Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: novels

Revision, Rewriting, Redoing

     I finished the first draft to my second novel on October 30th. It’s a rush to hit the save button and laugh over the epic word-count.

     Now what? Print, pack and send off to the drooling masses?

     Not for a long, long time.

     I’ve compared the creative process to giving birth. It’s messy, painful, and sometimes you can’t remember why you’re doing it. But the baby at the end is always worth it. After the baby (novel) is born, what do you do with her? Do you dress her up, pat her on the head and send her off into the world? Not a chance. She’s not ready. She’s not complete. She cannot stand on her own two feet yet. So you spend the next few years raising her.    

‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ – Ernest Hemingway

     Thankfully I love rewriting and revising. I’m already halfway done my first pass. I have no idea how many passes I’ll need. It’s a great feeling to finally squeeze out the first draft. It’s an even better feeling to mark it up with red pen and turn it into the novel that it’s meant to be.

     I think a lot of people get discouraged as they write because they recognize what they’re writing is crap. The thing is, it’s supposed to be crap. The first draft is just giving birth. It’s bloody, loud and not a thing you’d invite your neighbour to be a part of. You do it in secret, or maybe with a ridiculously close person. The baby needs to be cleaned up before you trust her with extended family. And most of the world doesn’t get to play with her until you decide she’s ready.

     It’s the same with your novel. Don’t worry if it seems whiny or trite. Don’t worry about the shallow dialogue and the painfully obvious plot holes. It’s supposed to be that way. Your revisions will fix everything. Everything.

     So write that crap. You can clean it up later.

Moral Ambiguity in Fiction

     Real life in ambiguous. You’d rather it not be, but it is. In every action we become someone’s hero and another’s villain. We try to do the best and sometimes we pull off real, pure actions. But usually the human race bounces back and forth between good, evil and something squishy in between.

     So I sometimes get wearied when I read most stories with very clear-cut villains and heros. The world is full of Boromirs and Gollums; not Saurons and Aragorns. And our stories are meant to be elevated life, not idealized life. And all our good stories must be true, even if they never happened. So our villains must have good and our heroes must be tainted.

     These stories force us to think and bring us face-to-face with difficult questions and uncertainties. We are forced to think when Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke tries to choose a side in the war between the humans and the forest gods. We are forced to think when Michael Corelone takes his father’s place as godfather of a criminal organization. We are forced to think when we see Jaime the Kingslayer waffle between hero and villain.

     I understand most people don’t share my love for this kind of ambiguity in stories. They find it frustrating and ill-satisfing. We like our lessons easy. We like it when the world is easy to judge. We like to tell our kids that good and evil are very clear and good people and evil people are just as clear.

     But life isn’t like that. And even the greatest of Books shows that, doesn’t it? King David the murderer is called a hero. Lot is called righteous, though he tried to convince a mob to rape his daughters. Moses murdered and was a saviour. And I still can’t figure out if Joab was billed as a hero or a villain.

     Life is complex; good, true stories reflect that complexity. Yes, there are some wild-eyed heroes devoted to nothing but the higher good. Yes, there are some black-hearted villains, consumed with hate and greed. But only a few. There are no armies of black-hearted soldiers. There are no legions of light-blessed paladins. Most of us are a mix and that tells me that most of our stories should be mixed.

Books You Should Read

Here are some of the best books I’ve read in the past year. Pick them up and love them.

  • House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds
    This may be my favourite sci-fi. It’s long and kind of hard to get into, but worth the effort it demands. It takes place six million years in the future and is one of the most insightful speculative fictions I’ve seen.
    “I was born in a house with a million rooms, built on a small, airless world on the edge of an empire of light and commerce that the adults called the Golden Hour, for a reason I did not yet grasp.”
  • A Dance With Dragons – George R.R. Martin
    I was reading this series long before the HBO program made it famous. It stands apart from any fantasy series I’ve read. It’s gritty and harsh. Instead of heroes and villains, Martin writes real people. Every hero has a bit of a villain within. And nearly every villain has a spark of good.
    “The night was rank with the smell of man. … Only man stripped the skins from other beasts and wore their hides and hair.”
  • Let the Right One In – John Ajvide Lindqvist
    This is how vampire novels were meant to be. If you’ve seen the movies, please put them out of your head. The book is so much more special. It’s dark and wonderfully tender at the same time.
    “Real love is to offer your life at the feet of another, and that’s what people today are incapable of.”
  • The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
    The start of a unique fantasy series. Only two books are out right now. A hero tells the tale of how his life went from homeless boy to the most feared mage in the world.
    “But for most practical purposes Tarbean had two pieces: Waterside and Hillside. Waterside is where people are poor. That makes them beggards, thieves, and whores. Hillside is where people are rich. That makes them solicitors, politicians and courtesans.”
  • The Way of Kings – Brandson Sanderson
    Sanderson’s first book in his epic series. It shows a lot of promise and uncovers a hugely complex universe.
    “The hallmark of insecurity is bravado.”
  • True Love – Thich Nhat Hanh
    A non-fiction in which the meditative master unpacks his views of love and how to centre your mental and physical self. A useful point of view for anyone interested in spirituality.
    “So you can walk in such a way that the Kingdom of God possible in the here and now, in such a way that peace and hoy are possible today, in such a way that the Pure Land is available under your feet.”
  • A New Kind of Christian – Brian McLaren
    I was surprised at how closely this book traced my own spiritual journeys over the past four or six years. Insightful and useful, though the storytelling is weak.
    “Carol, I’m not sure how long I’ll last. I know this must be scary for
    you. I’m sorry.

