The Characters Run Amok

This afternoon I felt a familiar sensation when working on Chapter Eleven of the Third Riel Conspiracy. Two familiar sensations, actually. The first was that euphoric rush that comes when the story starts to fall together. It’s a breakthrough moment in penning the first draft of a novel. It happens when my fear that the story simply won’t work, or won’t work very well, is eclipsed as the characters take over and plot the direction of the book themselves. Stepped aside and letting them do the writing is the best course of action. At least until the second draft when adult supervision may be required again.

The second sensation is apprehension. The Third Riel Conspiracy is a historic murder mystery set during the Battle of Batoche during the 1885 North West Rebellion. In preparation to write this book I read dozens of histories and biographies of that period, and last fall, rather than riding our mountain bikes in Utah or going somewhere sunny and warm and drinking fruity drinks, Jenn and I went to Saskatchewan.

It was fun, but there was no beach, no bikini and no sound of waves on a tropical shore. There were no slick-rock abrasions either, which is usually what I come back from Utah with, so I’d say things turned out even-Steven.

Anyway: I did a lot of research, and have dozens and dozens of pages of notes and charts and timelines that are supposed to help me keep the decidedly fictional events of this novel corresponding with both the people and the timeline of the Rebellion.

And then today I decided to say to hell with it, and did something that’s likely strictly taboo in historical fiction, and that someone somewhere is likely going to get rather pernickety about, but to whom I say: tough. I introduced a real historical character to the book who was never at Batoche, at least not that I can tell. But the circumstances of the story simply demanded it.

This is what happens when you let your characters run amok. They take over. They make unreasonable demands. They cause trouble.

So now I’ve got this real historical figure (other than Riel, who has a walk on cameo part in a couple of places. Hint: it doesn’t end well for him.) that has inserted himself into my well laid plan, and I like the chapter that I just wrote with him in it. I may change it later, but for now, he can have his moment in the sun. Okay, Okay: if you must know, it’s Leif Crozier, who was the Superintendent of the NWMP at the time, and a hero of the Duck Lake Massacre, but who I don’t believe made an appearance at Batoche.

But there he is. And who knows if it will last. But that was what happened today in First Draft World.

All told, two full chapters today, and 5,860 words, not including the 500 or so here. This is what happens when you get a head of steam.

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Back at it

Two weeks to the day that I wrote the last words in The Third Riel Conspiracy, I picked up the plot line where it left off.

I took the day off work, and will again tomorrow, to focus on building some momentum again. Two weeks is a long time; it puts a lot of drag on forward progress. I spent the morning reading the first eight chapters, and then this afternoon, and again this evening penned the ninth. My goal is to write two more tomorrow, and two over the weekend, while still trying to enjoy the last of summer.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take time off from the full court press of writing a first draft; hell, when I started I knew that a little vacation would interrupt the flow. But now that I’m back at it I need to write every day and not get bogged down, waiting time re-reading old material once more.

Momentum is the key to a first draft. It’s all about building a head of steam and then getting the hell out of the way. My tomorrow I hope to be running even with the train barreling down the track; by next week I’ll jump clear.

Goodbye Jack

I met Jack Layton only once, but that was enough. It was six years ago or so, in Calgary. He was speaking at several events and I met briefly with him between sessions and we walked down the Stephen Avenue Mall together chatting about how to engage people in the NDP in a more systematic way. I don’t really remember much about the conversation; what I do recall is the character of the man. As a friend of mine who knew him very well told me yesterday: “He was the real deal.” And in politics, that is not always the case.

When Jack Layton died yesterday morning he left a gaping hole in Canadian politics. Soon there will be the predicable questions about whether the NDP and the Official Opposition can survive without him. That’s not what I am asking: What I want to know is who will step up and remind us through his or her every action, every word, that “love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair?”

The space left behind by Jack Layton is simply one of kindness, and of love. One of the quotes in the sound montage used by the CBC yesterday had Jack proclaiming that there were so many familiar faces in the room that he just wanted to wade in and hug everybody.

Really? Is it possible to imagine another Leader of the Official Opposition speaking like that? Maybe in time Jack’s true legacy will be that our leaders will see that if we’re trying to build a country, we can’t tear each other down in the process.

