fact that it will take me, realistically, years yet before I even get to the stage of being rejected (universal writer's experience). To the extent that I'm an artist, this shouldn't matter. This is, after all, what I'm doing instead of selling out.

But I don't have the unflappable certainty of someone who has been distinctly and audibly called by God (or whomever); this is simply my best guess. The gambler in the casino called life finds his chips--his remaining years--dwindling. Should he bet a big stack on this hand? No one can help you with this decision. And of course it's not a once-and-for-all decision: it has to be made again and again. You keep pushing chips out there: good money after bad?

Feeling myself more and more alert in the dark, I got up to pour myself a scotch (neat into a small juice-glass) and brought it back to bed. My pillow propped against the wall behind me, Kimmie sleeping next to me, I sipped it in the near-total dark, appreciating the hot glow of the whisky. But although it cut the anxiety, my mood did not improve. I found myself disgusted and cynical about a local political scandal I'd read about in the paper. I felt revulsion for political leaders generally, and for B.C.'s premiers specifically. When was the last one I could feel respect for? I counted back in my mind and found Mike Harcourt, NDP, 1991-96.

I drifted in and out of a very light sleep, but lay awake for long stretches. Finally rose at 8:30 Daylight Time.

I busied myself reading and keying notes from Plutarch's Roman Lives on Pompey. I need more detail from Pompey's career to properly construct Marcus's life, which was so connected to Pompey's. It's time-consuming, and something I feel I should have done a long time ago. I often have this feeling of being behind, late, and consuming way too much time, like someone wasting fresh water.