I have found the act of writing to be an experience unlike anything else I have ever felt. As an athlete, I have had those moments of being “in the zone”—the time where your mind quiets and your body takes over instinctively. You move fluidly, without hesitation, and perform things you never knew you were physically capable of. Still, these moments are fleeting, lasting only seconds or minutes and resulting in nothing but a single moment or collection of moments that will be remembered only by those who have physically witnessed it. When writing music, I have also found myself in a zone-like place; this is as close as I have come to the experience of writing literature but it still pales in comparison. Most of the songs that I have written (from a musical standpoint) seemed actually to write themselves; my fingers moved from one note to the next, as if following some unseen map that I could not consciously follow. Sometimes I would use my knowledge of musical theory to move the song in a certain direction, perhaps inserting a walking bass line, or using a particular chord sequence that I knew would make for a smoother transition. Again, though, the experience of being in the zone is fleeting, lasting only a few minutes at best. It is during this time that I can actually hear the music being born in my mind, though, if the truth be told, I feel like it already exists and is simply unraveling itself for me. Though I will often spend hours fine-tuning a song, that magical moment of birth and discovery is evanescent.
Indeed, the act of writing offers the writer a chance not only to escape but to create and to discover something that has never before been seen. When I achieve that stasis, that point of being in the zone while I write, I find that it is often overpowering and overwhelming. There have been days where entire mornings and afternoons have passed seemingly in the blink of an eye, simply because I was so engrossed and absorbed in the act of writing; it was as if I was serving as a conduit for Tim and his friends instead of as their creator.
A great writer once said that stories are like fossils and that the act of writing is like an archaeological dig. I wholly endorse this perspective because it has truly been my experience. My first attempt at writing what would become The Lion in the Desert was atrocious! The reason was that I was trying too hard to force my will upon the story. I had everything planned out and when the story tried to drag me to someplace unexpected, I didn’t know what to do and I pulled back on the reins. It wasn’t until my second attempt at writing it that I realized that the story was truly telling itself and that I should allow it to go where it wanted. Such is how the characters of Tenzing “Tony” Luu, Bob Brenley, and Vladimir Barintov came to be. Without even one of those characters the complete tale of Kosmogonia would be impossible to tell, despite the fact that not a single one of them was created by a willful, conscious impulse on my part.
Not all of the characters and events in Kosmogonia materialized spontaneously; some, including Tim and Marcus, were created consciously, having been born of personal experiences that I have had (I would argue that most characters are, in some small degree, biographical of the author). Indeed, not everything in Kosmogonia is fictional; some things have actually happened, either to me or to those close to me. That is what makes the act of writing and this story in particular so fascinating for me. I don’t believe that a novel can ever be entirely fictional; it is made up of the personal experiences, dreams, desires, ideas and flotsam of the imagination of the author. I might not have ever served as a personal guard for the leader of
China nor have I traveled to the Middle East but I have experienced other things and, if I can find a way to meld these things together, then I have a fossil for a story.
Many of the important moments in The Lion in the Desert and for Kosmogonia as a whole were laid out years ago when I first thought of writing a novel. I had a cache of bizarre experiences that had left an indelible impression on me; I knew that I had to do something with the energy that had remained from them. Having had success with writing in school growing up, I decided that writing a story about them would be the way to go. Thus I sat down and tried to pen my tale, only to find epic failure. As noted earlier, I tried too hard to tell my story; such was not my fate. I had shown my preliminary writing to someone who I viewed as a far better writer than myself. He was honest in his assessment of my work and spared nothing in his criticism. I learned two valuable lessons from this experience: one—I had much to learn about the craft of writing and two—writers might make excellent editors but editors do not necessarily make for compassionate criticizers! Writing is not for the soft-skinned and, since I was just that at the time, I pushed my work aside and turned my back to it. It was a few years later that the spark of creation stirred within me and prompted me to reconsider working on the novel. Having spent many late-nights discussing a range of topics from sports to science, from music to metaphysics, with a friend of mine, I thought back to the novel and began to feel something rising up within me. Taking a chance, I decided to share with him my intention of writing a novel. I told him what I wanted to do and gave him an overview of what I had written so far. He liked what I had done and offered some immediate suggestions. These suggestions led to further discussion about the story and, piece by piece, I began to put it together. On one night in particular I tossed out to him what I felt were the most critical plot points and, ultimately, the end of the story overall; he loved them all and gave me the encouragement that I needed to return to writing. This time, though, I held the reins loosely and allowed the story to take me wherever it desired. The result was The Lion in the Desert.
