I've always been a writer—although I haven't always thought of myself that way. Indeed, for many years after leaving school, the only written output that I considered relevant consisted of one short story, a couple of unfinished attempts at short stories, and perhaps a dozen poems. And most of those were haiku, which aren't exactly wordy.
That long dry spell seems to be at odds with my claim; when I look back on that time, however, I realise that I was spending night after night on a couple of online forums, pouring thousands of words into the sorts of arguments that nobody ever seems to win: Evolution vs Creation was probably my most popular topic of discussion. It became apparent quite early that many of the people on both sides had no idea what they were actually talking about—and while I couldn't do much to educate everyone else, I decided that I could at least improve my own understanding of both sides of the coin. I bought biology texts, I bought religious holy books, I read as much as I could squeeze into my day—and still I would spend hours each night, writing. Perhaps I never changed any opinions, but that period certainly helped cement my own ideas.
My love affair with the topic soured when I finally realised that nothing was going to change, and that I was writing in circles. My love affair with the site on which I was having these discussions soured after a bizarre encounter with somebody who I thought was a friend—I've never been good with confrontation, and the whole thing left me feeling a little shell-shocked and nervous, so I withdrew from the site, little by little. Off-hand, I couldn't say exactly when this happened (although it does seem that the last bit of poetry/prose I uploaded there dates to mid-2002) but it left me with a big hole in my writing life.
Sometime in 2002 I heard rumours about this crazy internet "competition" that would be kicking off in November, called NaNoWriMo: the National Novel Writing Month. The idea, crazy and impossible as it is: write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I didn't realise it at the time, but 2002 was the first year they went public with the idea, after having run it as a friend-only event a couple of years before that.
Maybe, I thought, I should give that a try... And then I promptly forgot all about it, until late October rolled around and I remembered my earlier thought. Was it feasible? Could I do it?
Was I a writer?
Well, I was certainly a reader. I'd always had a feel for the English language. I'd always had characters and stories floating around in my head—and once or twice, even as far back as year 7 or 8 in school, I'd attempted to commit them to paper. Without much success, true—but this NaNoWriMo idea might be just what I needed to kickstart my career as a writer!
So I signed up, and in November 2002 I set out to write my first novel.
With a tentative working title of DreamScape (titles have never been my strong suit. Well, titles and names!) I started writing. Wanting to keep things simple, I wrote in a plain text editor, using simple /slashes/ to denote italics, a couple of other simple codes—and, because I'm a geek, I wrote myself a Perl script to transform the text files into HTML and upload them to my website every night. My script also generated an accurate wordcount, discarding chapter titles and other non-word "words" that such lesser programs as, say, Microsoft Word, tend to count.
In NaNoWriMo, wordcount is king!
Chapter 1 of DreamScape started with a nightmare sequence, then became a first person narrative about a guy who lives in Redcliffe, alone but for his cat, who was getting ready for work at the awful time of 4am. "Write what you know", they say, and so I did; apart from the nightmare itself, this was "a day in the life of Pete, doing wacky 5am starts!" Chapter 2 was essentially my version of Stephen King's The Mist, although it incorporated a figure that I actually did have a nightmare about, a figure which, many years later, I would identify as being a relative of Neil Gaiman's Corinthian from his Sandman series. At the time I had not read Sandman... Chapter 3 ... well, that was where it all fell apart.
Total words? Just over 7,000.
So, maybe I had my answer; maybe I wasn't a writer? And yet, I still thought that I could be a writer. One day. When I grew up. After all, 2002 was the year Dad had died. Or maybe it was the nightly uploads that bogged me down? (That actually seems a reasonable conclusion. Once I made my nightly output public—even if nobody was actually reading it, the thought that they might have was enough to lock those words in stone, making it very difficult to change anything!)
So, the next year, I tried again.
This time, my thoughts turned to a character who had been stuck in my head for many years: Cassandra, a soldier of the future, a marine, wounded in combat. I would explore her story.
