The agony and the ecstasy: the birth of a novel.
Since starting to write, I’ve had countless people tell me: “I’ve always wanted to write a book.”
If this is you, you’re in the right place. Read this post before you start!
Writing is neither glamorous or social. Yes, there are prizes and bestseller lists, hungry fans waiting to buy your next book…or not. Like any creative – movies, TV shows, art – your work may or may not be embraced at the level you hoped for. All you can do is honour the desire and that’s where it all starts.
Nothing has inspired me more than finding my true calling and I’m not writing for any of the above mentioned accolades. Yes, I want my material to be read by someone, but fame and fortune isn’t the main catalyst. I’d been told many times over the years I should pursue writing and for reasons unknown, I never did. But once I started, I realized it’s all I wanted to do.
And life has a way of preparing you for your ultimate destiny.
A little back story to me and how I came to writing: My first career was finance, and although it wasn’t where I wanted to be long term, it taught me discipline and money management, two things that would eventually serve me as a writer.
After seven years in finance, I switched gears into TV production. Coming from finance, it was natural fit to produce, yet it still took years to realize the creative side was where I wanted to be.
The tipping point came during the crazy experience of shooting our MTV series “Peak Season” in 2009. Being involved in the creative arc of a show sparked something deep within me. After that, I began to collaborate and create other TV show ideas and the passion of bringing characters to life took hold.
But I still wasn’t there. I hadn’t found my medium.
In the fall of 2014, I was burnt out with TV. But with characters still breathing inside me, I started to write my first book. Taking a couple hours every day, I finished the first draft (a bloated 240 pages!) by spring 2015. Thrilled, I was about to tackle a second draft, when I saw an ad for a short story contest.
This contest changed the course of my life.
The story I wrote didn’t win and that’s not the point. (And when I re-read it now, it’s hard not to cringe. Adverbs! Gah!) But the story was the first tonal exploration of what would become COMPLETION and it gripped me like nothing ever had.
Deep down I knew it. There was a bigger story to be told.
COMPLETION became an incredible journey for me and I wanted to share with other newbie and beginning writers what the process was: how long it took, trials and tribulations I faced, and how I worked through all my doubts and fears.
Now working on my second novel, I’m happy to say everything is a bit easier. It’s still a hell of a lot of work, it always will be, but I have never been happier.
My only advice for writers starting out? It takes an incredible amount of time and discipline to write books. If you’re not willing to sacrifice time and money or prioritize writing over everything else, it will never happen. Don’t quit your day job with visions of million dollar advances dancing in your head. I’m not trying to be a bummer, but it really is a passion thing and books take time.
For those of you who have the desire, a similar burning passion, this post is for you. I hope it inspires you. If anything, it will show you the dedication it requires.
I’ve outlined my journey in a month by month format. There’s agony and ecstasy combined: road blocks, breakthroughs and true, scary moments when I realized just how powerful characters can be.
Wow! I finished a first draft! It took eight months of part time writing, but I got it done. Time to tackle second draft…except. Oh, look at that: a short story contest. Contest deadline is May. Let me put aside this draft and work on a short story. I have more than one idea, right?
I had no clue what I was about to unleash…
I submitted the short story entry and planned to go back to my first draft but there was something in that short story I couldn’t shake. Unable to get the concept or the characters out of my mind, I started to dig deeper.
Before I knew it, I couldn’t stop writing.
A first, I wrote with no hard outline or road map for the story. I just had to explore these characters.
At this point I also decided to set the story in New Mexico and the book is infused with the spirit of this magical state.
Beauty is everywhere in New Mexico
I continued writing the first draft.
The voice of Addy, the main antagonist of the story, comes to me one night when I was writing outside in the late evening sun. Cue the goose bumps. This girl was interesting. The story starts to take its ultimate shape: a dual, first person narrative.
Writing Addy, I realized how amazing the whole process was: my imagination conjuring up these people, their lives.
With an eye on immersing myself further into the publishing industry, I signed up for the Writers Digest Conference in New York, August 2015.
After some early feedback on the synopsis from friends, I submitted my first ten pages and synopsis to a Writers Digest query workshop.*
In this workshop, agents reviewed material and commented on the beginnings of the story and accompanying query letter. The feedback I received was invaluable. It made me dig deeper into the protagonists early years and resulted in a creative choice that re-shaped the entire story and made the themes richer.
Moral of the story: Never be afraid to get professional feedback, especially early on.
(*This isn’t a shameless plug for Writers Digest either. They are a great resource and have many online seminars, host conferences around North America and have excellent materials available for writers at every level.)
Until you have a final product to sell, it’s all about managing time and money to fuel the writing. In between managing my savings, producing TV commercials is a part time gig that pays well and allows me to take large chunks of time off to write.
