The Elemental Journey
I was asleep in Seattle when a dream woke me. I’d been writing short stories for years, and in the dream, these vignettes flew like geese from the corners of my vista and came together into a gaggle. I understood my stories were converging into a book. Not just one book, but a series. A voice in the dream gave me the titles, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Ether. As I sat up in bed, each book winged through the room and flew straight into me. Earth, being grounded in the place where we grow up. Air, leaving and flying above and getting perspective. Fire, trying to find your purpose, flying the wrong way, and burning up upon re-entry, Water, a phase of healing the authentic self, and Ether, the transformation that happens when one provides soulful service to others.
Now, all I had to do was put the dream down on paper. This would take more years than I care to share. I worked on Earth, the first novel, as I moved around the world, Seattle, Budapest, London, Boston, and the tiny seaside village of Tofino in British Columbia. Plots had to be created. I had been a journalist for years in newsrooms in Tokyo, London and Seattle, but I still had to hone my skills as a fiction writer. Creating a novel was a different beast than writing a newspaper article.
The books are called The Elemental Journey Series, and all five books follow one protagonist as she comes of age in a world rocked by growing violence and climate change. How do we remain sane when the very earth beneath our feet is going insane? Is there an intensified call to find purpose with the escalating global chaos? What is that call?
In Earth, Pearl grows up on a subsistence farm in rural Missouri. She has mystical visions, which everyone, including herself, hates and tries to crush. In Air, she leaves the Midwest and moves to Tokyo, where her job as a journalist seems to correlate to her apocalyptic visions. Pearl has consciously made herself homeless by leaving her native land, and she befriends a Japanese Holy Man, who lives homeless in a park in Tokyo. A question he asks her: “Where truly is home?” is one of the key themes of the novel. Earth and Air were published by Seattle’s Booktrope in 2015, and both won IPPYs, gold and silver, respectively.
I am working on Fire in my yurt art/writing studio in the woods on 80 acres in Oregon (I am also a visual artist). In Fire, Pearl goes on “walkabout” across SE Asia in search of her purpose. Like many of us, she can feel the call, but she just cannot pinpoint what she is supposed to do. In the end, she will be called to go backwards, to let go of everything, and to own the very part of herself that terrifies her the most.
How Not to Write Your First Book in 10 Difficult Steps
Advice from an IPPY-Winning Author
As a book coach for more than 16 years, I have helped fledgling writers from Singapore, to Switzerland, to Spokane find the keys to unlocking a world of characters, settings, plots and themes. Of course, keys can be used both ways. We can just as easily lock ourselves out, shivering in the rain, banging to be let back in.
Literary creativity is the great equalizer, and the difficulties new writers face on the long road to finishing a novel are universal. Here I offer ten ways to make the process even more challenging.
1. Ask Permission
You’ve always wanted to write a book. But then you drank the Kool-Aid, decided you needed that mortgage/spouse/kids/full-time job. You grew older. The gods knocked and when you didn’t listen, they threatened to break down the door. You awoke one morning realizing you had to write that book or your soul would perish. You then spent months discussing the idea with your wife, co-workers, even your kids. You didn’t know it, but you were ASKING PERMISSION. A tilt of the spouse’s head, a grimace from the co-worker, and you realized it was best to shelve the project for now. Who do you think you are, anyway?
2. Honor the Masters Above All Else
Begin your book by studying the literary masters, the Hemingways, Morrisons, Tolstoys, Eliots. Immerse yourself in the greatest writers of all time. Now sit down and try to write your rough draft. You suck! You’re not even 1/10th as gifted as the greats. They popped out of the womb as geniuses, right? Who gives a rat’s ass that most writers have cultivated a creative process that evolved over years? If you’re not as good as the masters on your first book, you might as well give up and spare yourself the heartache.