Except, it turned out, I really didn't have much of a story for her, and the attempt fizzled out in just under 3800 words.
This failure left me pretty demoralised. However, as the following NaNoWriMo approached, new ideas started to flit through my head—and I'd even done a little independent writing that year. Why not give it one last try?
I think the fact that this has no title is a pretty good indicator of how the attempt went. I failed miserably, writing a mere 1151 words before packing it in. I had an idea involving an assassin, and an alien princess, which seemed to be mostly inspired by the words from the chorus of the Jerry Harrison song: Pretty girl, young man, old man, man with a gun. I didn't (don't) even know the rest of the song, but I got something from it that I thought had potential. It just didn't want to happen, though.
Clearly I was a total failure as a writer.
This was actually one of the lowest points of my miserable existence, I was drowning in depression, for reasons other than my writing, but this final failure was pretty much the icing on the cake. I might as well just sit in my hole and eat myself to death. My thoughts brushed up against the idea of suicide fairly regularly in those dark days, although never seriously. I could never quite convince myself of the lie that nobody would miss me because there was always that tiny voice in my head that replied: Mum would!
One thing was clear, though: I had been deluding myself. I couldn't write my way out of a wet paper bag, and I would never, ever, ever attempt NaNoWriMo again!
Then, in October of 2005, the circumstances that had been turning my mind into a cesspool of despair abruptly changed. Emerging from that darkness, I became brighter, happier, almost immediately. I started doing things I hadn't been doing for far too long. Perhaps most importantly, I started reading again.
In mid October, I read a couple of parody novels produced by National Lampoon. One tackled the Star Wars trilogy, the other tackled The Matrix. And, sad to say, I did not particularly enjoy them. I finished the second book, put it down, and said aloud to myself: "That was rubbish. I could do better than that!"
And the voice in my head said: go on, then. I dare you!
And I realised it was the 2nd of November!
Of course, I didn't have the title right away. In fact, seven or eight chapters in, I realised I was doing nothing more than retelling Star Wars with funny names. My plan had been to produce a Star Wars/Matrix crossover parody, and so far there was very little evidence of anything Matrix-y. ("Plagiarism" is such an ugly word, but it does make writing so much easier to follow a well-known story that closely!) So I did a little brain-storming, and the link between the two stories suddenly clicked into place. It was so obvious. All I needed to do to make it work was go back and tweak a few words I'd already written, and presto-chango, you have an uncle named Bob!
At this point, I was still writing in a text editor, and still running my script to generate my nightly wordcount. Having to go back and revise existing text, however, made it very clear that my long-ago decision not to upload into a public space on a daily basis had been the right one.
I think that was also the point at which I realised, to make the whole thing truly work, I would have to write the trilogy. The first would follow the story of Star Wars fairly closely; the second would start to vary from Empire; the third would resemble Jedi but differ significantly as the Matrix storyline began to dominate. Thus "Array Wars" was born.
I said earlier that NaNoWriMo is a "competition", but in truth, the only person you are competing against is yourself. The only prize for reaching the "50,000 words in 30 days" goal is that, hey, you've done the impossible: you've written 50,000 words in 30 days. This seems to be a point that people who haven't attempted such a task cannot truly appreciate. Let me tell you, though: if the year before had been the low point of my life, the evening of the 27th of November, 2005—when I finished writing and ran my script to discover that my wordcount was 50,030—was definitely one of the high points!
Of course, I was still three days out from the end of the month—and I knew I was about a week out from actually finishing the story—but none of that mattered. I knew I would finish it—and I knew that what I'd written was good. Sure enough, when I read back through it, there were a few errors that had crept in, but very little that I felt needed changing. I fixed it up and, in a moment of insanity, decided I would hand-bind twenty numbered A4 copies of my manuscript!
I cobbled together a cover image (which actually became an inside cover image) and, using strong thread, a hand drill, and black cloth tape, I made the 20 copies I'd threatened to make, and I gave them away to family and friends. They were very well received—but I decided that, at 45 minutes each (plus printing) there had to be an easier way!