July, August and September were crazy months and I worked like a maniac.
In my one week off, flew to New York for The Writers Digest conference. I met a ton of people – newbies, published author, agents – and participated last minute in a pitch session. Although the book was still in a raw state, I had the storyline and pitch locked. I pitched to four agents and three asked for follow up material. Little did they know it would be two years until they saw it!
At this point, I knew the story would be called COMPLETION.
Burnt out from work, I booked an October trip to New Mexico. COMPLETION is set in this beautiful state and it had been several years since my inaugural visit. I needed to go back to my source of inspiration.
I spent the rest of September getting closer to a first draft.
With the characters and storyline swirling in my thoughts, I was overwhelmed with the intensity of being back in New Mexico.
COMPLETION takes place in the wilds of New Mexico, on a remote property cut off from civilization. The beautiful home I rented to work in was in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but stars and coyotes howling at night. I was writing on the cult compound! The universe was sending a message.
But I struggled to nail the protagonists beginning voice and tone on this trip. It would still take a couple of months to truly figure it out…see next post.
This house! What an inspiration…
They say the beginning of the book is written at the end and boy was this nugget ever true! I knew I wanted some form of mini prologue to set up of the story, although it wouldn’t become clear for months.
The beginning become the bane of my existence. I re-wrote it so many times. Arrrggghhhh!
(Can you believe it finally came to me just before I sent the book off to be edited? No joke.)
I realized the original set up I had for the story, while clever, was taking too long to get into the meat of the material. Time to back track and re-jig again. *Sigh.* Would this ever take shape?
The first time I realized the power characters could have over a writer.
It was a rainy, cold day in January and I was writing a pivotal scene with Garrett, the cult leader, when his motivations, his comeuppance, bubbled to the surface. It was so visceral, it freaked me out.
Garrett is a slippery one – I loved him and hated him equally – and he made me change the ending of the book.
I was discombobulated for several days after.
Q: Who was writing this damn thing – me or my characters?
In between daily writing of COMPLETION, I pounded out short stories, other ideas for future novels.
Just. Keep. Writing.
Remember the beginning that was driving me nuts? Yep, still a shit show.
Most of the month sucked up with work, but it’s good to have time away from material to view it with fresh eyes.
Booked another trip to New Mexico for the end of April.
The story was really taking hold in my mind and it was spooky. The characters were so real to me; more real than many people I knew. They lodged into my brain, my very being.
My partner would reflect back on the upcoming months and call them my ‘dark months.’ I fell into a rabbit hole. It was the most intimate and gut wrenching months of writing. It felt like the structure of my cells were being changed.
When I finally came out on the other side, I would be a totally different person.
Mapping out the book on location.
Finished first draft! Exciting times. In between work, it took me eight months.
I forced myself to let it sit for a couple of weeks.
Started second draft. Went on a holiday with friends and spent most of the time writing.
Partner and friends were accommodating and gave me the time and space.Writing is a muscle that needs to be flexed!
July – September 2016
An intense period of work where I eked out whatever writing I could. Not much, unfortunately.
Found a photo online that was a close approximation to what I envisioned for the cover art of the books and started to source fonts.
Ah! Time off.
I spent the first week tweaking the opening eight chapters and sent them off to my beta readers.
Writers often talk about working in a bubble and there are the inevitable questions that arise: Is the work good? Will anyone read it? Am I wasting my time?
The feedback from my beta readers was swift…and glowing! It was the first time experiencing the little quiver of this is happening.
Approached a friend of a friend who worked in publishing for 30 years. We met and he was very excited about the concept and the cover art I envisioned. He agreed to read some of my material and offer feedback. He was the first ‘professional’ to review my work and his comments were extremely flattering, backing up what my beta readers had said.
I was thrilled!
The original photo I envisioned to be the temp cover art was unavailable to be used. Through a referral, I hired an amazing illustrator to create the cover art.
My author website was in the final phases of being completed.
Cover art was delivered and it looked spectacular! It was a little weird to have the protagonist come to life visually.
This kick started the next phase: creation of other visuals and pre-marketing materials for the book. Remember how I said life prepares you for your ultimate destiny? Creating show ideas for TV was all about packaging, titles and putting a creative stamp on your material and a book is no different.
At some point as a writer, you’ll have to support and defend your creative. If you aren’t clear about the DNA of your material, the work will suffer.
Part of my creative process now with every book idea involves sourcing visuals and fonts and photos, along with honing loglines and taglines. These steps, while time consuming, are invaluable. All of these elements function as beacons: there to help you if you find you’re getting off track from your source inspiration.
Click here to see the fantastic cover art illustration by Stu Mackay Smith.
