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All Disquiet On the Western Front

[Editor’s note: To celebrate the 20th anniversary of his book The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog, Doug McKelvey is giving it away for free via Kindle for the next three days. Click here to grab your free ebook, or click here to get the paperback and read it like a real person.]

(A writer rambles in his process [and his fear]…)

I feel like a soldier, lost behind enemy lines, separated from his company. Lost and alone, but still trying to complete his mission. I am 111,252 words into the writing of a YA sci-fi novel. And counting. I would like to be finished. This is dangerous territory.

I have spent the last two days rethinking how to bring it to a close in a way that doesn’t require too much more real estate, too many more words, too many more uncompensated weeks of writing. There’s the question of keeping the lights on and all that.

The 90-page backstory and outline document I spent three months creating last year is no longer a useful guide.

Unless I want a 220,000 word YA novel. I do not want a 220,000 word YA novel. And neither, I think, does any sensible publisher. Alas. I have run off track.

Somewhere around 70,000 words, the characters began to make choices I had not sanctioned. They shed the shackles of my strict configurations, and began to behave as if they had wills of their own, independent of my detailed designs. [I wish they wouldn’t talk so much.] The story began to stretch it legs and run in directions I had not accounted for. So I let it run, to see where it would go. It led me on a long and merry chase and then darted straight into the brambles and disappeared.

Maybe that’s a good thing. It doesn’t feel like a good thing at the moment, but maybe, just maybe, having made such a detailed outline, it was entirely necessary for me to reach a point where the story ran away from me, exceeded the margins, escaped the page. It was necessary so that I could forget the outline long enough to actually see the story that was emerging organically, oozing through the wire frame of my outline.

I plunged into the bramble patch after it carrying a feeder of hummingbird nectar and a can of bear spray. You never know what a story is on the verge of becoming when it goes feral, so it’s best to be prepared for anything.

I should probably also be carrying some friar-blessed Book of Kells and a blunderbuss. And something that wards vampires. And maybe something for wereapes too because, well, they’ve just shown up in the story. (Though I might call them wererillas.) Maybe I’ll put it to a vote.

After two days of no visible forward progress, much pacing of the room, much scribbling and erasing of various possible story flows on a large white board, and something like two hundred solo trust falls backwards onto the giant beanbag in my bonus room, I finally spotted my quarry in the underbrush. There was no time to circle around behind it quietly. It was picking berries and muttering in a low throaty mumble, behaving unpredictably. I bull-rushed the story and tackled it head-on.

What followed was a two-hour restructuring session wherein the ideas finally began to flow again, fitting together (eerily tetris-like), the story problems working their way towards solutions, the climax and conclusion (which I had never been happy with) beginning to re-configure themselves into something more satisfying and inevitable.

Now I’m ready to charge through the remainder of this draft. I hope.

Moral: Until you know what the payoff actually is, your setups don’t mean a whole lot.

2nd Moral: Stories are like children. Except when they’re like animals. Except when they’re like precision clockworks or diesel engines. Except when they’re like extended land wars in Russia.

This particular story happens to be like a feral cyborg child hunted by Nazis in the taiga in winter.

That was supposed to be metaphor, but I think I’ve just stumbled across the pitch for my next book. No time for such diversions now though—I have to keep my mind on the current story.

I’ve got a lot riding on it. Personally.

When I wrote the first draft of my first short novel, I was a young twenty-something and a brand new father. I penned the book entirely in a two-week flurry during which time I lived inside the story as it unfolded, never leaving the house, only waking and going to my computer first thing in the morning, writing 12-16 hours a day, leaving my computer late at night when I could no longer write. I worked with no outline. The story unfolded as I followed it step by step into the wilderness. It was the closest thing to being given a story that I can imagine. I finished it, breathless and exhilarated, and with some measure of fear and trembling.

It was such a concentrated emotional experience, it did leave me frightened on some level.

Perhaps it was the fear that if I took that leap again, I wouldn’t be met, but would just free fall through empty space.

What I know for certain is that I haven’t completed a novel since then. That’s why finishing this one that I’m working on now is so important. Even if it never gets published. It has to get finished. Because if I never complete a second novel, how am I ever going to complete a third or a fourth or a fifth?

The daughter whose birth had made me a father just before I wrote “The Angel Knew Papa And The Dog” turned 20 this past August. I now have two daughters in college and a lot less margin of time and economy for such speculative ventures. I languished through those intervening years waiting for the kind of magic that spurred the writing of “The Angel Knew Papa And The Dog” to occur again spontaneously, to carry me forward on another wave of manic, euphoric output to the completion of a follow-up novel.

And it never did. No matter how many tricks I tried.

That’s something I could write about. Sometime. After I’ve finished this second one. Until then, it’s too personal, too scary. The what-ifs. The might have beens. The small failures of nerve and discipline that add up to two decades of sophomore slumping.

And yet, in that time I’ve started numerous other novels, even pushing as far as 40,000 words into them before being waylaid by the voices of confusion, diversion, fear, laziness, or economic necessity.

Mostly I turned my attention away from book-writing and to more bite-sized creative endeavors. I wrote a lot of songs. And essays. And articles. And short scripts. Things that could be completed in a day or two. Things that cost me little. Things that required little risk and little faith on my part. They were not without merit or value, but these were not long journeys into the wild, they were just day trips. It was as if in my late twenties I had been handed a loaded survival pack and a map of the Yukon wilderness, and through my thirties and well into my forties I was choosing instead to take two block bike rides to the 7-11. Still wearing the rugged backpack, mind you.

For years I neglected the shepherding of the more costly stories and longer works that I should have been investing my life in. And so these thoughts I am writing now must be at least one part confession. And it is best not to mince words with such matters, so I will state it plainly:

I am guilty of sins of omission, of things left undone. There are books that do not exist, because I have neglected to complete them. I have so far been a rather poor shepherd of the stories entrusted to me. By grace, I hope now to begin that remedying.

And in a very real way, it is this Rabbit Room community that has reawakened in me the courage to take up these labors again, and to press forward with the tasks I should have long been about. It is your personal affirmations of the small things I have created in recent years that have reawakened my sense of calling towards the larger things I should be doing. In an almost tangible sense, I am driven today by an increasing desire to bring to fruition those sorts of things that might be offered as lasting gifts to this community, and as lamps that might be set in a wider world wearied of its long enchanted dream-darkness. Isn’t that what we’re trying to collectively foster here? I want to own my part of that. Forgive my long neglect.

My stubborn hope is that once I clear this hurdle, completing this second novel, I will be able to proceed with increasing courage, to begin working my way through all of those earlier starts—all of them, by the way, story ideas I still believe in—and one by one, bring them to completion no matter how much the process unnerves me—and unnerve me it does; The Stolen Child, The Mechanist Wars, Rabbicuss, The Seven Year Swarm, The Corner, Tales of Wi, The Lost Rhymes… I name them now like fallen comrades, for we grew close in the trenches, spilling blood, sweat and ink, but failing to take and hold the hills that were our objective. In the end, I limped away from them one by one and left them bleeding.

But it was not really the end, was it? The reverberations of battle echo again in my ears. The oracle cries that the old armistice is broken. Keystrokes like bullets fly, and I find myself stumbling, rushing across an open field in a mad dash to outflank those old enemies and plant a flag on that high hill, a whispered refrain coursing in my ears: All is not yet lost. Take courage. Take heart. Press on. Press on. Press on.


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