A Writer's Journey
You might think the creation of a novel begins with an idea, that its genesis is in a notion the writer has and feels compelled to act upon by sitting down and writing. While there’s something to be said for this, the truth is that most books probably start long before that, back in childhood, even before a love for the written word is initially formed. Later, as one journeys through life – in the years before one becomes a writer – there are moments that will almost certainly play a role in what eventually becomes a book. These are the experiences writers draw upon when creating characters and when drawing the details of a setting or delineating the intricacies of a plot. They are what enable writers to provide depth and meaning to what they write, lending a certain verisimilitude to the words put on paper.
I’m not sure when my own journey to writing a novel began, but when I look back, it seems as if I was born with a love for books – and that’s surely where most writers begin. Even before I could read, I’d a passion for the written word; and once I could decipher those marks printed on the page, there was no turning back. I consumed books as if they were oxygen, inhaling them like the air we need to breathe. It helped that I had parents who were both inveterate readers and who encouraged my reading obsession, to the point that on birthdays and Christmases books made up the bulk of my gifts.
My earliest recollection of actually sitting down to write a piece of fiction dates to around the time I was eight, when I was home sick from school one day and in need of entertainment (this being long before the era of home computers, video games, smartphones, social media, 500 channels of TV, and all those other marvels and distractions of our modern technological age). My mother, a prolific letter writer, had an old manual typewriter she’d bought back in the late forties, just before she and my father had ventured overseas to what was then known as the Belgium Congo. My siblings and I loved playing with that machine, but it wasn’t often we did anything serious in the way of actually writing with it. That day, however, with my youngest brother by my side, I sat down and wrote a story. It was a single page long, but I like to believe those few hundred words were the seed from which sprang a greater desire.
Of course, what I would write much later in life also had its roots in the many other things that inspired and nurtured me over the years. Not least of these being the fact that when I was nine we departed Canada and headed off overseas for what would be nearly a decade of living and travelling in places like Pakistan, Iran, and Tanzania (to name a few).
One of my earliest memories is of sitting in front of our black and white Admiral TV and watching the launch of a rocket in the Mercury program, the images of which would help to shape and inform so many of my early dreams – including the certainty that I would one day venture into space. Back then, there was never any doubt in my mind that that would happen – a belief further invigorated by a book called You Will Go to the Moon, a slender volume replete with fabulous fantastical illustrations depicting a fictional journey to a space station and beyond. I would imagine myself the boy in that book, blasting off in an enormous rocket, docking with a space station, riding a spaceship to the moon, and driving across the lunar landscape in colourful balloon-tired rovers.
Not long after that, I was introduced to Tom Swift Junior, whose numerous scientific exploits fueled my flights of fancy still further, carrying them to ever loftier heights. I couldn’t get enough of those books: Tom Swift and his Flying Lab, Tom Swift and his Jetmarine, Tom Swift and his Diving Seacopter, his Outpost in Space, the Race to the Moon, etc. I yearned to be just like him, an enterprising young man whose fortunes were built upon an enormous wealth of scientific knowledge and the insatiable need to act upon it. Tom Swift lived the sort of life I wanted, his days consumed by busily conceiving and constructing all manner of extraordinary machines and having all sorts of astonishing and exciting adventures because of them.
(So driven was I by what I read in the Tom Swift books and others, that the bedroom I shared with my older brother in Pakistan was a veritable workshop, the two of us daily conspiring, tinkering, inventing and planning for the day when we’d be great industrialists building rockets that would carry people – including ourselves – into orbit and beyond. The walls were festooned with our rocket blueprints and our designs for a fuel plant, our enormous wooden desk littered with books and pamphlets from NASA, along with projects we were working on: chemical mixtures, electric motors, homemade projectors, etc.)
Of course, the Tom Swift books were themselves influenced by many of the technological developments beginning to show up in the fifties – developments that inspired (perhaps somewhat overly optimistically) prognostications of what the future held in store. A few years before the first of the books in the series appeared, a magazine called Colliers had printed a series of articles about the future of humankind in space. These were illustrated with luminous detailed paintings done by the likes of renowned artist Chesley Bonestell, whose visions of space, the surface of the moon, and worlds beyond were stunning evocations of places we’d yet to go but which visionary men like Wernher von Braun – who would later prove pivotal in seeing America land men on the moon – were convinced we’d one day get to.
