Writing in the doldrums

Blog | | Friday, July 1, 2011
After his “Lamb Among the Stars” epic series, author Chris Walley shares what may be next, despite personal bouts with discouragement, distraction, and sense of displacement. How do Christian storytellers deal with these?

“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.

The Infinite Day (2008)

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.

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14 responses

  1. Chris

    I thoroughly loved your books. They were so immersive and I soaked in every minute detail. In fact, I miss your worlds so much, I am re-reading them in lieu of any new books. So, do not be discouraged. You have fellow authors who totally understand everything you just said about writing. Of course, your fellow authors do not control book advances or have a special line to Kenneth Branaugh or Joe Johnson.

    Thank you for this very honest post. Even though you may feel discouraged and displaced, it is a comfort to me personally. One thing I have learned is the importance of community among writers, particularly those of us who write speculative fiction. We are here at least to give solace and shed some sympathetic tears.

    And, I cannot wait to read your new novel! Please press on and do not give up.

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  2. What a great post. Your parenthetical comments about Tolkien’s languages and economists fantasies made me laugh.

    The rest of the post? Not very funny.

    I’ve been in doldrums for a year. For me it’s always because I don’t know where the story is going. I don’t know what scene comes next. Once I figure that out, I can write like crazy in the middle of party and not even hear the revelry. Once I know where I’m going, I’m able to write fast. As you say, I just follow the characters around describing what they get up to. But first I have to know where they are and what they want and how they plan to get it. 

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  3. There are few things more disheartening than releasing a story you’re very proud of into the world and hearing little but cricket chirps in response. Modern technology has inundated the market with new stories, and unless you have the good fortune to go viral, ala The Shack, it’s a long, hard slog just to get noticed. It’s like waving your hand in a crowded stadium and shouting, “Here I am!”

    But Bruce is right–you’ve got to keep writing.

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  4. Bethany J. says:

    “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.”

    Ahhh, this is so encouraging right now!  Thank you, Chris!!  I’ve been in the doldrums for over a year, maybe two – mostly because “real life” has taken precedence.  Getting married and having a baby consume a lot of time and concentration!  But in a good way.  :)  (I hear you on the displacement woes, too…argh.)  Lately my “creative juices” are flowing like mad, which is thrilling, but I can’t seem to focus on one single story.  I jump from project to project.  Each day it’s a new interest.  This quote is a great reminder that creativity in itself is God-honoring, and although I may not have the time and energy to put out a full book right now, I can still hone my craft in a myriad of ways.

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  5. Very useful tips. Thanks.  I really should find the other books in the series…only found the first one.

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  6. Mr. Walley, I’ll admit that the first book of your series I almost let go of. It did have a slow buildup, but I was intrigued enough with the premise that I kept with the series.

    I am so glad I did.

    I think the Lamb Among the Stars is a truly epic, great series in the same cosmic vein as JMS’s Babylon 5, a grand way to deliver a story with action, humor, loss, hope, and wonder. I, like other readers, have obviously been remiss in letting people know. My apologies.

    I’m excited to hear about your new idea for an alternate history, since that little sub (cross?) genre is a personal favorite of mine. If anyone can bring this niche the treatment it deserves, I believe it is you.

    Thank you for the Lamb Among the Stars. It’s got a permanent place on my bookshelf.

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  7. Chris, thank you for a wonderful article. I so appreciate your look at Scripture to find the answers to the problems you spotlight.

    Regarding writing to silence, I only have my blog to use by way of comparison, so it may be different for fiction, but I keep thinking, if I had this many people in a room waiting to hear what I had to say, would I be disappointed? I augment that question by asking God to bring who He wishes, and then I trust that He has done so. Consequently, whether or not the numbers meet my expectations, I can still be happy knowing that the people who showed up on any given day have an appointment, so to speak. ;-)

    Becky

    Rebecca LuElla Miller’s recent blog: Will The Real Jesus Please Stand UpMy Profile

