writing psychology

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 1: “Think Of It As An Exercise”

In November, it will be twenty years since I became a Writer with a capital W. That’s a different being from one who just happens to write things like term papers, memos, reports, email messages, and journal entries for work or personal reasons. I did that kind of writing all my life. A Writer, on the other hand, writes novels. A Writer writes books.

Writers, I always thought, are special. They are the anointed few, like members of a religious order or secret society. They are interviewed by serious-minded journalists on national radio. Their names are uttered in tones of hushed reverence by readers.

If one hasn’t become a Writer by age thirty, I thought, it’s too late. But in my forties, I actually did it. And have kept doing it. Okay, I haven’t been interviewed on national radio. No one utters my name reverently (as far as I know). But it’s on five novels and a collection of short stories.

Because 2020 is a milestone in my writing career, it’s an excuse opportunity for a series of posts about my approach to writing and publishing.

There will be no advice in these posts, just my experiences and thoughts about them. I’ve given up dispensing advice to fellow writers, at least in the form of “You should do this” and “You should never do that.” Okay, maybe the odd “You may wish to” sneaks in there at times. As do my opinions on advice from others.


November 7th, 2000 was suddenly the right time for me to start writing a novel I had been thinking about for a couple of years. I had an idea I found compelling, and the dark evenings were perfect for the solitary and closeted activity of novel writing. I had recently read Stephen King’s book On Writing. I was all fired up.

I set up a writing space in a spare room in the basement, furnished myself with a 2-inch-thick pile of good-one-side (i.e., scrap) paper and a pen, and started writing what eventually became The Friendship of Mortals.

But writing a novel is a daunting project, especially if you haven’t done it before. Sitting in front of that stack of paper with pen in hand, I had reservations. Who did I think I was? What if I ran out of words, ideas, and images? What if the thing was a dud? What if I never finished it at all?

Then I had an idea: Think of it as an exercise. That cut the project down to size. “Come on,” I told myself, “let’s try it; if it doesn’t work out, no one will know.”

“Exercise” is a good word here, because it’s sort of like adding a few more “reps” when one is doing push-ups or squats. Or running just one more kilometer. “Come on–just one more.” One more paragraph, one more page, one more book.

And of course, it was 100% up to me whether I continued. No one was checking up on me or suggesting I speed things up. No one asked me how many words I had written that day. I was utterly free to write or not. (Twenty years later, I look back on that time with envy.)

The approach worked, or maybe I was just lucky. The project took off and became an obsession. I spent three or four hours on it every evening (after a full day at work) and finished the first draft in six months. In the next five years, I followed it up with two sequels, which ultimately became three when I chopped one of them into two, to form the Herbert West Series.

To keep things in perspective, none of these books was published until 2010. Unlike writing, attracting a publisher was more than an exercise.

What about you, fellow scribes? How did you start your first piece of serious writing? Did you read writing craft books first? Do research? Make an outline? Scribble a bunch of ideas that eventually coalesced?

Next time–the Proto-draft.

Creators and Creations: Writers and Their Characters

Few things in writing are more thrilling than seeing the characters in your novel come alive. Instead of forging scenes with great labour out of dead material, suddenly you have real people interacting on the secret stage in your head. All you have to do is transcribe their conversations and you’ve got great dialogue. And yet — you made these beings. They are (almost) entirely in your power.

Almost, indeed. Every writer has probably created a character who has not turned out as originally envisioned. When I began writing The Friendship of Mortals, the first book of my Herbert West Trilogy, I was certain that Herbert West would be a villain rather than a hero, as he is in the original story by H.P. Lovecraft on which the book is based. He was an amoral type who used other people, both dead and alive, as experimental material. Lacking a freshly dead corpse to revivify, he made one by killing a man. How could such a person be other than a villain?

Complicating all this was my narrator, librarian Charles Milburn. To Charles, Herbert West was not uniformly black, but a multi-hued creature at once repellent and fascinating. By associating with Herbert, Charles became his friend as well as accomplice, and so presented him to the reader in an ambiguous way.

Members of my critique group have suggested that I became enamored of my version of Herbert West, sometimes making things too easy for him as a result. After some defensive huffing and puffing, I had to admit that this was so. My Herbert, like H.P. Lovecraft’s original, is slight, blond and bespectacled, but he is also well-dressed and charming — an enigmatic, possibly dangerous dude in an attractive package. I preferred to have someone like that living in my head, rather than a garden-variety grotesque geek. Coming up with a background for him that would explain his corpse-revivifying interests, and devising a more interesting end to his career than being ripped to shreds by his own monstrous creations necessitated three books.

How did this happen? How did a fictitious character who began as amoral, perhaps evil, turn out to be almost (but not quite) the opposite? I blame Charles Milburn and Loreena McKennit. Charles allowed himself to be charmed by Herbert into helping him with his dubious experiments. And while I was writing The Friendship of Mortals, I listened repeatedly to Loreena McKennit’s CD The Mask and the Mirror. I was especially taken with “The Dark Night of the Soul,” her arrangement of a poem by the mystic St. John of the Cross. Something of this song seeped into my writing and turned the course of the narrative and the natures of my principal characters.

This example illustrates the complexity of the relationship between an author and his or her fictitious characters. Reaching into yourself to create fictional people is a potentially powerful process. Those characters are in some way slices of yourself, shaped — perhaps distorted — by conscious and subconscious impulses not entirely under your control. That’s one of the things that makes writing so exciting, and perhaps a little dangerous.

And be careful with music when you’re writing! It has a potent effect on the brain, so it’s no wonder that it can get in there and mess with your imaginary creations.