When I was six, I wrote a short story (bound pages and all) about a king and his bad laws being overthrown by his people. When I was forty, I published my first novel about an idealist going to Washington DC to “really make a difference.” What does this say about free will and how much choice I seem to have had in the matter of whether or not I became a writer?
Well, not much actually, since these are just a pair of anecdotes I chose, but they do show the concerns I’ve always had about justice and politics. My journey between those two similar acts looked meandering and unpredictable while it was happening though. I came from a rural, blue-collar background where no one I knew had the luxury of indulging emotional creative urges. Education and work were supposed to have a rational purpose—they had to pay college loans and the bills of daily life. Luckily, I have the kind of ordered and analytical mind that let me succeed at engineering and then business school, so I did “all the right things” by getting practical degrees to get rid of debts and sock away some investments. All the while though, I managed enough flights of fancy to keep my artistic dreams alive and growing. I moved to San Francisco (a real eye-opener for a kid from the Amish countryside!), worked on construction projects in the western deserts, spent a summer as a business consultant to an Eskimo town in Alaska, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine during their Orange revolution, and rubbed elbows with Washington’s elite as an advisor to the director of the U.S. Secret Service. All of these gave me the time and perspectives I needed while I slowly developed my deepest passion—philosophy.
In 2010 when my wife was given a great job opportunity in northern England, we decided it was as good a time as I was ever going to get to try working full-time on all the philosophical arguments I’d been shouting in my head for decades, as well as the fictional stories I had been dreaming about to explore and illustrate these concepts. The most inspiring people to me had always been authors who’d done exactly this with their lives—writers like Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Camus, Orwell, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn, Ayn Rand, Irvin Yalom, Upton Sinclair, Daniel Quinn, Robert Pirsig, and Rebecca Goldstein—people who expressed their extremely well-thought-out philosophies in gripping fictional tales. Since the age of sixteen or so, when I started reading these kinds of works while trying to figure out where my own life might lead, I have desperately longed to be this kind of person and writer, to make the kind of things that had been most inspirational to me. For decades I kept journals, read widely, travelled far, and thought hard, always considering myself one of “those creative people” despite all professional appearances to the contrary. It may have been a secret, but I was preparing myself to take a shot at producing the kind of books that could inspire other people to think deeply and live well. The arrogance and audacity it takes to attempt this scares the hell out of me though; I still can’t begin to talk about these motivations whenever someone asks me at a dinner party or on the street, “So, what do you do?” But I have seen other people accomplish this, and they gave me so much. I have to try to do this too.
My first novel, Draining the Swamp, is the one I wrote at age forty about an idealist going to Washington, DC. I call it a “bureaucratic fable,” a cross between a picaresque and a Bildungsroman that was strongly influenced by the people I met and the real experiences my wife and I had while working in Washington (me with the FBI, Secret Service, and DHS; she with NGO’s and a Senator). It’s the book I wish I had read before I moved to DC so I could have really understood how the federal government works and what you can (or can’t) do to change it. I wrote it soon after leaving DC as a bit of an experiment (I wrote the first draft in thirty days during NaNoWriMo, knowing I had a lot to learn about writing), but I also wrote it for the opportunity to get down on paper everything I had learned during my years of work trying to make government more efficient. That doesn’t sound like a typical starting point for a first novel, but after lots of homework and many, many, rewrites, it became something I still find exciting and inspiring to read, which seems to be a really rare thing for writers to feel about their work. It’s been thrilling to hear from career government people I respect and admire who loved its truthfulness and ideals, as well as from professional book reviewers who thought it was “well written” and “riveting.” When the famously cantankerous Kirkus Reviews said, “its crisp dialogue and deep knowledge of Washington’s inner workings make it an edifying read,” I finally knew I might actually have what it takes to sell books. That review also said the book “can be a bit didactic,” knowing this was a bad thing to today’s literary cognoscenti, but when the Midwest Book Review said Draining the Swamp belonged in the same tradition as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, I really knew my style of didacticism had hit the mark I was aiming for. It was then that I finally felt I was ready as a writer to take on a bigger project—the novel idea I’d been trying to figure out in my head for over five years.