There. Now I’ve shared with you. What books should I read next?

A Dying Old Bus


     It was winter, so the windows were closed. Not that it helped much. A stray stream of air slipped through the cracks in the glass that the riveted-on piece of plexi-glass was not able to stop. But the bus was crowded, so it wasn’t so cold. That was good. It was surprising how cold Pakistani nights could get. Never below freezing, of course. But chilly enough to wish that vehicles and houses had heaters.
     The bus was like any other. Every square inch was decorated with gaudy colors and hangings. Lights flashed all over the inside and out whenever the driver touched the brakes, which, mercifully, was not often. The plastic seats were all ripped up and barely fixed with mismatched scraps of coloured plastic. The floors were sticky with spilled drinks and candy wrappers. Yep, just another normal bus.
     I was lucky to still have my seat. Most of the other men were forced to stand while the women claimed seats. That was nice, I thought. In a country that was not exactly known for gender equality at least women were guaranteed a seat on a bus.

     That bus was special for me. While I sat on it I looked around and built a clumsy narrative in my mind. I paid special note of the windows, the seats, the ancient Hindi music screeching from faulty speakers. When I arrived home I sat at the computer and wrote it all out. It was even clumsier on paper. But in my eyes I saw something. A tiny whisper rose from the scratchy writing: ‘Are you a writer?’
     The paragraph grew and I added characters. They took on roles and emotions and generated a plot. The next thing I knew I had the first draft to a 100k-word novel. I held it in my hands after printing it off for the first time. ‘Am I a writer?’
     Nothing ever came of the novel. And I’m okay with that. Because it was the first step. It was practice. I’ve left it behind and I press forward. But it’s funny to think back to that bus. That clunky bus scene never even made it into the final product. But that’s okay. Because it served a role. It got me to write a novel.
     That novel was only ever read by a handful of people. And that’s okay, too. It served a role. It was practice. It told me to write. And I’m still writing because of it. It’s amazing to think about the things that made you move forward, isn’t it?

     I love Pakistani buses. They represent something very precious for me. They represent the pursuit of creation. Do you have anything like that?

Review: World War Z – Max Brooks

It goes by many names: “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” as well as newer and more “hip” titles such as “World War Z” or “Z War One.” I personally dislike this last moniker as it implies an inevitable “Z War Two.” For me, it will always be “The Zombie War.”

I bought the book on a whim. Until I started reading it I was afraid that I had wasted my five bucks. Great myths and genres always have a higher than normal chance of being bastardized. Zombies, vampires and the like are creatures with a deep mythos about them and that mythos has been abused again and again in film and literature. So, yeah, I was worried I had wasted five bucks.

The book is written as a historical account of a world-wide zombie outbreak and the war that followed. The narrator travels the world after the war ends, collecting stories from different survivors, gathering a wide view of what the war was like for people in different stations and nations and cultures.

It was a good read. Gritty and realistic but not overtly depressing, as a world-wide zombie invasion would be. My only struggle was the complete lack of any real protagonist to fall in love with. But the originality of the storytelling made up for it with me. It was a risky book to write, I think, being so very different. But it was a risk that paid off. Five bucks well spent.

Quotes:

Most people don’t believe something can happen until it already has. That’s not stupidity or weakness, that’s just human nature. I don’t blame anyone for not believing.

Imagine a group of people all staring at writing on a wall, everyone congratulating one another on reading the words correctly. But behind that group is a mirror whose image shows the writing’s true message. No one looks at the mirror. No one thinks it’s necessary.

We were taught since birth to bear the burden of our grandfathers’ shame. We were taught that, even if we wore a uniform, that our first sworn duty was to our conscience, no matter what the consequences.

Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they’re used.

Eating Less

I have a forty minute drive to work. Forty minutes on a good day. Which, to be honest, is most days because I work nights and only creepy vampires like myself are on the highway at 11pm on a weeknight. The drive used to seriously bother me. Inefficient, y’know? Forty minutes of doing nothing. So I started getting audiobooks and throwing them on my phone to listen to. I consumed the entire Harry Potter series (fun), a little less than half of His Dark Materials (dumb) and part two of A Song of Ice and Fire (epic). I figured so much consumption of fiction would help keep my own creative juices flowing. Clever, eh?

Not so much, it turns out.

Driving was my only moment of solitude. I live with people and tasks. When I’m at home I’m with the family. When I’m out I’m with friends. When I at the library or work, I have tasks. Only in the car am I alone and idle. And that’s a good thing.

Creative Benefits of Solitude

  • Your ideas can ferment. Like a fine wine, ideas are never good as soon as they are mixed. They need to sit and grow and mingle within your head. Solitude lets them do this without allowing outside pollutants in.
  • Your mind can rest. Sometimes you’re just too tired to think. A bit of solitude is a break from stress, worry and tasks. And when you rest, you always tend to work better.
  • Your stress can dissipate. Not only can you rest, but when you are alone you can see your stresses a little clearer and they usually tend to get smaller for the seeing. Stress fades when we are not continually reminded of the things to be stressed about.
  • You can hear the Muse. She speaks softly, after all.