But that could wait.
Still high on the buzz of having written an honest-to-goodness novel—and one which seemed to be quite well received, at least among my loyal cadre of fans—I started toying with the idea of doing my own, out-of-season "WriMo". I picked June because it was also 30 days. I wanted to leave the second Array Wars novel for November, but I had another idea that seemed worth exploring.
Inspired by the story (as told in video games, and later in movies) of BloodRayne, I came up with the concept of BlooDrayne—a male version, who looked remarkably like Rick Moranis and was the polar opposite of the assured, dangerous killer that was BloodRayne. (Clearly I came up with the concept before the movie came out; I figured she would be played by either Milla or Angelina!)
When I started writing, though, my tale quickly became a cross between Interview with a Vampire and American Werewolf in London—neither of which I know particularly well. At the same time, my lycanthrope acquired an Armenian background and the name "Radek" (as in The Chronicles of Radek...) Clearly I thought I could go somewhere with these characters—but I couldn't pull the story together on the fly, and the attempt fizzled after 6500 words.
It seems worth mentioning at this point that I still have great hopes for all of my failed attempts. The ideas have potential, and the characters have stories to tell. One day, I shall tell them. Some of what I wrote back then is actually pretty good; when I look back on it now, I don't cringe!
With June's attempt behind me, and with November growing ever closer, I started thinking about what I would do once I'd finished book 2 of my trilogy. I would need to print it for my fans (all 15-16 of them) but I didn't particularly want to hand-stitch another batch. I remembered a site that had been mentioned in dispatches the previous November, and turned toward Lulu. Pretty soon, the idea of turning my first novel into an actual paperback book that could sit on my shelf with other real books became impossible to resist. I imported the HTML version of the novel into Word, spent a week messing with the formatting until I had something I liked, stretched my Gimp skills to the limit to put together some actual cover-art (retaining my original attempt as an inside-cover line-art image), added the "Lurk will return in Episode 2.0" promise on the back page, and sent away for a preview copy.
Do I have to tell you how excited I was to receive that in the post?!
The only thing I didn't entirely love was the size. I had picked "6x9" (inches) because that had seemed the best available option—but it was too big to sit comfortably on my shelf next to the paperbacks. Nonetheless, I went back to the site to order a box-load—and discovered that they had a "pocketbook" size which was exactly what I wanted!
I swear it hadn't been available the last time I'd looked!
So I reformatted my Word document to suit that size, scaled down the cover art—and, for some reason, completely changed the blurb on the back—and ordered a new copy.
When I placed that book on my shelf, it was as though a choir of angels descended from on high to provide trumpet accompaniment!
By now, of course, it was November.
The first book was a blast, and easy to write—well, when it comes to writing, "easy" is definitely relative—so the second would be a piece of cake, right?
Not so much.
I struggled my way through the month, managed to dribble over the "finish" line with something like 50,008 words on the 30th—and promptly dropped the attempt, only two-thirds through the story. I was exhausted, and I hated every word I'd written. It was a disaster, and for perhaps six months I left it to fester, alone and unloved. When I finally decided to print out what I'd done so far and start the task of finishing it and whipping it into shape, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was actually a lot better than I thought it was. I'd find myself giggling at something, then thinking to myself, who wrote this?
Feeling a little better about what I had, I dove back in and finished it off—and, in a huge learning opportunity, rushed to print with a manuscript that was dotted with errors; nothing major, but plenty enough for me to feel unhappy with myself. (That was also the year of the Great Lulu SNAFU; about 16 of the 50-odd books I'd ordered had their pages out of order! Of course, they replaced them for me and I haven't seen it happen since, but at the time it was all a little disheartening.)