This morning my heart goes out to those who truly knew and loved Jack. His partner Olivia, his children Mike and Sarah and grandchildren who didn’t yet have the opportunity, but will in time know of his legend; and his colleagues in parliament and his myriad friends. Nothing ever really ends; nobody really dies: we just change. And maybe from this change, inspired by his final words to Canadians – “So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world” – we can learn that by wielding lightness, not the dark, will allow us to build a better word.

What’s that in your hand?

Every writer dreams of inspiration of this sort. You’re just getting rolling on the first draft of a second book in a series of novels (exposes, literary essays, graphic novels, Hallmark greetings cards, whatever) and the first book in that series lands on your doorstep, fresh as a daisy. You tear open the box, rip aside the packaging, and there it is: your literary marvel. There is really nothing like holding your own book in your hands for the first time. You can remember when it was conceived. You remember all your hopes and dreams that were invested in it.

Wait: that’s something else entirely.

But it does feel pretty damned good to hold that book in your hands. And nothing makes you want to sit back down and pound out a bunch of tripe the next morning more than seeing the fruit of your labour right there on the kitchen table.

So yes, I did happen to have this experience this week. Thank-you for asking. I got my author’s copies of The End of the Line, which is the first book in the Durrant Wallace Series. And now I’m steaming my way through the first draft of the second of the series. I’ve got two more works being published between now and when The Third Riel Conspiracy will see the light of day, but holding that book in my hands gave me some powerful motivation.

Mind, I haven’t written a word in the last two days, but did finish a couple of chapters over the weekend and on Monday morning, putting together more than 7,000 words.

And just in case you were following along from previous posts in this Deconstructing Draft One theme: Yes, I let the protagonist live. Hell, it was only Chapter 8.

Deek Penner dead at Holt City

Click here to read an excerpt from The End of the Line

In a few short weeks The End of the Line will be available in better books stores across the Country, and online as an ebook. This book was conceived in 2006 when I began thinking about my interest in Canadian history, coupled with my creative passion for the mystery genre. Today you can get a sneak peak at the first chapter of The End of the Line. The year is 1884, and five hundred men have been living in a shanty town at the end of the steel in what today is known as Lake Louise, but then was called Holt City. Click the image to the right to read the first chapter. And please visit your local book store to ask that they put aside a copy of this debut novel in the Durrant Wallace mystery series.

Mortal Peril

Saturday morning after a long night with little sleep so I don’t get started until late and then finish early so we can enjoy the brief Rocky Mountain summer on the trail. Just the same, after a stint of scribbling last night, I’ve gotten into Chapter 7. More significantly, something has happened that I didn’t expect. Despite the meticulous development of a story-board, often the characters lead the story in a direction all on their own, and so it was in Chapter 6 and 7. I think I must have been getting the sense that the pace of the events was starting to slow; what to do? Put the protagonist in mortal peril. And not just any old run-of-the-mill mortal peril, but one that is eerily similar to another time he faced death. Its fun to fuck with their minds.

I have to wait until tomorrow morning to see how he fares.

Let the Story Lead

I spent several hours last night going through my notes from last summer, once again trying to puzzle out the interwoven plot line of the Third Riel Conspiracy, while at the same time trying to recall the political consequences of the North West Rebellion. I re-wrote the list of suspects and recreated the web of relationships involved in the plot, and after several hours of study, thought I had it all clear in my addled mind.

This morning I started writing just before 6, and after twenty minutes, got tangled up as two of the suspects started to seem very similar. I had to go back and review my notes, and then realized that I was spending way to much time worrying about how I had originally conceived the book, and decided to say the hell with it, and just let the characters take the lead.

Sometimes, writing as I do with a lot of structure, it can become confining, especially if a fair stretch of time (a year in this case) has come to pass between when I started organizing the plot and when I actually do the writing. Structure helps me write quickly, and keeps me focused on the development of the plot and the characters, rather that trying to guess what’s going to happen next, but it also can be confining. Sometimes I just have to let the story lead me, rather than the other way around. Its about trust: do I trust myself to tell the story in a way that makes sense, is entertaining and even a little revealing of Canadian history? No reason not to.

Plus it’s the first draft. As Chuck Wendig says, I can give myself permission to suck.

A good morning of writing, given the time constraints: 2000 words, and finished Chapter Five.