I have found truth in the story-as-a-fossil idea but I still believe that there is something to be said for plot. The first time around, I tried to drag the story from one point to the next but what I needed to do was to set the plot points down and allow the story to draw the lines between them. In some cases, the points connected exactly as I had envisioned but in many cases they did not. These were especially important because these were often the moments of creation (or unearthing, if we’re sticking with the fossil metaphor), the times when the true story was revealing itself to me. Sometimes it would be only a glimpse and I would labor on one point for hours, days, weeks, or even months. Other times though I would find myself in the zone, whisked away to a place somewhere deep within myself, watching almost through an out-of-body experience as I wrote something that I had not consciously concocted—something that was coming to life before my very eyes. These new plot points would lead me to others still but I always managed to keep my original course of direction in mind. The most important decision that I made though was to be flexible and to allow for unexpected changes.
Writers (myself include) often develop attachments to certain story elements, characters, lines, settings—any number of things in their written creations. They (we, I suppose) take it personally when we are asked to remove or to alter these things, either by an editor, a casual reader, or by the story itself. What I have found is that I need to trust both the story and myself; after all, were it not for my initial nugget of story or plot, I wouldn’t be writing the novel in the first place. I can’t let the story bully me around (thankfully my stories have been kind and gentle beings, at least thus far) because if I do I risk drowning in foreign waters in my mind; if I wind up in an unexpected place from which I can’t back myself out of, I risk running into the dreaded writer’s block and the fatal moment of turning away from a work. Thus a harmonious balance must be struck between me and the story. I will allow it to carry me to a certain point and then I will gently nudge it back towards the next important plot piece that I had prepared; the magic of writing on a computer is that I can always change it later on if I don’t like it.
Much like most writers, I have encountered writer’s block numerous times in my life. More often than not it was during the writing of an academic piece but it has happened more than a few times while writing fiction as well. Early on while writing The Lion in the Desert I found myself getting stuck frequently. I got tired of being frustrated, of sitting and staring blankly at the words on the screen, and I was afraid of being unable to continue any further with the story. I decided to make a deal with myself, a pact, if you will, just to write and not to think. Being acutely aware of my habit of being overly critical with myself, I decided to accept the offer (it came with a no-trade clause that I couldn’t pass up) and sat back down to write. What happened next forever changed the course of my writing. I got stuck (again) but this time, instead of criticizing both myself and my work, I just typed. And I kept typing. I typed away, simultaneously plowing ahead with the story and silencing my worst critic—myself. The “I can come back to fix it later just WRITE” mentality that I had adopted worked perfectly.
Part of the problem was that I was not used to writing multiple drafts, to completing a work, and to analyzing it after it was finished. When I wrote essays or other academic pieces for school, I edited as I wrote; it was an unconscious thing and was just how I did it. I would edit and reread as I went along so that when I finally reached my conclusion, I would just look back and check for cohesion. More often than not, the work was exactly how I had wanted it to be and was, I felt, representative of my best effort. I always felt that if I didn’t say it right the first time, I sure as hell wouldn’t get it on a second or third attempt! Such is the ignorance and arrogance of youth. Ultimately, the point that I am trying to make is that if you find that you are your own worst critic, do yourself a favor and ignore your self-criticism and write through it; it will pay off in the long run.
