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Thursday, February 23, 2006


"The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy, the building of a house, the writing of a novel, the demolition of a bridge, and eminently the finish of a voyage."
John Galsworthy 1867-1933 "Over the River" 1933 ch 1.

There are times, I'm certain any novel-writer will agree, that the writing becomes overwhelming as the project keeps getting bigger and bigger and wandering away. As the story progresses, you get to know your characters better, allowing them to take you off on tangents of their own design until it seems you are lost in this other-world you have created and there doesn't seem to be any light at the end of the convoluted tunnel.

When I started writing Shadow of the Lion I had in mind that it would only take me about a year. I intended it to be a juvenile historical novel about the short and tragic life of Alexander the Great's son, a short novel for young readers.

After a year of writing (which had followed a year of intensive research) I realized the story was far too political and complicated to be absorbed by a young audience. To do it justice, it had to be told in a different, more "Homeric" way. I was advised by a published juvenile author to just go ahead and write it the way I felt it should be written. So I started over, writing it from a multiple point of view. In time, the theme changed from a rites-of-passage to a more political theme: How blind ambition and greed brought down a world power. It became not only the story of the boy, Iskander (Alexander IV), but the more complex story about the end of Alexander's dynasty. Little did I realize, when I made the decision to switch from a juvenile historical to a more complicated adult historical, that the novel would take me so long to complete.

I recall how disappointed I was when I read Mary Renault's Funeral Games which covers the same period of history. To me the story seemed to be 'documented', with a lack of character development and not a lot of tension in the plot. I know it was her last book and she was elderly by then, so perhaps she had rushed it through to finish it. My novel follows the same period of time, and I constantly refer back to hers to see how she fit in the complex political issues and intrigues between the Successors of Alexander. But in my novel I've chosen to develop the key characters more extensively, especially the women who are fascinating individuals who have never been given a fair recognition by the historians. The child, too, is little known. He lived a tragic life, born just after his eminent father died suspiciously in Babylon, used as a pawn in the battle between the Successors, dragged around from camp to camp for the first years of his life and at the age of thirteen, just before he was able to legally rule as king, he was imprisoned and finally murdered by his father's life-long enemy Kassandros, who sought to claim the throne for himself.

This kind of story has taken endless years of research, in libraries, and on site, and lucky for me, while I have lived in Greece I have been privileged to not only visit some of the places I write about, but I've talk to Classical scholars and archaeologists who are experts on the subject.

Still, the research seems endless and often, like the other day, I end up spending several hours looking up some small detail (which I found on the internet, an amazing tool for researchers!)

There have been times when the well ran dry and I couldn't write, had to set the manuscript aside for awhile, then get a fresh start. There are other times when I am writing constantly, almost non-stop. The story has consumed my life. In between working on it, I am always writing something: journals, blogs, memoirs. I spent two years revising my play The Street, for its successful production, then began to write a second play (House of the Muses, about the lyric poet Sappho, as yet unfinished). Of course there's my travel journalism which is a source of a small amount of income (and certain rewards such as my forthcoming trip to Malaysia). But the novel seems endless and sometimes I wonder if it will ever be finished! Although I am close to the end now, it's a daunting task. Then comes the job of cutting, because I am already in such deep water I have enough written for at least three books and it has to be chopped down to a handy 500 pages. though I'm not too worried about the editing as I already have a clear picture of what can be cut without ruining the plot-line.

I was looking at the phenomenal word-count the other day and started telling myself maybe I should be cutting corners, skipping over some of what I have already outlined to write. But no, I've decided to carry on and cut later. I'm writing as fast as I can but there are days when I feel like a mouse on a treadmill, getting nowhere fast. I'm a slow writer, meticilous, block editing as I go along with the help of my wonderful critique group. So what I've written so far is pretty well a near-final draft. However, I'm asking myself "When will it be over?"

I've got another half-written Celtic tale waiting -- one I set aside when I started this project, thinking "It's a juvenile historical. It will only take me about a year to write!" I have to admit I'm enjoying the journey. I know the characters as well as I know my friends. It's been an exciting world to get lost in. But like all journeys it has to eventually come to an end.

"A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it."
Samuel Johnson 1709-1784 From James Boswell, "Life of Johnson" (1791) Nov. 5, 1728


Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I'm so with you on that one. And I have four of these.

Kings and Rebels, my first, is the worst. It grew out of nowhere into a book that encompasses ten years (in the original version even a longer time) and covers half of Europe (Iceland, Norway, Danemark, Germany and the eastern Baltic coast, France, England, Scotland, Ireland - and I've already cut a subplot that involved Italy and Constantinople as well) and has a weave of subplots, suplots of subplots and plot threads that would turn any spider green with envy. Not to mention a cast of thousand, and half of the characters historical persons.

Then there's SoHW, less widespread in time an space (it's only 3 years and involves Britannia and a few scenes in Rome) but with an increasingly complicated plot.

The Visigoth novel and The Charioteer look a bit more harmless, but they ain't. I don't know why I tend to chase my characters around so much; EF (also a more than 10 years timeframe) moves from Byzantium and Illyricum to the Alps and Italy as far south as Sicly, then to France and northern Spain, with a few scenes in Germany (and I only hope Aurelius Idamantes won't move over to Britain as well). TC reaches from Ireland and Scotland to Rome and Spain as well. Not to mention those two books tie in with each other by several shared characters and a shared subplot.

And don't ask me about that Fantasy plobunny that refuses to go away and looks like a bloody trilogy already. ;-)

I have some blog entries to write, lol.

Wynn Bexton said...

Thanks for the quick response, Gabrielle. It makes me feel better when I hear of other writers who have been toiling long over their masterpieces. Of course, historical fiction often takes years to write and I admire writers like Scott Oden & Steve Pressfield who accomplish this in under a year. I know another HF writer, Jack Dempsey "Ariadne's Brother" (an amazingly poetic book!) who said he took around 10 yrs to finish it. When last I heard from him he was working on a sequel.

Did you know one of Mary Renault's earlier books (about WWI, not Greece) is called "The Charioteer"?
I don't think you can copywrite titles or ideas though. So you're likely safe in that respect.

Good luck with all your projects. And let's hope we finish soon!

Wynn Bexton said...

This is from an email I got from a friend who has been a writer since she was a kid, and also teaches writing classes. I thought what she had to say was interesting and she said I could put it up in the 'comments'.

"I really liked this blog. And I relate to it as well. I know how it feels when you say you just keep on writing, even if you know that you have to cut later on, because what you are writing now is important and maybe more important that anything that will be written later. Sometimes a little detail will elude you for a while, then it will all come rushing back and you have to fill in , sometimes as much as three pages will happen over one tiny incident."