Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: novels

Fear and Breaks

I was thinking about taking a break from my book.

This is my third novel. The first one was practice. The second one was supposed to be a stand-alone fantasy. Then it got away from me. It crept toward 200k words and, as I was ending it, I realized it wasn’t ending. My book had turned itself into a series without my permission.

That scared me. I didn’t think I was ready to write a series. To go from practice to epic fantasy series in one book … terrifying. And the fear weighed on me. Hard. I felt like I needed to take a break. Needed to take some time out for, I dunno, training or something. I felt like I needed to stop writing the book and maybe do some blogging or write some poems. Or maybe throw together that cute sci-fi novella I have been thinking about. Or, since NaNoWriMo is nearly here, write up a crappy novel just so I could say I did it.

I was about to do it. I had basically decided on my way to work last night. I was going to walk away. Part of me silently wondered if I’d ever return.

Then I started asking myself what I still needed to do with this novel I’m working on. It’s already pretty big. More than 100k so far. What still needs doing?

I drew up a list.

There were four items on the list.

That couldn’t be right, I thought. It’s huge. It’s insurmountable. It’s terrifying. How could there only be four things left to do? Why do I feel so overwhelmed?

Maybe, just maybe, because fear is a dirty liar.

Maybe because fear whispers insidious words into the secret places of my mind. And those secret places spread the news: You cannot do this! And that news flows through my consciousness, taking away confidence. And they travel through my body, sucking out energy. And the words grasp at my heart, making me question my identity, my abilities.

Fear.

I’m not going to take a break. I’ve taken them before and I know what kind of damage they cause. Just like you never really hate your job until you return from vacation.

I’m a writer. It doesn’t matter that I’ve only written two books. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never made a cent from my words. I’m a writer because I write. I’m a writer because I choose to be one. And I have no need for breaks.

You know why they call them breaks?

They break things.

Writing Foreplay

No, not writing about foreplay.  That’ll be a different sort of post altogether.

You ever have a feeling of drudgery when you sit down to do your thing?  You love writing.  You always have.  But these days when you try to actually get down to work, you feel overwhelmed and utterly intimidated.  You can’t remember how you managed to write two and a half novels.  You feel like you don’t know where your story is going, despite your detailed outlines and plans.  You stare at the computer screen and feel such a revulsion toward your task that you are afraid you were never supposed to be a writer.

You’re not in the mood.

You have a headache.

You’re tired.  You have to wake up early the next morning.

You’ve forgotten how fun writing can be.  You need some foreplay.

Open a fresh document.  Write these words:

Writing can be such a drudgery.

And then write some more.  Tell the page what you think of it.  Tell the page how pissed off you are about your lack of inspiration.  Rail and complain.  Beg and plead.  Pour out all the negative feelings in your soul onto that page.  Don’t stop.  Don’t think.  Let it go.  Just let it go.

Until you stop.

Then open your novel again.  Go to the scene you have to write.  You’ll feel better.  You’ll be in the mood.  You’ve had your foreplay.  Time to take it home.

Writing with Growing Ideas

     The funny thing about writing a novel is that life still goes on while you write it.
     My first book, The Foolishness of God has a very definite agenda to it. An agenda that I don’t really subscribe to anymore. It seemed scary when I started to realize how separated I had become from that book. Because when you write something, you immortalize it. You set it in stone.
     An idea is a living thing. It grows and changes. Sometimes it gets cancer and starts to die. Sometimes it mutates and gets super-powers. Often it just keeps getting harder and crustier and kinda ugly. But it’s always doing something.
     I sometimes feel like I was a kid who found a caterpillar. I was so excited about this neat critter that I killed it, pinned it to a board with a clear little label, and preserved it under glass for all the word to see. Little did I realize that the caterpillar was destined to grow into something else. Did I kill its beautiful destiny?
     But that metaphor isn’t perfect, is it? Because the caterpillar still lives. The ideas are still growing and forming and fighting in my mind. So it’s not like I killed the critter. Rather, I took a picture of it.
     Suddenly my old novel has a new purpose. It is a chronicle of where I used to live. A photo of my heart and mind five years ago. And, just as suddenly, I’m no longer ashamed of it. It has a place. I don’t know what sort of place it would occupy in your heart, but it has a special place in mine.
     So it’s not scary anymore, either. I can write my stuff, knowing that three years from now, my outlook on the universe may be very different. But that’s okay, because each work is a snapshot of the artist’s soul. It’s like taking pictures of your kids as they grow up. You don’t throw out the old ones because they no longer accurately reflect what your kid looks like. You treasure them, fondly remembering the people they used to be. And, looking at that cute but underdeveloped child, you appreciate where they are now. And that’s a special thing.