I apologize for the unsolicited advice but I know how important it can be to the development of a writer. I was fortunate to have taught an incredibly gifted group of high school students in the summer of ’09 and together we explored the process of writing. We discussed the nature of writing and what it meant to each of us, individually. For me, writing is catharsis. It is expression, experience, and elucidation all wrapped together in a motley mix of thoughts, words, intentions, and emotions. Many of my students experienced this and many of the things that I have mentioned thus far about writing. They saw through their own eyes and in their own minds the incredible sensation of writing a story and then watching it tell itself through their fingertips; I saw through my own eyes the incredible sense of wonder and satisfaction that the experience gave to them.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of the strong guidance and support that writers receive from their teachers; I can only hope that I have helped and influenced my students to a tenth of the degree that my teachers helped me. There have been many, from elementary school all the way up until graduate school, each of whom helped me to hone my writing and to develop my abilities further. My first teachers, of course, were my parents and I am indebted to them not only for the life that they gave me but for the time they spent with me early on, helping me to learn to read and to enjoy reading. I remember sitting with my Dad and picking out my favorite letter B’s from the newspaper or reading things about the states. I remember learning my bedtime stories and reading them back to my Mom when I was really little. All of that time and effort that they expended on me resulted in a strong foundation that everything else that has come after it is based upon.
In college, Professor Davis wrote one simple line on a piece of writing that transformed the fire of my writing desire into an inferno, proclaiming that, “a powerful voice emerges!” She made me feel like my writing was worth reading and that I was developing my own unique writing identity. Later in my undergraduate studies, Professor Jordan exposed me to the realms of Gothic and Romantic literature, as well as the Great Irish Writers. She rekindled my love of Irish culture and my pride in my Irish heritage, and helped me to develop a love of and appreciation for classic and modern Irish literature. I began to infuse my writing with Gothic and Romantic elements as a result of her influence, helping me to strengthen my developing written voice and to clarify my identity as a writer. More recently, Professor Taubman and Professor Wallach helped me to dispose of a number of bad writing habits that I had never been able to shake, to value and understand the intricate rules of written English, and to strive for perfection by ignoring the urge to engage in the trite academic language that is often praised by professors (and is thus unofficially required of graduate students) and instead to seek the simplest and most concise way to say what I have to say (I love the irony that that sentence was almost six lines long!). Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to the teachers and professors named above and the many others who helped me along the way!
To conclude my lengthy rant on writing, I’d like to explore a question that is often asked of me, both in relation to my writing and to the myriad practical jokes that I have played throughout my life: “Where do you come up with this stuff?” For the latter, it truly is just a simple moment of, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if…” or an instance of seeing something done elsewhere and wanting to replicate or to improve upon it. With regards to the former, though, I can say that I have often found inspiration in the most unexpected of places. Homer had his muses, Keats had his nightingale, and Tolstoy had Napoleon. Robert Frost had his forked road, Mary Shelley had a spooky night out with the guys, and Pablo Neruda had a lemon, a suit, his socks—hell, he had anything within arm’s distance to serve as inspiration! I can align myself with all of them in terms of the sources of my own inspiration. I have often prayed for it (I’m not much of a Muse invoker though) like Homer, I have found it in Nature’s song like Keats, and I have found it in the historically important moments of my life and the lives of others, much like Tolstoy. I have found it in my travels, like Frost; I have found it as I walked in the darkness or sat by a campfire amongst friends, like Shelley; and I have found it in the most mundane of things, as Neruda has.