There were also many movies that came out around the same time – films like Destination Moon, Rocketship X-M, When Worlds Collide, and Forbidden Planet, to name just a few – all of which influenced writers like those working on the Tom Swift series. Of course, the movies themselves had been influenced by books that had come before them (like the Robert Heinlein juveniles, Rocket Ship Galileo, The Rolling Stones, and Starman Jones -- not to mention works by other notable SF scribes) – which perhaps suggests that artists feed off one another in an almost circular fashion and rarely create in total isolation.
While I was born some years after most of these films and books first appeared, they would all eventually have an impact on me. But perhaps no film was more influential in my early life than Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had released in September of 1968, shortly before we departed for Pakistan. Sitting in a darkened theater in Montreal, staring at that big screen on which the likes of an enormous space station spun in the starry heavens, I was enraptured. I would not have the same feeling again until Star Wars came along almost a decade later, its signature opening scene leaving me breathless with awe.
2001 was by far and away the most incredible thing I’d ever seen, and it truly made me believe the twenty-first century would be a technological wonderland. Coming on the heels of Expo 67, the futuristic world’s fair I’d visited the year before, 2001 left me eagerly awaiting the arrival of all the marvels of science and technology that both the fair and the film had promised. They also solidified my ever-growing interest in space, science, and science fiction – an interest that decades later has scarcely diminished.
Moving to (Sukkur) Pakistan in September of 1968 afforded me the sort of personal experiences that foster an outlook on the human condition that is beneficial to any writer. The exposure to a completely different culture and environment was profound and eye-opening -- and even living in a walled-in, gated and guarded colony would inform some of my later writing (particularly Becoming Darkness).
In Pakistan I developed a passion for comics, and it was there that reading (one of the few entertainments available) became even more essential to my day-to-day existence. It was a link to the way of life I’d left behind in Canada, and a means of escape during those moments when I pined for home.
As there was no television available where we lived, and (English) radio was pretty much limited to shortwave broadcasts of the BBC Overseas Service, books became important in ways young people these days probably can`t appreciate. Unfortunately, books were not easy to come by in Sukkur, which made each of them (and the comics I collected) something to be treasured, read and reread copious times and never taken for granted.
While in Sukkur, I also discovered How and Why Wonder Books, a treasure trove of information, each volume dedicated to a different topic, covering everything from the American Revolution to zoology. Every weekend my older brother and I would wander through the bazaar and I’d use my allowance to buy another How and Why, and those books would become the foundation of a curiosity about the world around us that would never leave me and which I believe is one of the reason I’m compelled to write.
I’ve often said that if you want to know how to write well, you can’t go wrong by studying the Tintin adventures produced by the late Belgium artist/writer Herge. Many of the books in this much-beloved and internationally bestselling series are exquisitely crafted stories, finely honed and polished and without question among the best examples of writing around. There’s a reason they remain popular to this day, having sold hundreds of millions of copies in many languages.
I first encountered Tintin in serialized form within the pages of Children’s Digest magazine, several issues of which I found in the back of a small shop in the Karachi bazaar. But it was a year or so later, when we moved to Iran, that I got a true taste of the boy reporter’s adventures. There was a bookstore in Isfahan that was about the only source of English reading material in the city, and from the first moment I saw the Tintin titles on display in the store window, I fell in love with them and knew I had to have them all.
My first purchase was The Red Sea Sharks (Coke en Stock in the original French), which to this day remains one of my favourites in the series – though, in truth, aside from some of the earlier titles (in particular the problematic Tintin in the Congo and Tintin in America) they are all pretty good reads, with some (like the aforementioned The Red Sea Sharks) being truly exceptional.