Pacifism and My Violent Book

     I’m a pacifist. Not a passive-ist. A pacifist. I am against violence in all forms for any reasons. Strange, eh?

     I wrote a book that has a lot of violence in it. Bad guys killing and harming good guys. Good guys killing and harming bad guys. Alignment-unknown guys killing and harming … everyone. Blood and death and harm and stuff. It almost makes you wonder how I reconcile that with my beliefs.

     I also tend to enjoy media that has violence in it. Game of Thrones is probably my favourite show in TV right now. And if you’ve ever seen a more violence show, I’d be surprised. And I’d ask what kind of sick cable channel you are subscribing to. Most of the books I read have violence. Every video game I play involves blowing something up.

     So what gives, Matt? You some kind of ridiculous hypocrite or something?

     Probably. But not for that reason.

     I find violence reprehensible because of the suffering it causes and the damage it does to the violent’s soul. But I cannot deny that violence has been a part of the human experience ever since we crawled out of the goop. I’d be willing to bet that everyone has an ancestor who took lives through violence. It’s engrained in us. That’s one of the reasons most people find the idea of pacifism so repulsive.

     Art is not idealized life. It’s elevated life. Art (literature, paintings, performances, TV shows, etc) needs to show every true aspect of life. And one of the most basic and foundational truths about the lives we live, is violence and death. Like Hemingway said, “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.”

     A writer, or any other artist, has no right to keep from his or her reader those things he disagrees with. That’s one of the reasons why I find it very difficult to reader Christian novels. They are sterile. There is no shit, only poop. And it’s not poop that ever hits the fan.

     I hate violence in any situation. But it’s a part of life, so it needs to go in the stories I make. Just like I hate malice and conflict and suffering and sickness and cancer. These horrid things are all around us. The writer who leaves them out of his book had better have a good reason for it.

Review: The Pillars of the Earth

“The small boys came early to the hanging.”

     My mother recommended this to me ages ago. I meant to read it. Really, mom, I did. But I forgot. I picked it up recently on a whim and did not remember a thing that my mom had said about it. And I’m really glad about that. Because if I had known what it was about, I probably would have left it alone.

     The Pillars of the Earth is a historical fiction about cathedral building.

     Erm… yay?

     Let’s be honest, it sounds crazy-boring. Most churches are boring. Old churches are even more boring. Building old churches sounds so boring that I feel like poking my eye just to get a distraction. And on top of all that, the book is nearly a thousand pages long. Wow.

     I’m so very glad that I had forgotten what the book was about.

     The author, Ken Follett, grabs you by the throat in his first line. And he doesn’t let go until the book is ending. His story is huge and he gives you characters to love and hate by the handful. And then he puts those characters through the grinder. What else could you ask for in a novel?

     In the end, the novel is about the inevitability of human suffering and the unbeatable human spirit that has been slowly, painfully, but assuredly making the world a better place.

     There is something very special about the book that makes you care about something you have no interest in. I don’t care about building churches. Even big churches. But Tom Builder cared. Prior Philip cared. And since I cared about Tom Builder and Prior Philip, suddenly I cared about their big church.

     The Pillars of the Earth is a great read. Its scope is huge, dealing every human struggle from intimate marital relationships to battles between kings and popes. Pick it up. You’ll love it. I swear.

Thoughts on Completing a Novel

     I’m done.

