Things I learned from writing The Church

I know it was a long time ago now, especially since the drug fuelled fuck nightmare that was New Year’s Eve (just kidding, I sat around watching Youtube videos in my pyjamas), but last November I attempted once again to participate in NaNoWriMo. Much unlike the previous year’s effort, I failed quite spectacularly. Luckily, I’m somewhat capable of learning from my failures, and I’m going to talk about what I learned.

But first of all, a summary, just so you all know where I’m coming from. The Church was set to be a bit more literary than previous things I’ve written. There were to be no monsters, ghosts, or anything supernatural of any kind. It was the story of Jonathan Hargreave, a struggling journalist and writer. In a last desperate gamble to save his floundering career, he took off down to New Orleans, to write a book of detailed interviews with the controversial Great Revelation Baptist Church and their enigmatic leader, Eli Sanders. Unfortunately, Jonathan’s great character flaw was that he was an alcoholic, and as his relationship with Eli grew, so did his dependency on the church/cult, until he found his own views lining up with a lot of their homophobic rhetoric.

So, with that in mind, what did I learn while writing The Church?

I do not yet have the skill set to pull off literary fiction…

This is the most nebulous lesson I learned, and therefore the hardest to write about. 2012’s NaNoWriMo was about simply learning how to write a novel. I’d never written something that long before, so I stuck to a lot of tropes and settings I knew. Going ahead with a project like The Church was a way to stretch myself, give myself a challenge, and try something new.

Unfortunately, the something new was not something I knew. A quick glance at the books I read last year should show you that I don’t exactly read a lot of literary fiction. Though I have tried to branch out a bit more recently, my first love is genre fiction. Since I was pretty unfamiliar with literary fiction, and how a story more intensely focused on characters is constructed, I was wading into a sea with no idea how to swim. If I am to attempt anything like this again, I’ll make sure to actually read some more literary fiction first. Which brings me to my second lesson.

…But it’s okay, because I really love genre fiction

No you guys, I really really love genre fiction. Sci-fi, fantasy, horror… Spaceships, pirates, vampires, sea monsters, weird creatures, twisted cities, impossible geography. I just lap it all up. So, surely it makes sense that I’d feel most at home writing that stuff too. And given that the idea I’m currently chipping at the edges at is an epic urban fantasy… thing, and also given that I would like to return and finish up Post-Apocalipstick some day (hopefully soon), I see a lot of genre in my future.

But really, this isn’t to say I can’t or won’t incorporate some of my more literary ambitions. I was once told that literary fiction tends to focus on characters, while genre fiction focuses on ideas. But who is to say that a story can’t do both? I love characters, and as much as I try to plot things out in advance, I often find their personalities and decisions driving my story to unexpected places. So, I suppose I want to write a mix of both; genre fiction with big ideas and a lot of character exploration. But I might not have learned that without trying to write such an intensely focused character piece in the first place.

I am too dialogue focused

Of the 39,000 or so words that comprised my partial manuscript, around two thirds of it was dialogue. Honestly, there were points of it that read like a screenplay. A story set in the Louisiana bayou, with so many opportunities for gorgeous description, and I just didn’t take advantage of it. As a writer, description is the area I’ve cornered as my weakest, so going forward I’ll put more effort into breaking up my dialogue with more passages of description and action, just to get the thing to read with a better flow.

I really, really love writing villains

Eli Sanders was my stand in for Fred Phelps. This meant sitting down before writing and watching a lot of interviews with Fred Phelps which, given my opinions on certain issues, was an unpleasant experience. But what I discovered was that one of the best adjectives that can be applied to Fred Phelps (aside from all the obvious ones) is charismatic. When he talks, he talks in a way that makes him sound authoritative and, perhaps on a scarier note, worth listening to.

So when the time came to write Eli Sanders, those were the qualities I tried to imbue him with. He wasn’t an evil man. He loved his family, greeted people with a handshake and a smile, and believed in the things he believed in with absolute conviction. And despite my utter disagreements with those beliefs, it was that absolute conviction and those personable traits that made him my favourite character to write. I should probably be more disturbed by that than I really am.

It’s okay to fail

Back when I failed the 2011 NaNoWriMo, I stopped writing for a while. It got me down a lot. I was very hard on myself over it, and going into the 2012 NaNoWriMo, I felt I had a lot to prove to myself and the world. That pressure wasn’t there last year.

When I realised it wasn’t working out, my first instinct was to force the last 11,000 words, just for the sake of finishing the competition. But then I’d sit down and nothing would happen. The cursor would blink. No words came. Forcing those last 11,000 words would have been laborious, and perhaps would have killed my passion for writing, at least for a short while.

Instead, I’ve come out of the experience having learned some things about myself, and about the way I write. I’ve got an idea of what I need to focus on to improve myself, and the area I want to dabble in with my future stories. Some things are just more important than hitting an arbitrary word count. And if that’s not a victory, I’m not sure what is.

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