Herge had to fit each story into sixty-two pages, which didn’t really leave much room for padding. Yet in reading the books, you never have the sense of being short-changed. And while you may think that reading what is essentially a graphic novel can’t really tell you much about how to write a book that relies solely on prose to convey its story, you’d be surprised. By studying the Tintin books carefully, you quickly acquire an understanding of plot and character development, of how to open and close a story, and of how to maintain rhythm and pace. In the best of the books, readers are drawn in by the very first panel and their attention never flags after that. Settings, plot, and characters invite readers in, the way all good books should, and readers soon become wholly immersed in the adventure. Herge always left readers yearning for more, eager for the next book.
(Just a quick side note here: Into today’s much more enlightened and more tolerant world -- well, one would like to think it more enlightened and tolerant, though there’s clearly evidence to suggest otherwise in some quarters -- some of the Herge stories reek of colonialism, jingoism, bigotry, and outright racism. Viewed in the context of their time, this is perhaps understandable to a certain extent – though not necessarily forgivable. In this regard, some of the earlier titles – such as Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in America, and Tintin and the Blue Lotus – are probably best read with some suitable context supplied.)
It’s fair to say that reading Tintin (as well as Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books) inspired me to seek adventures of my own, which eventually led to the creation of The Secret Explorers Club. While the club had less than a dozen members, I often think of that period in my life as one of my most creatively inspired – largely because of the newspaper.
I’m not sure where I got the idea for the newspaper, but once I determined the club should have some sort of weekly organ, there was no turning back. Using my mother’s trusty typewriter, I set about producing an eight to twelve page paper called the S.E.C. To understand the magnitude of this task, you must realize that this was in the age before the home computer, inkjet printers, word processors, and the Internet. I didn’t even have access to a photo copier, which meant cranking out each issue using what was (then) commonly known as “carbon paper.” This required stuffing as many sheets of sandwiched carbon and plain paper as I could manage into the typewriter and then pounding out my features and stories with painful (and very forceful) deliberation, after which I would then add illustrations to each edition (as well as puzzles in the form of dot-to-dots, crosswords, word searches, etc.).
The S.E.C. newspaper proved a minor hit. My friends (and their families) loved it, and it’s probably at that point that I actually began to seriously think about writing and the power of the written word. It’s also the point at which I discovered that writing can be a lot of hard work for little or no reward (other than the satisfaction of having created something that can move and inspire people).
I was twelve when I published my newspaper, and six years later I started to write a book. Having just read The Lord of the Rings, I set out to write a fantasy novel of my own, and after more than a year of work, I completed a three hundred page manuscript. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have much of a clue about what I should do after that, and the manuscript languished, until eventually I decided it just wasn’t good enough to even attempt seeking publication. So I started another, which turned into a behemoth – a (double-spaced) twelve hundred page science fiction space opera that was a complete train wreck. Over the next couple of decades I wrote other books and stories, few about which I felt confident enough to submit to publishers.
In the early 2000s, I revisited a manuscript I’d written in the eighties, completely revising it from top to bottom and finally summoning the courage to test the waters of the publishing industry. After a few rejections, the book was accepted by a publisher who claimed to be “traditional” but proved to be anything but. The result was an unmitigated disaster and the book went nowhere.
By this point I was about ready to say good-bye to writing, but my oldest nephew suggested I give it another shot by writing something aimed at a younger audience. Ultimately, if somewhat circuitously, this led to Becoming Darkness, a genre-bending novel aimed at the young adult market that was released in October of 2015 (published by Switch Press, an imprint of Capstone Publishers).
Without question Becoming Darkness is the result of the many influences I’ve already cited and the many experiences that have informed much of my life. I’ve talked elsewhere on my website (EVOLUTION OF A BOOK) about these in relation to this particular book, but suffice it to say that Becoming Darkness would not be the novel it is had I not had the life I had – which is something I think most writers would say about most of what they’ve written. The fact is, you can’t escape your past; it informs your everyday existence in ways you can’t always imagine – and that definitely includes anything you may write.
So where does the creation of a book begin? When a writer first has an idea for it? Or is it farther back, in the past that makes us what we are? Just remember that ideas have to come from somewhere, and the more you live, the more things you experience in your life, and the more things you do, the more fertile the ground will be from which to draw the inspiration, awareness, and knowledge necessary to write a book.