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  8. Hi, Chris
    You couldn’t have written a more timely article for me. Thank you very much. I’ve been in the doldrums a bit lately. Being a full time teacher here in the states, I have a very demanding job already. Over the past six years, I’ve written or cowritten 9 novels–all while teaching full time and trying to shepherd a family of 6, 4 of whom are adolescents. I’ve been completely stressed out by the process. Discouragement has definitely set in. One major reason why is that, even though I’ve sold over 300K books, I have very little income to show for it. Certainly far from the income needed to write full time, which is what I’d like to do. I didn’t get into writing for the money. God made me a creative person. I need to create. I’ve always wanted to write. And since becoming a Christian, I’ve wanted to share Him thru my stories. In large part, based on emails and letters, I think I’ve done that. But somewhere, in there, I ought to be able to make a living doing this. It’s so discouraging to get a royalties statement and think, wow, all that work…and this is what I earned? So, long story short, here I am in summer, no teaching. You’d think I’d be itching to write. But actually, I’ve had a really hard time getting into it. The doldrums, indeed. I’m hoping for a fresh wind to fill my sails. Because I know, in a blink, the school year will begin once more, and I’ll be looking back at the time I let slip through my fingers…

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  9. Go Chris! Good words, very good indeed. Looking forward to reading this book of yours!

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  10. There are two practical techniques I use to get around the problem of displacement activities.  The first is the Pomodoro technique.  I use this site: http://mytomatoes.com/ but you could equally well use a kitchen timer or stopwatch.  The point is simply that you only plan to work for 25 minutes at a time.  So any displacement activity can wait until the break.  25 minutes is much less scary than a whole day or a whole afternoon.  Anyone can do 25 minutes!  And then, of course, once you’ve started, it’s massively easier to keep going.  The other is the #1k1hr challenge on Twitter.  It’s a similar idea but with the fun of doing it alongside other people.  The challenge is just to write 1000 words in an hour.  At the end of the time, everyone chips in with their word count and someone usually calls the next time.  Oh, also, I sometimes use Write or Die, which is almost as scary as it sounds:  http://writeordie.com/

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  11. Shannon McNear says:

    Chris, thank you so much for this post, and for your honesty. I am ashamed to say that I only just read the last two books (finished The Infinite Day last night, in fact) … but they were so worth the read. I’m amazed at the scope of the story … your worldbuilding and the theology and characters and … the possibilities!
    Speaking of being caught up in real life, I manage to write–some–while mothering and teaching my eight (the two oldest are in college now, thankfully), but enjoyable reading is what’s suffered most. But my 20-year-old eldest, who has read Lamb Among the Stars twice now and rates it one of his absolute favorite series, nagged me until I committed myself to finishing the series … and I’m so very glad he did. :-) I’m still absorbing it all.
    Thank you for being obedient to your call, wherever that has led … and I can’t wait to see what you’ve written next!

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  12. Hi Chris…  I have read science fiction / fantasy for most of my life.  I enjoy it as a genre that, at its best, tackles tough issues and highlights human strengths and frailties in different environments. Christian sic-fi/fantasy seems to me dastardly difficult.  You have done an wonderful job and all 3 of your books are standing in a place of prominence on my book shelf beside Tolkien’s works and the less well know works of Julian May.  I want to encourage you for doing something that is both exceptional and outstanding in the fullest sense of that word.  Thanks for your hard work and dedication.  As evidenced by  LOTR, we never know what God may have in store.   I part with a sincere thank you and a tip of my hat to a master wordsmith. 

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  13. So THAT’S were you went. I enjoyed the trilogy and so did my friend who reads to her husband at night. I was too slow at getting the third book that she ran out and bought it herself.
    I am realizing that I should have let you know that I enjoyed the books. For some reason, not until this year did I think about writing to authors and thanking them. I’m sorry that I let chirping crickets be my voice.
    Thank you for your work.

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  14. Chris … Your books are amazing. Check Spielberg and Cameron movies. Most if not all have slow starts that build up over time. Give time for character. Most don’t know how. You do and did a fantastic job in your trilogy. Keep on writing. You have a unique talent. Your time will come.

    Also, a general work to all Christian writers, STOP ending your works with the coming of Christ. A noble theme I’m sure, but it sort of stops the series forever.  Sometimes it is too simple a soluction as well.

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