Once upon a time…
Where does a story begin? Tolkien famously reported that a sentence flashed through his mind: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” This line became a doorway which he — and subsequently his many readers – stepped through to discover and grow to love Middle Earth and Elder Days, the world of Hobbits, Gandalf, Bilbo, Frodo, and the Ring Quest. I am a huge fan of Tolkien. I entered that doorway in my youth, even becoming a member of a local Tolkien Society (the Los Angeles chapter: Desolation of Smaug). But that is another story.
Well, where did Pelagia begin? For many years I have thought about the colonization of the open seas. I wanted to write a story about a community living on the seas, a story which would also incorporate my keen interest in science and the dynamics of faith. With this spark of interest and resolve, the story seemed to emerge with a life of its own…
In mid-2011 I wrote down the title, Pelagia, and sketched out two scenes. In the first, a young man evades his kidnappers and swims to safety after being held captive in a boat. In the second, the same young man sits, slumped in a broken-down car, staring out into a desert, as Paul Whitehouse pulls up. I had no idea how these two scenes were related, what the young man’s back story was, what would happen next, or how these scenes related to settlers on the open ocean.
Imagination and growth of a narrative
There are probably as many writing styles as authors. Some authors carefully plot out and map their story arc. Some build characters from the ground up and then explore how these characters might interact. Some write vignettes until a story arc begins to emerge. Some start with dialog and build a story around relationships.
For me, it is as though I see characters and scenes; they materialise in my imagination. The written story is then simply a description of what I see. I follow these characters in my mind’s eye and record what they do and who they relate to.
Sophia, Gideon and Sul materialized in this way, and slowly their personalities emerged. The people of Marcelli Township then began to take shape in the depths of my mind. First came Lorenzo with the dolphins, then Sally, Carlo, and Major Camden. A story began to coalesce around these characters, followed by relational connections and bridge scenes.
For a long time, I did not know what the characters were up to and which might become the antagonists. Then two scenes full of tension emerged. In the first, Lisa meets Abdul Qawwi as he examines her model of earthquake faults after she finishes delivering her presentation at a geophysics conference. In the second, Abdul Qawwi prays in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Those two tributary-like scenes met and flowed into the main narrative stream.
Finding fellowship on the way…
I remember that as my story grew to about 32,000 words, I began pestering friends for feedback on my writing. Generally, people were kind and tolerant, and not very critical (most people don’t want to nip a writer’s creativity in the bud.) My wife sensed that I was hungry for support on my journey and wisely suggested that I join a local writer’s group, to get the camaraderie I needed.
Of course, why didn’t I do that earlier?!
So, after a few false starts, I found and joined several local writing groups. Meeting with fellow authors was a great encouragement and spurred me deeper into the craft of writing fiction.
One writing group met in a local café. We would read aloud short scenes from our writing projects, then discuss them. Another writing group met via email, regularly sharing written vignettes with each other. I came to deeply value this feedback of my new writer friends as they candidly told me about the parts they liked, the parts that didn’t make sense or confused them and gave constructive critique of story, characters, dialog scenes and writing style.
I learned so much about the craft of fiction writing through a kind of relational ‘osmosis’ in these groups. In my opinion, this has been a vital part of the writing process that some new writers miss out on. I’ve noticed that many self-published works do not seem to have gone through the refining process of objective peer review (very hard to be objective of our own work), and so do not end up realizing their potential.
Focus, and critical feedback
So, slowly Pelagia emerged and took form. I was indebted to my writer’s groups for adding their sparks to fuel my fire. In 2016 I used part of a sabbatical time to work on the story, bringing it to a point where I could send it to an editor for professional feedback. I found the best way to encourage the story to emerge was to isolate myself for a few weeks, usually at a friend’s holiday cottage, free from all obligations and responsibilities.
Halfway through the sabbatical, the story had reached 65,000 words. I was excited, it felt like I was almost done! Through one of my writing groups I contacted an experienced editor and sent her the draft. Her very thorough critique, when it came back a few weeks later, splashed red ink across every page. After the initial ego shock, I came to recognize again what a profound gift constructive critique is and welcomed it as that. Feedback and criticism always improve my writing.
Over the next six months or so, I continued to refine and develop the story. I reached 90,000 words and thought once again that it was nearly finished, having reached the size of the average novel. An older, far more experienced writer in my email group, gently broke it to me that I might not even be half-way through the writing process. How true that turned out to be.
Refined by friends
About this time, I felt like I had learned as much as I could from the writing groups. What I wanted to hear more at this point was how an average reader might react to my work. Inspired by Tolkien and the Inklings I decided to try ‘friend-sourcing’, asking for reviewers from among my network of friends.
Over time, almost fifty people offered to read the manuscript and give their candid feedback. At first, I expected that they would all find the same mistakes or make the same remarks, but I was pleasantly surprised at the wide variety of responses, which often reflected the wide range of life experience and expertise of the reviewers.
I settled on three questions for the reviewers to answer as they went through each section of the story: What did you like? What didn’t you understand or made the narrative stumble? What would make this a better story?
I set up a website and email address specifically to interact with these reviewers, and I have to say this was one of the most enjoyable parts of the process. This set of friends really were companions to me for this part of the journey. When they saw that I indeed was receptive to constructive critique, the reviewers gave me lots of honest input. Their feedback helped me shape Pelagia – prompting me when more back story was needed, when the dialogue needed to be sharpened, when details needed to be better explained or corrected. I feel as though only 70% of the finished novel is mine, and 30% credit goes to this friend-sourcing network.
In the hands of professionals
After this season with the reviewers, the novel weighed in at 120,000 words. I decided to send it to a professional editor, published writer and creative writing teacher I had met at a writing conference. She was very, very helpful: pointing out a sagging story arc, weak characters (and why) and several sections where she simply challenged me to write better. She also recommended two hugely informative books on the writing process: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler and The Story by Robert McKee.
The book grew to 147,000 words over the next few drafts. At the end, this editor told me she wanted to introduce the manuscript to her publisher: Lion-Hudson books. Lion reviewed the 9th draft of the story and accepted it for the commissioning process. This commissioning was a bit touch and go, as my book was such a unique genre – one they had not done before. Eventually, though, Lion offered me a contract which I signed in July 2020. The plan is to publish the book in June 2021.
When I was young, I loved to hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Often, I would see a ridge or peak in the distance that looked like the summit; but as soon as I had climbed it, I would see that there was yet another summit towering before me.
Writing Pelagia has felt like that. There have been natural milestones which, from a distance, appeared to be the finish line, but as soon as I arrived at the milestone, it was evident that much more work was yet to be done. Writing this book has certainly required far more effort and dedication than I expected. However, what keeps me going is simply the joy of writing. I feel like I am in my element.
And, well, of course even now there is another summit. The sequel. Already in progress – working title: Deepstar. The journey continues.