Australian fantasy author Ian Irvine has a new novel. Vengeance is the first book in a new series called The Tainted Realm. Today, Ian has dropped by to tell us a little about the up and downs of being a writer. Take it away Ian…
The Ups and Downs of Writing
By Ian Irvine
It’s a rum business being a writer. No matter how many books one has written, it doesn’t get any easier.
Well, that’s not entirely true. After 24 years, I still feel a sick horror when I look at one of my appalling first drafts, though I comfort myself with the thought that almost all writers hate their drafts. ‘The first draft of anything is shit,’ said Hemingway. And also, having written 27 novels totalling 3.6 million words, I generally know how to fix the draft, though doing so can be like breaking rocks in a prison yard.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of the best things about being a writer is the dream – that the book I’m about to write will be original or provocative or funny or life-changing, or non-stop, edge-of-the-seat suspenseful. Sometimes, in moments of authorial madness, all of the above. And everything in my life, every snippet of research, every odd idea jotted down or moment of inspiration (for instance the article I just read about books being carved into sculptures) can go into the pot, get a good stir, simmer for weeks or years, then miraculously and effortlessly flow into the story. Ha!
One of the very worst parts of being a writer is grinding out the first draft. It usually starts well, and sometimes runs well for as much as eight or ten chapters. Vengeance, my latest huge epic fantasy novel (Book 1 of The Tainted Realm,) did. And I was lulled, poor fool that I am. Yes, I thought, this book is going to be a snap.
Then come the days when I sit down to write and every word comes with an effort, every sentence is banal, every character cardboardy and done to death, every situation clichéd, boring and repetitive. Those snippets I talked about earlier have been discarded like confetti – none of them worked; none inspired. What’s gone wrong? What if I’m one of those writers who only has a few books in him, and I’ve used all my ideas up? I start to think that I’ll never write anything worth reading again.
Nearly every novel has this stage, which generally occurs about a quarter of the way in, and sometimes lasts until half-way. Of all my books, the only ones I’ve not been stuck on were the last two books of my humorous adventure stories for younger readers, Grim and Grimmer. They were written to such short deadlines and with such wild and wacky enthusiasm that there wasn’t time to get into the writer’s ‘death zone’.
Then along came Vengeance. It took an interminably long time to write, because several years ago I agreed to a number of large writing projects whose deadlines inevitably ended up overlapping, and I spent the best part of a year in the despair of the death zone. Really big books present a writing challenge that doesn’t occur with small ones – it’s impossible to keep the whole vast canvas in mind at once and the only way to write such books (for me, anyway) is in long, uninterrupted slabs of time. It can take hours of continuous writing to get back into the story each day, yet every interruption hurls me out and I have to write my way back in again. No matter how good yesterday’s writing went, every new day presents the same challenge.
For a full year, my work on Vengeance was constantly interrupted by other deadlines, sometimes for months at a time. I plodded on when I could (any progress is better than none) until I could block out many weeks of uninterrupted time to work on the book full bore.
Then I turned off the internet, made excuses to clients, friends and family, to all those piled books waiting for their turn to be read, and to the unmowed lawn. I set the alarm clock for dawn and wrote, wrote, wrote through to late in the night, never looking back over what I’d written until the draft was complete. For me this is the best way to short circuit the ‘my writing is crap’ phase, and in these weeks I make more progress – and better – than in months of plod writing.
One of the greatest joys of writing comes when it’s going well and the story is flowing on to the screen as fast as I can type. The faster I write, the better the story seems to work and the less editing is required afterwards, perhaps because the creative side is fully in charge and the sneering critic temporarily banished.
Actually, most of my writing life is great. I love editing my books, particularly in the later stages. Doing the final draft (with Vengeance this was the tenth draft) is always a joy. The story has finally come together, it’s tight and dramatic and full of surprises, and as I go through it I see hundreds of places where tiny changes can add so much depth, drama and suspense: a line of dialogue, a character’s sudden terror or insight, reshaping a moment or a setting to heighten the mood. I wish it would never stop.
But the deadline is here and the work has to end. I’ve done the final read-through. I’m out of time. I’m happy with it for the moment. Quick, press SEND! Yes, it’s gone. It’s out of my hands and, for a few minutes at the end of nearly 3,000 hours of Vengeance, I’m floating.
Then there’s the waiting. Even after 27 books, waiting for the real, printed book to appear is interminable. Why is it taking so long? Surely it’s printed by now? What’s it going to look like, feel like, smell like?
I’m inhaling the aroma of the pages as I write – a faint smell, not unlike fresh sawdust (I grew up in a forest and know these things). For the first few days I carry the book with me, just to know it’s there.
I never read my books after they’re finished. That’s a dangerous pastime – what if I uncover some dreadful error, or want to re-edit the whole book? Rarely, however, I’ll make a leisurely pass through the first couple of chapters, perhaps to reassure myself that it gets off to a good start.
And Vengeance does. It’s a mile from perfect, but it’s a good story, it’s out there and it’s too late for me to change anything.
That’s the greatest joy of all.
Maybe I’ll use that silly idea about sculptured books in Volume 2.
George’s bit at the end
Ian Irvine, a marine scientist who has developed some of Australia’s national guidelines for the protection of the oceanic environment, has also written 27 novels. These include the bestselling Three Worlds fantasy sequence, an eco-thriller trilogy and 12 books for younger readers. His latest fantasy novel is Vengeance, Book 1 of The Tainted Realm.
Catch ya later, George
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