Finished third draft and then did back to back commercial projects, taking me to the end of March.
Booked another trip to New Mexico for April.
This trip would take me to the far northern part of the state to visit with the Jicarrila Apache Nation in Dulce. COMPLETION involves a mysterious cult, which is based on shamanism. A small group of Native Americans from the Jicarilla tribe defect to start the cult and the last flourishes I needed for the book was specific intel on the Apaches.
Shamans are revered in Native American culture and hearing first hand information on the work they do was fascinating.
In total, I did three trips to New Mexico while writing the book. While it’s not mandatory to visit the place you want to set your book in, I can’t imagine being able to pull my readers into a world without first experiencing it myself.
Jicarrila Apache Nation
The final trip to New Mexico was very emotional.
The story was coming to an end and I would say goodbye to the characters very soon. Of course, they will live with me forever. They are still so real to me, almost like children I imagine, my own creations. I love them all.
Started to do pre marketing of the book on social media. Response was great. It was beyond exciting.
Started to research editors I had compiled. Tightened up fourth draft. Continued with social media marketing.
After a successful trial edit, I hired my editor and at that point, let the story go. He would deliver the edit back to me in September. His MO was not to interact with me while he edited so it would be three months of radio silence.
I had another story brewing and banged out 20% of the first draft of my next book before the end of the month. It was crazy. This new character’s voice, the story, was so different than COMPLETION, but absorbing in the same way.
The past few months taught me I never had to worry about having more ideas. The worry was having too many ideas. I already have my next five books mapped out. But this is a good problem to have.
At this point, you might be wondering what I plan to do with that first book I wrote. It will see the light of day, eventually. It might be my sixth book. Or seventh.
One of the things I studied during the journey of COMPLETION is the business of being an author. It’s important to come out with the right material, at the right time and be reflective of your brand. Establishing your brand in the first few books is paramount. This helps readers, agents and the media wrap their heads around you.
Although I had written a whole other book prior to COMPLETION, that story is lighter, women’s fiction, and I realized it wasn’t the right book to launch my career with.
July 2017-September 2017
Back to another intense stretch of production life and another realization: all I really wanted to do was write.
Somehow managed to write another 10% of my second book during this time. How? Just Do It.
September 26th 2017
The final edit hits my inbox. I’m so nervous just looking at it.
I open the creative brief….and…. AMAZING!
I knew the draft was solid, but to hear it from someone who edits for a living was incredible. He was blown away with the level of my writing.
The feedback he provided was also spot on. With a few small adjustments the story benefitted.
Remember: feedback from professionals is good! As a writer, you can’t see the material without being tainted. You love the story and the characters. But sometimes things need to be tweaked and only fresh, unbiased eyes, can tell you this.
Finally, after two years, COMPLETION was completed.
Time to hit the streets.
It’s been a wild and wonderful ride. As I approach agents and publishers with the book, I pinch myself every day. I did it. I wrote the book. Even if I die penniless, living in squalor, it was worth it.
At times it almost killed me – sleepless nights, a brain that wouldn’t shut off – but this is what it takes to write a book.
The universe works in strange and wonderful ways and I wanted to share one last insight.
Very early on in the writing process I knew the title of the book would be COMPLETION. What I didn’t realize, and it only came to me when I finished, was what the title meant to me, in three very specific ways.
#1) Damien, the protagonist, was a character I had drafted years prior during a creative writing course. He continued to rattle in my mind over the years and I had written many pages of characterizations, stories involving him. Why it took so long for him to come to life I have no idea, but writing this book was my way of honouring a flicker of desire that started many years ago and was finally able to rage like a fire.
#2) New Mexico was a state I was drawn to for years. When I visited the first time with a girlfriend we stayed at a spa north of Santa Fe called Ojo Calienete. The spa is very remote, tucked into red hills and canyons. One early evening I went for a hike on my own and I had an experience, which would alter me forever. A thread of this experience wound it’s way into how Garrett, the cult leader, became a shaman.
#3) I had been writing on and off for years. Pre-social media, I had an email blog called “Literatis.” I sent out stories and essays once a month. Once I started working on “Peak Season” I stopped writing the blog and never went back to it.
A couple months after starting to write in Fall 2015, I ran into a girlfriend I hadn’t seen in years. She had been on my Literatis list and told me how much she had enjoyed, and missed, reading my work. When I told her I was writing again she was incredibly supportive. She became one of my beta readers and continues to offer insight and feedback on all my stories.
So COMPLETION was not only about my characters’ journey, it was about mine; how I came full circle.
Damien finally came to life, I honoured a very mystical and profound experience, and I became the person I was always meant to be.
That’s pretty fucking cool.