I always try to keep two pens in my pocket and something to write on because I never know when inspiration will strike. I have woken up in the middle of the night with the most profound line of verse, rushing out to my dining room to write it down blindly on a piece of paper in the dark, only to wake up the next morning and find that it was either not quite as good as I had thought or that it was even better. The worst thing for me is to have an idea and to be unable to write it down and to explore it completely, whether it’s a riff for my guitar or a line or idea for my novel. I have found inspiration for many story ideas in the craziest places: a burn mark on the ceiling of my childhood bedroom; a wild storm and the mental image of a frightened child shaking in his bed; almost choking on a piece of gum; and even my own shadow. Most of these moments of inspiration paired my experience with an immediate slew of questions, especially those of the “What if?” variety. Here are a few examples:
- For the burn mark: where did the burn mark come from? What if the house is haunted? What if the ghost was a person who died in a fire? What if the ghost is trying to warn the person about something? (“Ghost Fire”)
- For the storm: I saw the child shaking in his bed in my mind but it begged the question—what is he afraid of? Is it the storm itself or something about the storm? What if he was creating the storm himself and he was afraid of going to sleep because if he did, things might just get out of hand? (“The Storm”)
- For the gum: I immediately wondered what would happen if someone choked on a piece of gum or a piece of candy and no one was around to help. Then I pictured a man walking along a deserted rural highway with a huge gobstopper in his mouth. What would happen if he started choking? What would he see? Would his life flash before his eyes? If he passes out and opens up his eyes, is he dead or alive? Where is he? (“Justin”)
- For the shadow: Wouldn’t it be wild if you could somehow step through your shadow and into another realm? What would it be like? What if someone could actually do it, and not just that, but be able to tell when people would die just by looking at their shadows? What if he had to venture into that shadow world to save someone close to him? (“The Shadow Realm”)
As for my biggest pieces of inspiration, I must start by first explaining my writing process. This was something that I covered extensively with my students over the summer because it is truly of the utmost importance. When writing, one must consider every aspect of one’s writing process: the location and writing environment in which one writes, the time of day that the writing takes place, what type of distractions are present, and what type of noise is present to name but a few criteria. For me, I tend to write better during the day than at night and I write only at my computer (though the time of day has since reversed following the birth of my son Timmy!). As such, my biggest distractions are largely computer-based (the Internet, Hearts, Minesweeper) although the guitar often calls out to me when my attention wavers. The most important part of my writing process though, is without a doubt the music that I listen to. I had a very specific set list of music that I listened to for the first novel and three set lists for my second. Loreena McKennitt is the most important musician on my list; her album “The Book of Secrets” has transported me to faraway places innumerable times. I find that that album elicits the best writing from me and serves to provide an awesome backdrop of mystical, ethereal magic when I write. Some individual songs are on the first list as well, including Disturbed’s “Darkness”—a song that singlehandedly inspired an entire section of The Lion in the Desert and that gave birth to Vladimir Barintov—the novel’s ancillary antagonist.
For the The Walking Ghosts I had three separate set lists, each one corresponding with a particular set of characters and circumstances. For the primary sections featuring Tim and Marcus the list featured “The Book of Secrets” songs again as its cornerstone but added a song called “Desert Guitar” from NorthSound as an integral piece. This song reminds me a great deal of the American Southwest and conjures up the aura of the place for me every time I listen to it, without fail. I also have some of Andy McKee’s work playing—the lack of vocals really helps the music to fill the room like a choral miasma when I write. The last addition to the primary set list was W. G. “Snuffy” Walden’s soundtrack for Stephen King’s “The Stand.” Some of the tracks on this album served perfectly in helping me to attain that feeling of wandering the empty highways of a decimated world and to experience the restlessness that such a traveler would feel.
The second set list was for The Creature—the primary antagonist in Kosmogonia. This time around, I knew that the Lusus Naturae was going to get his own time in the spotlight as you will come to see. In order to write his part adequately, I really felt like I had to put myself into his lunatic mindset. What would he be hearing in his mind while he was going around eradicating life? Nothing captured that sound more than a Nine Inch Nails track called “1 Ghosts I” from their album “Ghosts I-IV.” The first seven tracks really did a phenomenal job of creating that spirit but it was the first track that did so completely. I would highly recommend listening to those seven tracks while reading through the Lusus Naturae section of this novel. I also listened to the theme from the movie “The Ninth Gate.” It is haunting and unnerving—exactly what I needed! The movie itself is amazing and the soundtrack is a perfect complement to it.
