I have a confession to make:

Given the choice between reading a novel and watching a movie, I choose the movie.This is because reading makes me sleepy. Two, three pages, and I’m out. It doesn’t matter what time of day. (Frank Zappa admitted to the same problem in his autobiography, so I like to think I’m in good company.) Perhaps there should be a name for this condition, like readarcolepsy, or something.

Because of this “condition,” it can be quite laborious for me to get through a book, fiction or otherwise. It took me nearly a year to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. By no means should this reflect on Robinson’s fine writing; it’s me, the guy who falls asleep reading the Sunday comics. And it explains why many of my favorite novels tend to be short – Fahrenheit 451, Siddartha, Notes From the Underground, Rumble Fish, Illusions – and why I’ll probably never write something of “epic” stature. Don’t look for something longer than 60,000 words from me anytime soon.

So, as sacrilegious as it may be, I’ll take a couple of hours in a movie theater over battling with the R.E.M. inducing effects of the latest best seller.

Now, let me just read through this post again and check for editing issu–ZZZZZZZZ!

Gordon Gravley

One Writer’s Process

As I mentioned earlier, I really didn’t know what I was doing when I began writing my first novel. By the time I was done, I had developed a pretty good process (one that works for me, that is) which I’m applying to my current projects.

Naturally, it all begins with an idea. But exactly where these ideas originate is hard to say. They may come from the interest I have in a variety of subjects, like the wild west, silent movies, travel and the open road, or linguistics. Sometimes an idea will germinate simply by looking at a genre I find intriguing: speculative fiction, or steam-punk, or the mystery-thriller. Mostly, though, ideas come from observing the world around me – watching the news, reading periodicals, or simply taking a walk. On occasion, I’ll develop an idea from nothing but a phrase or word. That’s a good title for a book, I may think, or what a great opening sentence. From wherever it starts, the seed is then planted in my little brain and left to grow, often unconsciously, into a story concept.

From there, I think a lot about the plot. I like to know where the story begins, where it’s going, and how it ends. This works in hand with developing the characters, though I don’t always have a clear idea who they are until I actually begin physically writing; the action of the plot and how they interact with the other characters brings out details of who they are, and dialogue seems to naturally spring from there. I also do a lot of reading on subjects that I believe will contribute to the richness of the story, give it depth or a certain authenticity.

And then starts a series of outlines, each one progressively more detailed, sort of like using a Google Earth map where you zoom in closer and closer for a better look at where you’re going. This technique might be criticized for creating a story that is too plotted, sterile, predictable, or contrived. But as I begin typing the first draft, I get a better perspective on the best way to communicate what is happening and take steps to make sure it doesn’t seem forced.

The creation of the first draft is a slow, meticulous task for me because I edit and revise as I go; I can’t just spew words onto a page and then go back and sort it all out. The OCD in me insists that every word, sentence and paragraph be just-so before I can move on to the next. While this is painstaking and time consuming, it makes for a nearly finished manuscript that requires little rewriting.

Still, I rewrite, making all kinds of tweaks and changes to bring all the details into something cohesive and readable; for me, it takes a lot of effort to create prose, dialogue and plot that appears effortless. This rewriting happens after I have two or three people give it a read and make critical notes.

What I give little or no consideration to are the elements of motifs and themes. This is what I enjoy most about writing: seeing what emerges once I’ve got all the pieces of the puzzle in place. For instance, the parallel drawn between animals caged in a zoo and humans confined within a quarantined environment behaving unnaturally in “Gospel…” came about entirely on its own; I did not consciously put it there, and yet, it’s become, I believe, one of the book’s defining themes.

So, how do I know when a book is done? When I can’t add or take anything more from it, I guess. It’s done when…um, well…when it’s done.

Gordon Gravley

Why Self-Publish?

After completing my book, I took the traditional path in pursuit of publication. First, I submitted query letters to a number of agents, and received a number of polite, respectful rejections. (Unlike the rude rejection I got for my short story mentioned in a previous posting.)One agent even expressed enough interest to want to read the first three chapters, but found it wasn’t a novel she would normally represent.