So my first novel was intended to entertain and inspire people who wanted to improve government. That was a goal I was confident I knew a lot about. This next novel (my current work in progress) is intended to entertain and inspire people who want to improve their personal lives in particular and the state of the world in general. Draining the Swamp was a book that contained a bit of political philosophy, but my next project required a thorough understanding of the rest of philosophy, particularly of the field of morality. Some say writing is an act of self-discovery, and for me that’s slightly true while I write (I’ll put together the odd metaphor or observation in the moment that really strikes me), but it’s much truer during the preparation phase for my writing. In this case, I actually took the time to write out my own philosophical beliefs in a clear, comprehensive, and concise manner. This was important to me as a writer who also wants to be known for his philosophy, but it was necessary too because my next main character was going to be a “Chief Philosophy Officer” for a biotechnology company in the near future, and I wanted his dialogue to be as convincing as possible. One of my favorite quotes inscribed on the walls of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC is from Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” During my philosophy-writing time, I became much more exact. I turned my ideas into a website where I blog about them and discuss them with others, and I even managed to get my biggest idea published in an academic journal article that will possibly be the most important thing I’ll ever write, even though it’s likely to only ever be read by a handful of professional philosophers.
Once this philosophy writing and other marketing work had earned a pause, I was excited to get back to creative writing. When I write fiction, I find that I really have to toggle my emotions back and forth between a happy, blabbering, freeness and a critical, worrying, paranoia. The first is the state I have to be in to get a first draft done or whenever I write fresh new passages. The second state is the one I have to be in while I edit, and re-edit, and re-edit until there’s not a word left that I might cringe about. I’m very mindful now of separating my work efforts into these two chunks so it’s easier to get / stay in these emotional mindsets.
Both of the novels I’ve drafted now have been done in NaNoWriMo style in 30 to 60 days, writing at least 1700 words per day until I’m done. After some early days struggling to achieve this, I’ve learned that I do it best by spending the morning sketching out the day’s text in bullet points, grabbing some phrases as they come to me (especially the words of dialogue my characters will say), but staying focused by moving fast. If I go in a direction that boxes me in or I think of something I’d rather have said earlier, then it’s really easy to move things around. This process reigns in the paralysis of “too much choice” I feel if I try to write slowly in complete and punctuated sentences. Using this style really gets me in a fast flow state where I can get a lot done without too many instances of staring out the window wondering where to go next. (If I do get really stuck, I’ll play a bit of Tetris and let my emotions work out the kinks of where my mind wants to go. I’m really good at Tetris now.) In the afternoons, I go back over the bullet points and turn them into finished text. Some changes inevitably occur during this process, but mostly I keep on track and get a lot done knowing I have a map and endpoint in sight about the passage I’m writing.
That’s the process for the first draft. After that, I like to read a writing textbook to help “learn the craft,” which always sparks lots of notes for changes that I can make during the next edit. Then I’ll try to read some fiction during the rest of the editing process, choosing things with a style I think I need more of: e.g. Saul Bellow if I need flourish, Dan Brown if I need pace, Ayn Rand if I’m feeling timid (nothing gets me shouting more than arguing with Ayn Rand in my head). I should say that I’m one of those writers who always have a big general outline done first. I’ll start with a rough plot outline first, and then use that to generate detailed psychological profiles of the characters who would act the way I need them to act during the twists and turns of the story. As I come up with their backgrounds, strengths, quirks, physical characteristics, names, etc., that’s when everything really comes to life, when I can hear the individual voices speaking the dialogue that will ultimately tell the story I want to tell. I’m a very idea-driven writer who has a point I’m trying to make and an emotional reaction I want to elicit, but I spend a lot of time constructing the people and situations that will believably and interestingly get me to my goal. I don’t understand writers who pick characters and just “see where they take them.” This seems aimless to me; and I need to have goals in my life and in my writing to generate real and purposeful movement.
The goal I’m working on at the moment is this “philosophical page-turner” I’m trying to complete with the Chief Philosophy Officer as the central character. That’s not exactly a standard genre, but it’s best exemplified by The Brothers Karamazov or Atlas Shrugged, although I do hope to improve upon both the philosophy and the pace compared to either of those novels (especially compared to Rand’s). I’m trying to create a story where the reader wants to be one of the characters and succeed as one of its heroes, as this can be a great way to pull people in and inspire thoughts and emotions that cross over into their daily lives. In this case, my CPhO is the head of a firm that has developed life extension technologies that are ready to be trialed on human subjects. The book revolves around the selection process for these candidates to be the first among us to “live forever,” which raises all sorts of philosophical questions about the impact this would have on people and society. Most medical trials look for people with specific illnesses that need to be cured, but this one needs to find people who are really good at living life so they can be given lots more of it. Wouldn’t you like to be one of those people? I know I would. Then I’d definitely have time to complete all the rest of the novel ideas I’ve got swimming around in my head!
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