     More or less, at least. My novel has been through three full revisions and stands strong at 175,000 words. That’s about 455 pages in paperback. It’s good. I like it. It’s done. It even has a title: The Chronicler and the Bard. Soooo sexy.

     So now what?

     I feel…

  • Light. As a novel grows it gets heavy. Doing that final revision late last night was cathartic. It was as if the book was a big bird on my shoulders that finally decided to fly.
  • Satisfied. I’ve opened Scrivener a few times this morning just to look at what I’ve done. I feel like a man who’s just finished building his house and is ready to move in. And it’s a house I can stand beside. I feel no reason to be falsely modest about this: the book is good.
  • Encouraged. This is my second novel. Do you know what that means? I’m a freakin’ novelist. That’s right, I’m kind of a big deal. And if I can do it twice, I can do it again. And again. And a-freaking-gain.
  • Sober. Storytelling is sacred. The storyteller creates worlds and, thus, mirrors God. It’s a holy thing, when it’s done right. I look at my work and am glad that I never took it lightly.
  • Hopeful. The novel is done, now I need to make it fly. I entertain thoughts of book tours and signings and meeting all my nerdy celebrity heroes. I think I’m allowed those dreams, too.
  • Thankful. I’ve always thought that creativity comes from outside. I’m thankful for that elusive Muse who’s been buzzing around and flirting with me. She led me on a merry chase, and pissed me off more than once, but she eventually gave me the whole story. Thanks, Muse. I’m also thankful for my wife, who has always encouraged me. When my busy work week is done, her first thought is how she can enable me to write more. She’s my hero. This book is for her.
  • Excited. What comes next? What do I write from here? Whatever it is, it’ll be something new. And that’s a wild thought.
  •      That’s how I feel. But what do I do? What do I do the day after I’ve completed a novel?

         Start the next one. Duh.

The Next Tolkien

     I don’t want to read him.

     Not even a tiny bit.

     It would be like watching Aladdin 2. It would be like watching the live-action version of Blood: The Last Vampire. Why would I do it when the original is better in every single way possible?

     So why do writers want to be rehashed greats?

     If you ever, in your creative journey, imagine yourself to be the next Tolkien or Hemingway or Lewis or Eliot, stop. Stop right there. Don’t write another word. Because you’re doing something horrible.

     The world does not want another Hemingway. We have him. He’s immortalized in the things he’s created. We don’t need another. We need you. We need your thoughts. Your ideas. Your love and wit and stories.

     Don’t aspire to be like anyone you’ve read. Aspire to be yourself.

     This is why so many urban fantasies seem exactly the same, today. Too many people want to be the next Meyer. And that’s why there were so many young-kid-turns-wizard books a few years ago. Too many people wanted to be the next Rowling. Not nearly enough people were brave enough to strike out on their own, find their own voice and stories, and pour themselves into their work.

     You remember those bracelets people used to wear with WWJD on them? Good advice for life, to be sure. But some people are tempted to put on WW(insert favorite author here)D when they are writing.

     But what would you do? What would you write?

     Write that.

Good and Bad Similes

A dented yellow and black taxi weaved like an epileptic snake in and out of traffic through Karachi’s dense streets.

     I admit it. I wrote that. My first novel was an unpublished practice run called The Foolishness of God. It was about life, religion and culture found within the blossoming romance of a Canadian guy and a Pakistan girl. Sound familiar? It’s never seen the light of day. And I wouldn’t let it, either. Not without some major rewriting, at least.

     Because it’s chock-full of bad metaphors and similes like this one.

     A metaphor or simile is supposed to connect the reader to whatever it is you want to connect them to. In this sentence, I was hoping to communicate the idea that driving in Karachi is whack. Instead, I manage to completely distract the reader by making them wonder what a snake with epilepsy would look like. By the time the reader figures it out and tries to apply it to the taxi, he or she is completely disengaged from the story. Bad simile, Matt. Baaad. Here’s one that seems a tad better (though significantly grosser):

I can hardly stand the food, and the stuff I do eat rushes out the other end like a garden hose.