For the third set list I had to get into not only the mindset of yet another character but into the essence of an entirely different world; I needed to find the pulse of a magical place that the story was creating for itself. For this I relied solely on Nobuo Uematsu—the longtime composer of the Final Fantasy video game scores. I had listened to some of his work with the previous set list (“Golbeza Clad In Dark” and “Those Chosen By The Planet” to name but two) but for this one I had a particular collection of tracks in mind. The setting of Final Fantasy IX was quite medieval and, fortunately for me, so was the music. I used songs like “
” and “Frontier Village Dali” to transport me to a different place and time, a place where knights and magic ruled. As for the princess, “Garnet’s Theme” played more times than I can count. Awakened Forest
If there is one song that captures the very essence of The Walking Ghosts, and perhaps even Kosmogonia as a whole, it would have to be “God Says Nothing Back” by The Wallflowers. If you get the chance to listen to it and to read the lyrics before you start to read the prologue, or even while you’re reading it, I think that it will enhance the experience of reading the book and give you a keener understanding of where Tim is coming from during his confrontation with the Oracle atop the castle tower.
Reflecting back on the past two years of writing this novel I am amazed by how powerfully I have been inspired by some things. For The Lion in the Desert, I was undoubtedly influenced by the literature that I was reading while I was in college, especially in my Gothic Literature course. It was only this afternoon, more than eight years since I first thought of The Creature as a character, that I realized his connection to the tragic hero of Shelley’s Frankenstein. Their sharing a nameless existence was purely coincidental (especially since I began writing about The Creature in 2001 and didn’t read Mary Shelley’s masterpiece until the Fall 2005 semester!) but in retrospect I find that they share the same yearning to be accepted and to be loved. Shelley’s Creature, though, engaged in evil acts whereas our bad boy is evil incarnate (as you will come to see). The other piece of literature that influenced The Lion in the Desert a great deal was William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming”; it was so influential in fact that it spawned the name of the section that it preceded as well as the eponymous title of the novel.
The first novel was influenced by a large number of things, primarily because it was written over a six year span; I experienced a lot of life in those intervening years. During the past two, though, I feel as if I have experienced an equal amount in a condensed form and have been more profoundly affected by certain things. To begin with, I’ve gotten married, traveled beyond the confines of the Continental United States, and am expecting my first child [as of the writing of this piece back in 2009]. All of those things helped me to mature and to gain a number of different perspectives both on life and on my writing as a whole. Aside from them, though, I found that the television series “Lost” has influenced not only at times the content of my writing but the entire structure of my writing as well. Looking back, I find that the many flashbacks that are scattered throughout The Walking Ghosts resemble the vignettes used by the writers of “Lost.” They offer brief glimpses into the characters’ pasts, revealing some information about them but oftentimes generating as many new questions as they do answers.
The other major influences for The Walking Ghosts are the poetry of Theodore Roethke and H.P. Lovecraft. Regarding the former, I read some of his work in graduate school and for some reason it really resonated with me and with the story I am trying to tell through the Kosmogonia series. Due to copyright law I cannot include the text of these poems in my own work but I’d like to recommend a few of the more influential poems to you to read, all of which are Roethke’s work: “In A Dark Time”; “The Waking”; and “The Far Field.” Each of these poems speaks to the emotions felt by Tim and Marcus and even to their experiences as they cross the decimated
to points beyond. They’re definitely worth scoping out. As for Mr. Lovecraft—he is quite possibly the father of the modern horror novel and is truly an incredible writer. His short story “The Outsider,” really encompasses a lot of what The Creature feels in the story—I’d scope that out too if you’re interested. United States
As a final point about my inspiration for these books, I must note that I try to be incredibly attentive to detail, more so than most and more so than I probably need to be. I don’t do the research that I do for other people though—I do it to appease my own conscience; if I’m going to make a claim or to talk about something I want to be as informed as I can possibly be on the subject. If it’s something completely fictional (like the hotel where the summit takes place in The Lion in the Desert) then I feel like I have complete creative license to write about it as I see fit. If I’m writing about something that has an actual counterpoint in reality (like the tarot reading from the first book) then I want to know as much about it as I possibly can; among the worst things that a reader could say about my work is, “That doesn’t make any sense—it should be like this or like that” because that would mean I did not perform the due diligence that I should have. Poor Kofi’s blood really would have boiled in that vacuum; I could have found this out only by doing copious research on the effect of complete vacuums on the human body. Calvin Brody’s apocalyptic plague needed to work in a rational way, thus I researched different pathogens that would achieve the effect I needed for the book (and probably wound up on some government lists I’d rather not be on). Believe me, I understand that most people could probably care less about the accuracy of the tides or the weather during Tim and Marcus’ walk through the seaside neighborhood in this book (both of which I looked up for the corresponding calendar day in 2004—the year in which the novels take place) but I want to be able to stand behind my work as a whole and say that, yes, I do believe in the accuracy of what I’m saying.
