Sunday, January 09, 2011

START, STOP & START AGAIN: How to Keep Going With Your Novel

Alexander on his horse Bucephalus, riding East to his conquest of Persia

When Alexander mounted his horse Bucephalus, and rode east to drive the Persians out of Greek territories in Asia Minor, did he imagine how long his journey would take, or how far he would travel?
Alexander's journey took ten years with many battles and several stop-overs, ending with his death in Babylon in 323 BC.  His legacy lived on for fourteen more years until the murder of his family members ended his dynasty.

The royal city of Pella, in Macedonia (northern Greece) where Alexander was born.

My journey with Alexander as I wrote "Shadow of the Lion" took just as long, involving much research (which included the first of several visits to Pella as well as other Alexander sites in Greece and Turkey).  At the time, I had been working on a Celtic novel, which also happens to have an Alexander connection, but it had become bogged down, so I changed my focus.  After a year of research I started writing the story about Alexander's little-known legal heir, Alexander IV (who uses his Persian name, Iskander, in my novel.)  "Shadow of the Lion" was intended to be a juvenile historical but after a year of writing, I realized it was too political a story to be told as a 'juvenile' and it was suggested by a published kid's book writer that I begin again and tell it the way it would work best.

Then came the more complicated part as I decided to write it in a multiple point of view. Lots more research required.  Several more trips to Greece (living there six months at a time while I researched and wrote.  note: when I first began the original manuscript I was working full time in daycare.  In 1993 I quit my full-time work so I could concentrate on my novel and during the '90's spent a lot of time living part-time in Greece, researching and traveling to Alexander sites.)  My novel begins in Babylon, at the time of Alexander's death.  It ends in Alexandria, Egypt.  I have as yet not visited Egypt and, of course, could not visit the site of ancient Babylon in Iraq, so this was part of my research.  The Persians play an important role in my novel so I also did extensive research about their culture and history.

Ancient Babylon

Alexander made several stops along his route where he established colonies.  He got as far as the Hydaspes River in India and would have pressed farther east had his men not insisted on going back.  My novel got stalled a couple of times along the way,  once when I took two years off to revise and rewrite a play that was later successfully produced ("The Street: A Modern Tragedy", 2000).  I also took breaks to do travel writing and started another play based on the life of the lyric poet Sappho which I later shelved to focus entirely on the novel. 

How did Alexander keep focused on his goal, to conquer the world and bring Hellenism to Asia?  He was possessed by his desire to keep going east and he achieved his goal by determination and skill which was undermined in the end by his manic behavior and excesses.  In writing a novel you have to be possessed by determination and a will to achieve your goal. At times (to your unwriterly friends) it might seem a bit 'manic' as you become consumed with your characters and story.   They will possess your life;  you live with them, consult with them, write about them every day, sometimes (like me) for years.  You need the tenacity of a dog with a bone to be able to not let go until you achieve your goal.  Sure, sometimes you need to take a break, step back, look at things through fresh eyes.  And sometimes doubt and resistance will definitely stand in your way.  But you have to believe in what you are doing and keep your eye on that vision. 

One thing a lot of novice novel writer's do is to work on too many different projects at one time.  Often they don't have a clear idea of where they are going with the novel before they begin, so they get easily lost along the way.  I found that once I established the 'theme' for my novel and mapped out the route (I was writing from a historical plot so knew which way I was going)it was easier to get started and stay on track. 

When I found myself being too distracted, I set aside other work I was doing (the Sappho play, for one) and decided I must focus totally on "Shadow of the Lion" if I ever wanted to get it finished.  As I am a travel journalist and also write weekly for an on-line travel magazine as well as editing and publishing my own, that meant I had to organize my time. Although I am now a full-time writer, I spend a certain number of hours a week instructing writing classes.  And there is always the on-going distractions that we are confronted with:  our day-to-day lives, social and work commitments, and at home those big distractions like the TV, telephone and Internet!

 So I asked myself what was the most important thing?  Well, my novel came first.  Any travel stories I haven't had time to write, I knew I could do once I finished Shadow.  Finishing my novel was the most important thing I wanted to do so I set the goal (for at least the tenth time) to finish it by the end of 2010.  And I did!

Now comes the editing and cutting, which is not the writer's job, but the editor's.  So I can resume my 'writer's' role and now catch up on those travel stories, blogs, and the last act of the play that I have neglected.  And once I am caught up with that I intend to resume writing the other work-in-progress novel that I set aside way back when I thought I could write the juvenile historical about Alexander's son and have it finished in a year! 

There are many challenges ahead on the road to publication, but I can begin 2011 with a great sense of achievement.  The story of the fall of Alexander's dynasty has been told.  Now it must be made available for others to read.

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Gabriele Campbell said...

Congrats on finishing the novel. And good luck finding a home for it after the editing stage.

Debra Young said...

Excellent post! And you are so right about the importance of focusing through to the finish! I've lost count of the number of times I've started and stopped with A Lamentation of Swans. Good luck with "Shadow of the Lion." d:)

Wynn Bexton said...

Thanks for the comment. Yes, now I'm just going step-by-step and giving the novel a little break before I start editing and cutting. Meanwhile I am trying to catch up with travel writing and some other work I get paid to do.