This one works better because everyone is very familiar with water coming out of a garden hose. So when the garden hose is applied to the character’s digestive system, you get a very clear, and overly graphic, understanding of what the author wants to communicate.

     Most of the similes I used when I started writing were large and elaborate. Maybe I thought big, original similes showed people how clever I was. It tainted my writing, though. It tires the reader. So, in honor of bad similes, I made a list for myself so I can remember to keep my similes powerful and useful.

     Rules for similes:

  • They must be connected to human experience. That’s why the epileptic snake fails. You’ve never seen one. But everyone has seen a garden hose.
  • They must fit your voice. If you were writing an off-the-wall comedy, then maybe there would be a place for epileptic snakes being compared to driving. But The Foolishness of God was not a comedy.
  • They must not be trite. It’s trite when it’s overused to the point of meaninglessness. And trite is always bad. So never say ‘She blubbered like a little girl.’ or ‘He ate like a horse.’ Boring!
  • They must be more effective than simply stating what you want the reader to hear. If your simile or metaphor is so complicated that the reader has to scratch his head over it, maybe you should just say ‘She was sad.’ Yes, it’s always better to show her sadness, but if you can’t, just tell.
  • They must not be bound up by rules. If your muse demands it, throw all these rules away. I just made them all up, after all. Writing is like a puzzle with unlimited solutions.

What are some of the worst, distracting similes you’ve ever seen?

Writing Exercises – Emma and Nathan

I have decided to write some opening scenes for novels I never intend to write. I don’t know the stories behind these openings, but I want to analyze them to see what sort of story could be expected from them.

     Nathan took Emma’s face in her hands and kissed him. The kiss was deep and honest. It was their first. Emma felt sick in the middle of it, knowing it would be their last.
     “I love you,” Nathan whispered. He pulled back and gazed deep into Emma’s eyes. “I love you so much.”
     Emma stroked his cheek. “I love you, too.” It was not a lie.
     He pulled her close and hugged her. It was better than the kiss. Easier. Emma reached into her sleeve and pulled out a thin dagger. A flick of the wrist and it was done.
     Nathan noticed the wetness before the pain. He reached up and touched the place on his neck where she cut him.
     Emma pulled back and looked at the questions in Nathan’s eyes as his life drained from his throat.
     “I’m sorry,” she muttered as she cleaned her knife on Nathan’s sweater.

Considerations:
     Some promises are made right off the bat. First, Emma is the protagonist. She’s the only interesting character that’s not dead, after all.
     Second, the stakes are high and violent. This novel cannot be about Emma trying to find a cute guy or trying to outdo her high-school rival. Unless her high-school rival is running around killing people. It’s gotta be dark or else it’s disingenuous.
     Short, choppy paragraphs help in violent or action-filled scenes. It makes things feel quick.

Plot, Character and Bags of Wit

     I recently finished The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. It reminded me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

     I think every Literature Major across the planet just shuttered.

     But hear me out.

     I was asked what the plot to The Sun Also Rises was. It took me about twenty minutes to answer. And I think I answered it wrong. I sometimes feel the same way when people ask me what The Hitchhiker’s Guide is about. There’s not really much of a plot to it. People complain about holes and the absurdity of every single character and story arc in The Hitchhiker’s Guide. But characters and story arcs are not the point. The story and the characters are just the skeleton to which the massive muscles of wit are attached. Just the bag in which the wit is stored. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a big, beautiful bag of wit. The wit is high and lovely. And if you understand that when you start, you’ll love the book and the lack of coherent plot won’t bother you at all.

     I feel like The Sun Also Rises is similar in a nobler way. The story is the characters. It’s Brett and Cohn and Jake. You cannot put anyone else in their place.

     Other stories are devoted to plot. Replace Harry Tasker with James Bond and you’ll still get a neat movie. But put Robert Langdon in Robert Cohn’s place and everything falls apart.

     Hemingway created real people. And real people don’t need plots and gimmicks to be interesting. They are interesting and beautiful and ugly and tragic and glorious all by themselves.