Then I went to submitting to publishers directly. Again, a slew of polite rejections. While not interested in “Gospel…”, one publisher did invite me to send in any future manuscripts, as they did like my writing in general. (So, I’ve got that going for me.)

Two years later, I was left with a lesson learned: The best way to get published is to have first been published. A classic Catch-22. It was about that time that my wife suggested I self-publish through Amazon. Their CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform was exactly what I needed, comprehensive yet inexpensive. I chose the mostly DIY approach. I laid out and designed the book’s interior, and through a vague description of what I envisioned, my wife created a great cover. (Of course, she thinks it could be better, so don’t be surprised if you see a new design in the near future.)

I chose to make my novel available only online so that I could keep the cover price down. Who wants to spend fifteen-plus dollars on an author they’ve never heard of? That’s what I would’ve had to charge to sell in bookstores – the extra dollars simply going to cover costs of distribution. I don’t need middlemen; I need to entice readers to take a chance on a new writer.

Whether this publication garners the attention of any publishers and/or agents is yet to be seen. But with the creative freedom and higher royalties that using CreateSpace allows, I wonder now if I will ever go with traditional publishing. (We’ll see if I can be bought with a substantial enough contract offer and advance.)

Gordon Gravley

My First Book

I finished writing my first novel – about a journalist who spends three days within the quarantined city of San Francisco – in 2013. I had developed it from a short story I wrote in 1994,almost thirty years before!

The short story, A Little Reality Never Killed Anyone, is about a group of teens in some kind of dystopian world who play dangerous truth-or-dare games to conquer their fear of living day-to-day. It’s not very good. I’m not just saying this to be humble or self-deprecating, it’s really not good. (One magazine that rejected my submission wrote – and I’m paraphrasing, only slightly – “We’re not interested in your story. We only publish good writing.”) But, it was one of the first and few short stories I ever wrote, and I will always cherish it as one of the many, necessary steps I took in becoming a novelist.

So, why thirty years to write my first novel?

Several reasons:

First, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. A story of a few pages length is one thing. A book of 200-plus pages, with real character development, detailed settings, and a cohesive story arc is a whole other realm of organization and creativity. I must have written a dozen or more outlines, trying to figure out how to connect all the different elements that were swirling around in my imagination.

Also, I had a number of strong characters with very distinct experiences. So I wrote three or four first drafts, each from the perspective of the various characters (written in first person). Yet, none of the early drafts worked because I couldn’t coherently tell the story of all the characters from the point-of-view of only one of them. I also tried approaching it as a collection of stories connected by a common thread, like Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, or Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. But that merely complicated what had already become a daunting task.

How about writing from the omniscient or detached viewpoint? I thought to myself. I wrote one such draft that just didn’t sound right; the story called for a more intimate narration than that.

In 2004, I took a course in the writing of research papers. (I had a vague plan of getting a degree in the field of linguistics.) I wrote two pretty good papers, if I do say so myself, both of which had an unintended journalistic voice to them. And there was the answer to my dilemma: write my novel from the point-of-view of a journalist, from the outside, looking in. It was quite astounding how everything fell into place with that realization.

The second reason (or excuse, depending on how you look at such things) was the single greatest challenge that I think every writer faces – Life. It can sure get in the way. Working to pay the bills and a difficult first marriage, to name two things. But, and this would be my first piece of advice to any aspiring author, it’s amazing how much you can produce with only one hour a day dedicated to writing and only writing. That’s all. An hour a day.

Lastly, the greatest deterrent to the completion of my first book was, simply, fear of failure. I’d spent (or wasted, depending on how you look at such things) so much of my life chasing rainbows (like a linguistics degree) that when it came to doing the one thing I felt I had a certain amount of skill in and true passion for – writing – I became incapacitated with the fear of it not working out, of failing, and then where would I be?

Well, it did work out, because I realized the only way I would fail is if I didn’t try.

Gordon Gravley