Editor and author Mel McKee says that a “story is a war. It is sustained and immediate combat.”
He elaborates that there are four imperatives for the war story:
1) Get your fighters fighting
2) Have something at stake that is worth fighting over
3) Have the fight divide into a series of battles with the last battle the biggest and most dangerous of all
4) Have a walking away from the fight
It occurred to me as I reeled away from the current draft of my latest novel that it’s not just the story itself that can be compared to a war. The process of writing each novel sometimes feels like a sustained fight. The thing to keep in mind when you get tired or discouraged is that some books are epic battles and others are first round knock outs.
When I wrote my first book it was as though someone had pulled me out of the crowd and stuck me into the ring wearing someone else’s shorts and no mouth guard. My fighting style was best described as “surprised”. I couldn’t believe I was still on my feet when the bell rang after the first round. Thrilled, I kept dancing around my first person narrative and pretty soon I’d developed a technique of my own, similar to kung fu but without the fitness, discipline and opponents. Let’s call the technique Froo Do (not to be confused with a short, hairy-toed hobbit with a similar name). Imagine someone dressed up in gi, with a polka dot belt tied around her forehead going for broke in front of the mirror with made-up katas. That was me in my first fight. I wrote my diary format manuscript (Alice, I Think) with blissful and near total ignorance of what I was doing.
I survived that first battle and it was so exhilarating that I decided to get in the ring again. During the second bout, I took on no comers (I wrote a sequel) and had a hell of a good time. Thank you, Miss Smithers! Even more emboldened, I went for a third match (Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last) and then decided to expand my repertoire and looked to the larger world of fighting for inspiration.
Imagine my surprise when I got into the ring with a narrative featuring all new characters and an experiment involving alternating third and first person (which I used because I wanted to test the emotional effects of POV on readers). Well, I barely made it out of that one alive. The fight went the distance and I only won because my opponent nearly died of exhaustion from all my spinning and running around the ring. I don’t remember much of what happened because of the concussion I sustained when I was asked to cut nearly 200 pages. All I can say about that now is, thanks, Another Kind of Cowboy. You taught me a lot and most of it was painful.
After an extensive training montage that involved me running around the house in an Adidas tracksuit, I got back in the ring for a middleweight bout between me and one of my favourites: the YA detective novel. I had practised the noir moves but detective stories were harder than I thought. The match was a draw and Getting the Girl was my consolation prize.
Next came a middle weight bout with a contender that I’m pretty sure cheated during the weigh in. Don’t ever get in the ring with a memoir if you haven’t taken wrestling lessons. I’m just saying. My shoulders will never be the same after some of those choke holds that book put on me. I finally got the book to tap out, but only because I employed an unexpected underarm tickle manoeuvre. Nice Recovery indeed.
Punch drunk and with my dreamed-of modeling career derailed by a matched set of cauliflower ears, I decided to get myself on the card in the heavyweight division: adult fiction. It took some eating of cheese, some serious contemplation of what adult fiction even means, and plenty of watching MMA fighters crying nonstop on reality TV, but when the match came I enjoyed it, even though it mostly involved me and adult fiction running past one another and slamming into the ropes, slapstick style. Adult fiction kept climbing out of the ring and disappearing into a crowd of metaphors and weighty thematic material while I tried on the hats. I got through that battle and Woefield is the result. (Which reminds me: feel free to buy a copy for someone you love this Christmas!)
Now, like someone who is getting bad advice from management and/or a show business parent, I’ve gotten into a street fight with a science fiction, fantasy, comedy and a few other guys (who may be on drugs) and I’m a little concerned about my long term health. Science fiction landed a punch that closed one of my eyes. Dystopian pulled my hair and comedy tried to knee me in a bad place. It has been a crazy time, fight-wise, and it’s not over yet. But when I retreated to my corner my coach said, “Don’t forget to use your Froo Do. Try on a hat! Do that thing you do.” That’s all I needed to hear. It’s what all writers need to hear sometimes.
I’m going to make it out of this battle alive. I will be greatly disfigured and more addled than ever but I will have faced down a sci-fi/dystopian/alien mashup and lived to tell about it. And that’s all any writer can ask for. Find a fight style that suits you, then get in the ring and put your gloves up. If you take a direct hit and your eye swells shut, get out the razor. Play Eye of the Tiger multiple times per day. Take a multivitamin. Above all, don’t quit.
The new book is called Bright’s Light (I won’t tell you what round we’re in because I don’t want you to feel like you have to start a charitable foundation for me out of pity). It’s due out in August. Just know this: Bright’s Light has put up a helluva scrap. It may have even trained in Brazil.
God only knows what the next fight will be. A thumb wrestle or spit ball competition might be a nice change, but with my luck it will be a sumo match featuring me, my Froo Do and a slippery six hundred pound man in a fancy diaper. That’s how it goes when you’re a professional fighter-writer.