Lesson learned, I fixed up my manuscript. As I was in the process of doing that, Lulu upgraded their paper quality—necessitating a change to all my carefully prepared cover art (thicker spine, you see!) With my new (hopefully) error-free manuscript, I ordered myself a new copy of each book. I still feel bad about all the copies of book 2 that are in circulation that contain errors—but when I asked my readers, it seemed I was the only person noticing most of the errors anyway!
If book 2 had been difficult, book 3 turned into a real struggle. It didn't help that we were extremely busy at work that year—and by the end of November, drowning in work commitments, short on time and short on inspiration, I finally gave up on the goal of hitting 50,000, some 8000 words short. At the time it was easy to blame my failure on how insanely busy we were, but in hindsight, one of the biggest problems was, I just didn't know how to get from "A" to "B".
I had a very clear picture in my head of how the epilogue had to look—that was the one thing that never changed—and I knew how the story had to start, but the path joining the two was hazy at best. As November drew to a close, I started skipping many of the intermediate scenes to focus on writing the scenes I was sure had to be in there.
The end result was a jumbled mess, patchwork and woefully incomplete—although, as I was to discover later, much of what I'd actually written was, again, pretty good. Over the course of the next year, I probed at it a few times, but never seemed to make much progress. By then, I was firmly convinced that "NaNo November" was the only time I could write effectively.
When the following November rolled around, thoroughly disillusioned about my ability to write an actual trilogy—and convinced that my failure to finish book 3 during the free-for-all of NaNoWriMo was because the attempt to hit specific targets in my plot was too constricting for that format—I decided to make a clean break of it, and write something new.
This was to be my great zombie novel.
For quite some time now, my group of friends—who got themselves cameoed as "Team Daffodil" in the Array Wars novels—and I had been playing Half Life Deathmatch, mostly in a bunch of levels I'd built (and was building) myself. Based on a comment someone had made, I had this concept of how some loser gamer with no life would become the standout hero of the zombie apocalypse. Very early on in the writing, I decided that the track listing of a certain rock album would make an ideal chapter listing—and each chapter would be introduced by a stanza from the song in question.
These chapters detailed the rise of the zombie hordes—the origin I had in mind is something I don't think has been done before—and were written in third person (mostly following the adventures of one young nurse who I created as zombie-fodder, but who just refused to give up and die!) They were interspersed with first-person interludes following the descent into seething rage at his dull existence of the main character who was, once again, basically me. (But, y'know, not me. The person I would have become if I hadn't had that core group of friends to keep me sane.)
I did manage to write 50,006 words during November—some of them rather good—but the novel itself suffers from some rather huge flaws. Of all the things I've written, it is perhaps the least likely to see the light of day; even in the few months between deciding to write the Great Zombie Novel and actually getting started, a couple of other books in the genre were starting to hit the shelves—and now there seems to be a glut of them. The last few years have seen the rise of the zombie novel hordes!
Shame! I had some great ideas for the cover art!
In 2009 I took another shot at finishing book 3. By the end of the month I had something like 85,000 words written for it—but I was still in much the same position: I didn't know how to piece it all together, how to make it work. One of my biggest problems was how to bring the various groups together. Given my setup—given the position I'd left myself in at the end of book 2, and all of the ideas I desperately wanted to tackle in book 3—I just couldn't make it work.
That was to be my last attempt (so far) at NaNoWriMo. It was gradually dawning on me that, despite my success in 2005 (and I will always be grateful to the NaNoWriMo team for having gotten me started) perhaps the approach was not one that really worked for me. I considered signing up again in 2010, but never quite managed to summon the enthusiasm, and the opportunity came and went.
And so, for the next two or three years, I didn't write much—although, again, this is not strictly true. Early in 2010 I connected with an old friend on Facebook, and for most of the year that followed it seemed that I was writing long letters to her on an almost nightly basis. Clearly that fulfilled my need to write.