In closing, I have included this introduction in response to a number of questions that I had received after writing and releasing The Lion in the Desert. I encountered a number of aspiring writers who asked me how I began my novel or how I went about writing it. They also posed a variety of questions about the nature of writing and how to improve upon their own work. The most common statement I’ve heard is, “Man, I’ve always wanted to write a novel, I just never knew how to start.” The second most common is, “I just don’t know how to go about writing a novel, like, how do you decide what details to include and what type of dialogue to write?” I know from experience that the most frustrating thing with wanting to write is not knowing how or where to start. For anyone who fits that bill, I wholeheartedly recommend reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. The first part of the book is briefly biographical but the bulk of it is infused with important information about writing; it was the sole text that I relied on for the class I taught this past summer [again, 2009]. In truth I would recommend the book to anyone who is interested in writing, even those of you who might already have a few works under your belts, because it touches on some really interesting points about the craft and provides some incredibly useful and applicable suggestions for improving your own work. For anybody who has a novel written already and is wondering what to do with it—there are two immediate options at your disposal. The first is to self-publish using a publisher like Xlibris (the one I used for both of my novels). The benefit of doing this is that you have more control over the design of the book and effectively have total control over its marketing. The downside is that, from a financial standpoint, you won’t make nearly as much money from your book as you would if it had been published through a major publishing house (this didn’t bother me because my purpose in releasing my novels was to tell the story that I wanted to tell, not simply to make money off of it. When you are publishing your novel through a typical publisher, an editor will effectively rip your work to shreds to morph it into what he or she feels is most marketable. I just wanted to tell my story and thus I opted for the self-publishing route.) Enter option number two. The second thing that you can do is to seek out a literary agent who will then shop around your manuscript to the various publishing houses. For anyone looking to make a career out of writing, this is the way to go. The two best resources I have found for this route are a book called The Writer’s Market, which is released annually and serves as a comprehensive listing of every registered agent in the
, and a website about the publishing process. The URL for the latter is http://www.nicholassparks.com. Click on the “For Writers” section on the bottom left side of the page. There are three sections to explore—The Craft, The Business, and My Experience. I’d recommend looking at all three; Nicholas Sparks is a great writer who offers a lot of practical and pertinent advice on writing. United States
I wrote this introduction because I feel like it paints a better portrait of me and of my interests (for those of you who don’t know me) and it offers an opportunity to get to know my novels better, on a more intimate level; I feel like we, reader and writer, will have a stronger connection if you know where my mind was at when I was writing, what I was listening to, and how I was feeling at the time. I hope that the books are as enjoyable for you to read as they were for me to write, and that, if you’ve come this far in Tim’s journey that you’ll see it through to the end with me in the next and final novel of Kosmogonia. Thank you for your support and for your belief in me!
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: ALL artists, both musical and literary, mentioned above do not endorse this novel or any of the ideas or opinions expressed therein in any way, shape, or form, nor are they aware of the influence that they have had on me. I mention them, especially the musical artists, solely for information purposes to elucidate my own beliefs, interests, and writing practices. The opinions and attitudes held by the writer (me) are not necessarily shared by any of the artists and my mentioning of their respective works in no way implies or indicates a sharing of such beliefs.