“The Doldrums is the region of calm winds, centered slightly north of the equator and between the two belts of trade winds, which meet there and neutralize each other.”
I suppose it was about four years ago that the last volume of my Lamb among the Stars trilogy came out. For a few weeks I waited for the world to applaud but instead all I heard was a rather awkward silence.
Not entirely of course: there were fantastic reviews on Amazon with some favourable (but unmerited) comparisons to C. S. Lewis and Tolkien , much praise on a very long Facebook page specifically created by my fans and lots of encouraging e-mails. But that was that. There were no publishers e-mail asking about my next work, no agents clamouring to take on my case, no sniffs of interest from Messrs Spielberg or Cameron.
I gradually began draft my epitaph on the series: I had written an epic too full of Christianity for the world of science fiction and too full of science-fiction for the Christian world. I had, inadvertently but foolishly, positioned myself neatly between two stools.
So what did I do? The answer readers, is nothing. I should say that by this time I had acquired a full-time teaching job, was an elder in a church and a fairly frequent lay preacher so, in the absence of encouragement, it wasn’t hard to put aside the writing. Over the next few years I did accumulate piles of notes but nothing much else. I found myself battling about what genre to write in.
Another epic fantasy series? Hard to market; trilogies are risky for publishers as each successive volume tends to have lower sales.
Straight science fiction? Poor sales and reality keeps trumping invention.
A contemporary novel? But who is interested in the petty dramas of this part of South Wales? And anyway to try and represent the vulgar vernacular of our streets for a Christian audience is very difficult indeed.
A historical novel? My history is not so wonderful and it all seems to have been done.
Eventually I settled on an idea: an alternative history – one in which a key event in our world had not happened in the way it did. The idea is good, so good that I do not want to give a hint at what it involves, lest someone else take it, and I am now working on it. But I haven’t got very far: probably no more than a quarter of the way through of even a first draft. But it looks good and this time it’s going press all the buttons. Forget the slow brooding start; let’s have killings on the second page.
Yet even now I find it hard work. Of course, I try and teach with enthusiasm and that means that I don’t have a lot of energy left for writing after I have finished with the marking and the lesson preparation. Yet it is more than that; in analysing why I find writing hard work I have identified three dangers. Let me list them and maybe you can identify with them.
1) Discouragement. It’s all too easy to wonder whether it’s really all worthwhile. I am little known as an author in the UK and so I have rarely had the energising experience of going into a bookshop where my books are visible, or of seeing people read my books on trains. One of the results of this is the act of writing seems insignificant: the most insubstantial of activities. I can easily ask myself whether I should be doing something more important.
2) Distraction. Yes, there is the day job which brings its burdens (and occasional pleasures), but I also have a wife and a church fellowship that I am involved with. I also have lots of other interests; books, music, photography. I write articles for church magazines and lately have been consulted about the geology of Lebanon, on which arcane topic I’m still something of an expert. Sometimes whole days have sped by without me even thinking about working on the book.
3) Displacement. This I fear is the big one. There have been many occasions where I have made time to sit at the computer and have started typing. Yet inevitably before very long something else demands my attention and I cease writing. I call this alternative action a ‘displacement activity’ and I’m not sure whether this is technically correct. You know the sort of thing: you are struggling to shape a sentence, or paragraph and then it comes to you in an instant that you absolutely must at this very moment update some software, clean your desk, reply to an e-mail or check out a website and very soon your wife is standing over your shoulder and saying ‘you know dear we really ought to go to bed’ and you’ve written two sentences. I have even spent time searching on the Web to see if anybody has come up with a way of preventing displacement activities.
One very peculiar form of displacement activity is I think especially common with fantasy although I suppose it occurs with historical fiction. It is to become engrossed in preparing the details and background for your story. It can occur with people, place and plot. So without giving too much away in my new book the plot is essentially a three hander about well, let’s call them A, B and C. So I start describing A but in doing that I feel I have to put in how A relates to his colleagues, D and E. And B? I need to work out how she relates to her friends F and G. C? Here the issue is she bullies H and I. And so the notes grow. There are other areas where little voice keeps asking you for more information. Where exactly is that house? How did he get that job? In the world I am describing how would the tax system, the railways, newspapers work?
Very soon you have filled books full not of writing but of the details of your new universe. (Of course, if you are Tolkien you have also invented several new languages as well.) Now don’t get me wrong, details are important and add depth to narrative. But we can’t cover everything and most readers don’t expect it. For instance unless memory is playing tricks with me, Tolkien says absolutely nothing about the economics and currency of Middle Earth and I have never heard anybody complain about this. (It could of course be commented with sarcasm that economists are too preoccupied with their own fantasies to bother reading other people’s.)
So how do I get defeat these three perils? I suppose all three could be dispelled by a healthy advance; an experiment I am willing to try should the investor be found. But in the meantime let me suggest the lines of attack that I am trying.
With regard to discouragement, I appeal to the truth that because we are made in God’s image and he is a creator, creating is what I made to do. I tell myself that whether my current work is published or not is irrelevant: I write because I am a child of God and this is an itch he has given me that I must scratch. And anyway to create is better than to consume.
With regard to distraction, I can do nothing but be determined to soldier on but I am comforted by the hints that this is a temptation that our Lord knew. In Luke 9:51 we read ‘As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.’ The last phrase in Greek is ‘set his face’ which I am told is a Semitic idiom that speaks of a firm unshakeable resolve to do something (Genesis 31:21; Isaiah 50:7).
Displacement? Isn’t this perhaps the chief strategy of Satan for the church? To always be doing that good which is the enemy of the best? Perhaps here I need to hear the advice written in Hebrews 12:1,2. ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’
I also live in hope. I believe that writing is like driving a car. It takes the efforts of the starter motor to get the engine firing but once that happens you are soon on your way. In my experience writing can be like that: you take time to create living characters and then eventually they live. You set them loose on the plot and all you have to do is describe what they get up to. That’s the theory.
I could expand on this but I won’t. You must excuse me: I have a book to write.