In amongst those letters, I did a little tinkering on book 3. Every few months I would return to it and start picking at it; it was like a scab that would never quite heal. As a result, I did an awful lot of polishing of the first few chapters, refining them until they were perfect. Gradually I was building up the picture in my mind of what it should be, and ditching anything that didn't fit that vision. Numerous chapters got discarded outright; others were torn to pieces, with the best bits being reused in other places.
Then, in mid 2010, I started playing with Blender. Perhaps if I couldn't make book 3 work, I could make the animated movie of book 1! This rapidly grew into a massive learning curve—in fact, I'm still learning—and for perhaps 18-24 months I was modelling instead of writing, giving my creativity an alternate outlet.
But every so often, while driving to work, or, uh, communing with the gods, I would have an idea; one more piece of the Array Wars puzzle that would slot into place. Each time it happened I would get briefly excited, read through the first few chapters, and then lose interest again.
Finally, however, the groundswell of new material became too much to ignore. In mid-2012 my long service leave came due and, with the odd week off here or there, I gradually started focussing on actually finishing book 3.
Now that I had made the decision, my biggest problem was that I felt guilty if I worked on anything else—but working on the novel still didn't appeal to me. I had more pieces, but I still wasn't convinced it would work—and some of those pieces didn't seem to fit as well as I'd first thought. Then, on one of my weeks off toward the end of 2012, I forced myself to just sit and write for several hours a day. Something clicked, fell into place, and at that moment my perspective changed.
I knew how to tie everything together.
I knew I was going to get it finished.
Of course, Christmas and work intervened, and for a while it seemed as though I was far too busy with non-writing activities to ever get back into it. But on my first week off in February 2013—I was taking one week a month, to spread them out—I put in a couple of days heavy writing, and midway through the second day, I finished the manuscript! And while the buzz didn't quite measure up to that first one, oh so long ago, when I hit 50,000 words on book 1, it was still a memorable moment.
What followed was a couple of weeks of exhaustive reading and re-reading, by myself and my proof-reader; fixing things that didn't quite work, catching all the tiny errors that have a tendency to creep in to something like this, and generally making it as correct as I could make it. After my hiccup with the second book, I wanted this one to be right.
And I've now sent it off to the printers. It's done. (And yet I just know that when I get the books, I'll open one at random, and an error will leap out at me...)
I'm very happy with the end result—but I've learned a lot along the way. The tone of this novel (and even the second one) has changed somewhat from the first one; as I became invested in my characters—as they became my characters rather than just George Lucas' characters with funny names—I wanted to give them their own stories. I wanted to treat them with respect—and all those funny names were just getting in the way.
Whether I've succeeded is for my readers to decide!
In the course of finishing book 3—especially in the final six months or so—I learned a number of things.
Perhaps most importantly, I learned (or perhaps relearned) exactly how much fun writing could be. Certainly there are times when it is not fun, but I have it on good authority that most (if not all) professional writers—yes, even the ones who make it look easy, the ones who churn out a new book every six months or so—go through moments of self-doubt where they feel that, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they just couldn't write anything decent to save their lives. I have felt that way numerous times while struggling to finish the book. Those times aside, however, the rewards—and I speak as someone who has no intention of making a profit from these books—are greater than the pain.
The other thing I've learned is that, while I really do enjoy writing dialogue, I struggle to juggle more than three or four characters at the same time. Scenes with multiple characters just give me the heebie-jeebies, to the point that in one spot in book 3, I actually went back in and sent a couple of characters away for the duration, just so I could cope with the scene. Of course, that changed the dynamic, removed a critical character from the right place at the right time, and as a result, well, to quote Burke, "a few deaths were involved"!
Which, in a way, was a learning curve of a different kind: killing a character who I hadn't planned to kill was, I must say, a great deal of fun!
Now that the Array Wars trilogy is finished, what will be my next writing project?
Well, having spent so long playing in somebody else's sandpit—it's the nature of writing a parody, I guess—I really want to branch out, write something that is fully my own. I have a few ideas, so we'll see what develops.
At the same time, though, I know I'm not done with the Array Wars universe!