I am writing a novel called Red Sleeper, which is the follow-up to The Berlin Fraternity. Writing is a torment and a torture, and I wish that I could stop. I tried to stop – after I finished The Carrefour Crisis, my fourth novel that failed to find a literary agent. But it didn’t take. To write is to waste my time pushing a boulder; to not write is to waste my life. This is less expensive than heroin, but it’s just as helpless and more humiliating.
The first thing I need is an idea, but ideas are the easy part. And because novels take so long to write, I usually have ideas waiting in line. Any newspaper or nonfiction is full of ideas. There are so many of them that you will be overrun; one will land its barb in you.
The daily process goes like this. I wake up and go online. I read emails and check Facebook. I go to the bathroom, then I go back to bed. I try to get out of bed. I check my to-do list for the day. I try to get out of bed again. I think that I should write. I think of one or ten things that I can do instead of writing.
I avoid the strain of writing, but the price of that is a wasted life in every hour. I could die at any time, a pandemic could smash this civilization at any time, and Red Sleeper would never have been finished – and neither would the novel waiting behind it. Which I have yet to imagine, but which is prowling there.
Eventually, I work, because once I’ve done that there will follow a few hours where I’ll feel that I’ve done something. I might do my first session before I get out of bed. I might not do my first session until after sunset. But I get started.
The first thing I do is review and revise what I wrote last. I’m a much better writer the second or third time. The revisions glow in my mind as if they were the memory of the originals; I expect to see them on the page and I’m surprised and annoyed when I don’t.
I keep my strategic and tactical goals in mind. What do I need to accomplish in this book, and what do I need to accomplish in this scene? I keep a list of things that I need to return to, so that I won’t forget to make them pay off – “W. and Elvis”, “H. and his wife”. And of course in writing historical fiction, I spend a lot of my working time doing research.
I can’t bear to pant at that scorching forge for long. I use a timer app and try to write for twenty minutes, twice a day, on every project. Then I run in and do one final ten minute stretch, which is easier and makes me feel virtuous. I am not a fast writer, and I am not prolific.
Then I put it up until the next day, and I let those revisions come into my memory in the meantime. The feeling of accomplishment is very fragile in the face of how much of the book remains to be written, so I try not to look that squarely in the eye. Instead, I do my work every day. Here is my advice: don’t try to finish the book, try to finish the day.
And somewhere in the writing of one novel, I start to imagine the next one. Let’s say an espionage suspense thriller starring an American diplomat in a European capitol, set around 1800? We can neither resist nor understand Orwell’s Demon, and it gives no respite. Ideas are easy; but one idea is thousands of hours at the forge.
Want to check out more on Brian, or even pick up The Berlin Fraternity for your next reading list book? Click the links below.
Brian Downes, Author
The Berlin Fraternity on Goodreads