Follow this and other novel’s stories on Twitter @stephenlegault

Barrelling Through Day One

Despite a slow start, I managed to write about 1,500 words this morning. Starting is like that. There is inertia holding me back whenever I get started, or in this case restarted, on a project. My tact is to put my head down and barrel through it.

First I had to read the four chapters that I had already written last year. Much of it will have to be cut, but that’s not my job during the first draft. The job of the first draft is to simply get as much of the story down as possible, punctuated with brief moments of half-decent writing, as quickly as possible.

Before going to be last night I took the dog earned folder that contained my research and sat on the back deck and read it through. The story of the North West Rebellion is complex all on its own. It’s filled with multifaceted motivations and its origins are multifarious. Within that I’ve tried to construct a story that, without disguising itself too thinly as a history text, mirrors those motivations in the actions of the suspects in the murder central to my plot.

Reading through it last night made my head swim, but I was resolved not to let that get in the way of writing something, anything, this morning.

I figured that if I just started writing I would piece together what I remembered of the story as I went. This might work. But at some point in the next few days I’m going to have to sit down for a few hours and really puzzle through the story of the Battle of Batoche, and remember exactly how I imagined my narrative transposing against the actual events of history.

For the moment, it’s nice to be immersed with old, familiar characters. Durrant Wallace, the one-legged North West Mounted Police officer, and his friends, Dr. Saul Armatage, and Garnet Moberly, the ageless adventurer who serves as Durrant’s best sounding board. Trying to pick up the cadence of each of their speech, and remembering what traits characterize them best, will take a few days.

Besides the rediscovery characters themselves, there is a feeling of anticipation. I like starting a book to find out if I really can pull it together in the end. Can I really weave this story together? Have a bitten off more than I can chew? Let’s find out.

Deconstructing Draft One

I’ve gotten everything else out of the way. I’ve finished v11 of The Vanishing Track (working title), the third book in the Cole Blackwater Series and it’s been sent off to the copy editor. Good luck; God bless. Running Toward Stillness, still in its embryonic stage, has been printed and is currently with my First Line of Defense, AKA, Jenn, my wife. Thicker than Blood, also in larval form, has been sent to my Second Line of Defense: Frances Thorsen. If Jenn thinks something is OK, then its up to Frances to tell me if it sucks or not.

And The Slickrock Paradox is on my publisher’s reading list for the next couple of days. She tells me that she’s going to read it while in a hammock and I’m thinking about sending over a bottle of gin to aid in the evaluation process.

There’s nothing more standing between me and a blank page tomorrow morning. Time to face the reality that I have to write a first draft again. Not that I mind: I like first drafts, in a slightly masochistic, like playing with a loose tooth sort of way. The hurt feels good.

And its not an entirely blank page. About a year ago I wrote the first four chapters of The Third Riel Conspiracy, the second book in the Durrant Wallace series, after Jenn and I did a two week long research trip through the historical sites of Alberta and Saskatchewan. As is my custom, I had done a tonne of research before heading out on the road, reading just about everything I could get my hands on about the North West Rebellion. When we returned from the trip, I constructed by storyboard, outlining the major events and time line for each chapter, and making a Jackson Pollack like drawing explaining who the real killer was, and who the various Red Herrings were, and why. Looking at it now makes my head hurt a little.

But thank God I did. I wrote four chapters and then got consumed with other writing deadlines, and our Big Moving Adventure from Victoria, BC back to Canmore, Alberta, and that was all the light the Third Riel Conspiracy would see. Until now.

The book is slated for publication in the spring of 2013, and while that might seem like a long time, it ain’t. Its going to take longer than usual for me to write the first draft. No luxury of being self-employed now to allow for four, five, or even six hours of writing each day, the most I’ll get now is two or three. My goal is to have it done by October. And I’ve learned that what comes out of these staccato blurts of first-draft, vomiting words onto the page experiences leaves a lot to be desired from the standpoint of my myriad editors. I’m building in extra time for the fun part.

So tomorrow morning I’ll rise as early as I can and dive in. I’m looking forward to it; I’ve got my finger on the wiggly tooth and am set to worry the hell out of it.

And as an experiment, I’m going to try and post little updates under the Category Deconstructing Draft 1 (rough, unedited, spelling and tense don’t count or I’ll simply never get any real writing done) every day or so. Who knows whether there will be anything worth saying, but then, that’s never stopped me in the past.