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May 20, 2013

“Slowly I Turned”: Brewing a Book, or Back to the Beginning

by hmsnow1

I’m not allowed to drink coffee for health reasons, so I only have this knowledge second-hand. A friend told me recently that you can get a smoother, richer flavor if you cold-brew the coffee rather than boil it. Cold-brew methods take longer, I’m told, but my friend assured me that the results were worth the wait. I may never have tried it with coffee, but this idea crept into my mind while I was working on my current writing project during my lunch break.

Time is a big deal in writing. Books take time: time to plan, time to write, time to revise, time to edit, time to publish. Writing is anything but an instant-gratification activity. That’s why you’ll meet an endless number of people who have “always wanted to write a book” but very few who went ahead and wrote one. As with any genuine priority, it isn’t so much a matter of having time as it is making time. A writer moves other demands aside to create a space for the writing project. The project follows the writer through every other activity of the day– and sometimes the inactivity of the night, as anyone knows who has heard me talk about one of my many peculiar dreams. This is why writing is often described by writers not as an activity but as a state of mind.

I’m conscious of time more than ever because this project is special. I’m working on the last installment of the Last Book of the Kings series, the first book of which I began writing nearly twenty years ago. Ending a multi-volume project is always an interesting experience, but this one more so for me because I entered a lengthy hiatus between books three and four, and an only slightly shorter gap between book five and this project. In the interim, I worked on other unrelated projects. For instance, between books four and five, I wrote the entirety of the Makkarios series. That one went by really fast– five books in about three years, not counting revision. By comparison, the LBoTK series seems to have taken… well… almost  twenty years.

It makes me want to demand, What’s the deal? How could one series develop so quickly and the other so slowly? That’s one of the curiosities about my writing life: no project “happens” in the same way as another. Which reminds me, I’m on a tangent. Back to the point: I began by saying that this project is special. The Keeper House Unending may not have been the first story I ever wrote, but it was my first serious attempt at a novel-length work. It was the first story in which I did not intrude. Before KHU, I wrote fantasies of a very adolescent kind‡, where one of the characters was always me in scanty disguise. That type of story is easy enough to write. It was harder to develop the other type, the story that had almost nothing to do with me except in conception and execution. I had already developed a method that allowed me to absorb myself in the story’s details before I sat down to write– or rather, in the case of KHU, to type on my new and trusty electric typewriter, which was such a thrill after writing everything else longhand in spiral notebooks until then. An Electric Typewriter!

Sorry– temporary lapse into nostalgic geekiness. Won’t happen again.

A method, I said. Lest you assume I had gone to great lengths, climbed Himalayan heights and sought hairy gurus in order to become a writer, I must correct the mental image that the word “method” conjures. By method, I simply mean a habit that I later found useful for writing. What was it? Complete inactivity. No, I’m not joking. I used to assume the horizontal, usually on the scratchy old brown couch in the basement TV room, and go completely dormant. I think bears do much the same thing in winter. In that semiconscious state, I would wander through books I had read, inserting myself as an extra character and interacting with the characters accordingly. Yes, I know it sounds weird and a little esoteric, like something you might hear from a character in sackcloth on a mountaintop, but be fair: I was a bright kid in a dull village, home-schooled and bored out of my wee mind. I wanted friends who didn’t look at me cross-eyed when I used polysyllabic words like “polysyllabic.” Not finding any nearby, I made my own, not unlike country girls of an earlier era who cut paper dolls out of magazines to pretend about high society. I cut friends out of other people’s books. Or you might say I cut myself into other people’s books. As you might imagine, there were limits to this form of entertainment. The next natural step was first to insert myself into my own stories, and thence to stories that did not need me in them at all. I never looked back after that step. Without realizing it, I was teaching myself (albeit clumsily) how to be a fantasy novelist.

Fast-forward now to 2013, to the end of the project I began while hibernating on the scratchy brown sofa in the basement of my childhood home. I have spent so much time away from this series, working on projects that wrote themselves faster than I could type, that I feel a little alienated from my firstborn. This one won’t happen like wildfire. There is too much history, too much detail, and I don’t want to slight any of it. I need to spend time with it. So, can you guess what I did last Saturday? I didn’t get out of bed until half past eleven. I haven’t done that since… I honestly can’t remember when. Not in the last five years, certainly. Possibly not in the last twelve. I wasn’t sleeping. I was lying dormant, getting acquainted with my new main characters. I only wish I had more time to do the same. It reminds me of a time when I looked differently at the writing life, when it was more truly life than it has become in recent years. Going back to the beginnings from time to time can be a good thing. After all, history is a story, even little histories like mine. And you know I’m a sucker for a story.

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‡Naturally, because I was an adolescent. I was still a high school student when I began KHU.

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