Song of the Ziggurat

I always wanted and intended to be a writer, and I always wanted to be a novelist. Short stories can be brilliant, gleaming gems, but it is the novels I have read that changed me, changed the way I saw the world. Lord of the Rings. The Stand. A Wizard of Earthsea. House of Leaves. Dune.

I spent most of my teens and twenties writing awful short stories and even worse poetry, but I tried wanted to write novels and I tried. I managed two (awful) novellas, around 40,000 words each. The first, written as a teenager, was a violent second-world fantasy ripe with clichés and ripped from the novels of Weis and Hickman. The second was a vampire love story I wrote in college, fattened with bloated prose and driven by morose, melodramatic characters that reflected my own loneliness. I tried several times to write a great epic inspired by the Yes album Relayer, but these all fell to pieces after a few thousand words, as I had no idea how to get where I was going.

Then, a few months before I turned 30, I was watching an anime series called Wolf’s Rain. Seeing these teenage shapeshifters, these outsiders, running through the ruins of an abandoned city was an image that seared itself in my brain. Suddenly a story started to rise around it. Teenagers and outcasts in a secondary world. A violent man who leads them, a man who is their protector but who also uses them. And all of these children lurking in the ruins of a forgotten city. I saw down and in two hours wrote a very rough sketch of a story that I knew had enough meat on it to be a whole novel.

Fast forward a few months. In a single week my whole life changed. I quit my job as a bookseller, got married, sold my car, turned 30, and moved with my new wife to Washington, DC. Now I found myself sitting inside a tiny, creaky apartment in a city where I knew no one, unemployed, bored, and lonely while my new spouse spent her days and evenings sucked into her new job. I knew I needed structure to keep from spiraling into misery and depression. I needed a routine.

Every day after lunch I would sit down and start writing. A few pages each day. Sometimes five hundred words. Sometimes two thousand. But word by word, page by page, this book began to happen.

I set rules for myself. Each time I was going to start a new chapter, I returned to my original sketch and expanded a single paragraph into a page-long chapter synopsis. Then I would write. If I got stuck, all I had to do was look back at my chapter synopsis, then write that scene. Each day when I would start, I would read the last two or three paragraphs from the prior day’s writing to pick up the thread of where I had left off, but otherwise I never went back and read what I had written. I never edited. I knew if I stopped, I would just keep rewriting and revising, and I’d never make it to the end of the first draft.

(I’ve written three novels now, and this strategy has gotten me to the end of every first draft.)

After fourteen long, sometimes painful months, I had the first draft of a novel. Song of the Ziggurat. 128,000 words. Finally, I sat down and re-read the entire thing. And to my real surprise, it was not completely horrible.

It wasn’t great. It wasn’t even good. But it was mostly coherent, and for that I counted a victory. But it needed a TON of work, so I started over, revising chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, chapter 4. But something was wrong. I went back to reread my newly revised chapters, and while the writing of those first few chapters was far more polished than in my first draft, the story itself wasn’t any better. I spent nearly a year revising and rewriting these opening chapters but did little to actually improve the story. I knew that I needed to do more, but I didn’t know how.

I signed up for a class at the Writer’s Center in Washington, DC, and thanks to a great teacher, I learned some valuable skills about how to break down a novel into scene summaries and how to look at those in a whole fashion. I reverse-outlined my novel. Then I printed my reverse outline (30 pages long) and hung it over my apartment, studying it scene by scene. Now I could start to see where I had gaps, where things felt flat or dull. I began to understand that I had a series of linked events, but I didn’t have a plot. The book had moments of tension, but it lacked the structure of well-defined acts, well-paced beats. Worse, my main character was frighteningly passive. My secondary characters were far more interesting.

I read books on plot, I studied other novels, and I wrote and rewrote. For four more years I rewrote Song of the Ziggurat, until finally I decided that I was done. I didn’t feel great about the novel, but I knew it was readable and coherent and as good as I could make it. If I had started over at that point and rewritten the book entirely from scratch, it would have been better, but after five years, I was just done.

I sent the book off to agents. I went to a major writing conference and talked to everyone I could, told them about my book. I wrote new short stories. And I waited.

Crickets.

To be fair, I had one request for a partial, which itself resulted in crickets. But for the most part, this novel that I had worked on for five years landed like a dud. It just wasn’t good enough. I considered self-publishing, but then I remembered how hard I had pushed to get my first publication, and the resulting disappointment when I saw the quality of my own work in print.

I didn’t want people to read my book and say, “that was okay.” I wanted them to read it and say “that was great!” Mediocrity is not how one sells books.

So, I put the book in a metaphorical drawer, and that it where it shall forever remain.

Song of the Ziggurat taught me one of the most important lessons of my life.

I can write a novel.

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