3. Plan to Write Your Book in Three Months
You’re going to write this damned book if it kills you. You sit for hours each day, ignoring paid work, your kid’s piano recital, a friend’s birthday. Who cares that most new writer take at least a year or two to pen their first novel, you’re not most people. You’ll finish it in 90 days, just watch. No you won’t burn out. No you won’t find that unfinished novel years later floating around your hard drive.
4. Edit Extensively as You Write
So, you’ve got the first chapter written. Now spend two weeks editing the first paragraph, three more weeks editing the language of the entire chapter. Make it perfect. You won’t have to change it later after you get to the end of the book. Sure you won’t. How could you have missed that comma, what are you an amateur? Dive deep into sweating the details. Forget about that initial exciting energy of being in the flow, of moving from one chapter to the next in an arc of soulful expression. You’ll get the flow back, right? Right?
5. Write Anywhere and Everywhere
The family computer sits in the hallway for everyone to use. When the kids are at school, that’s where you sit to pen your novel. No, it doesn’t bother you when the kids are home for vacation or one of them is sick. They sit for hours at the same computer that holds your precious literary gem, but you’re a good, caring, giving mom, that doesn’t bother you. Why should you have sacred space that no one else can enter, your own laptop that no one else can use? Who do you think you are?
6. Give the Market What It Wants
Vampires are popular, right? Write a vampire book. That pesky soul calling you to work on a literary historical novel? Do not give it a say in this endeavor. You are in control. You will write a novel that will sell. By the time you finish the novel, find an agent, and land a publisher, it’ll be a few years hence. Vampires will still be in vogue, then. Right? Sure they will.
7. Stuck Halfway Through? Throw it Out
Okay so the three-month plan to finish the book didn’t work out. That’s fine. You’ve adjusted your sights. You’ve accepted that perhaps it might take a bit longer. You’re working steadily. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and you’ve found your pace. But what’s this? You’re stuck in the middle of the book? You have the beginning. You know where it’s going to end, but the middle is chaos, nonsensical, meandering, rootless. Too many plot points converge in the middle and have to weave into a tapestry, and what you have instead is an unraveling. Tear your hair. It’s too much. Just too much. Throw the book out and start over…next year. Yeah, that’s it. You’ll start from scratch next year.
8. Show the Rough Manuscript to Your Family
The people who love you will love your rough draft. They are your greatest support, afterall. Well, maybe not your brother. He’s always fancied himself a writer, but hasn’t written a word since college. He was upset when he even heard you were writing a novel. Ok, so don’t show it to your brother. But your wife, she’ll love it, right? She’s been sweating over childcare and house cleaning for years, well before you started your book. She works full-time, comes home, and takes up the slack while you write. She’s your number one fan. She long ago gave up her passion, but she’ll LOVE that you’re fulfilling your soul’s contract. She is a caregiver, afterall. It’s her job to love your book. And what about your mother? So you based the mother character in the novel on her, that won’t upset her. She’s evolved. She’ll understand the literary merit over any potential hurt feelings. She won’t be so upset that it will actually interfere with your creative process. That’ll never happen.
9. Incorporate Everyone’s Advice
You’re actually not at all cocky about your first book, a fantasy novel. You’re humble. Scared even. It’s time to take it out and workshop it. You join a writer’s group. You don’t know any of the people, although they’ve been together for almost a decade. You can sense some difficult energy in the group, but ignore that. These people are professionals. They won’t let their personal foibles affect how they respond to your book. Listen to absolutely every piece of advice. Take copious notes. Don’t discern which feedback is relevant. Take it all on. One of the group members is a nonfiction writer who dislikes fantasy, and doesn’t even understand your book. It doesn’t matter. Change your manuscript to fit their feedback. Obviously these writers, even the nonfiction writer, know better than you do about your own book.
10. Be Your Own Editor
You are intelligent and well-read, a good writer. You can edit your own book. Why not? Is some stranger you pay better than you at editing? You can proofread it, too. You know how to find misspelled words and missing commas. Piece of cake. Prevailing advice on the need for an editor, especially for first-time writers, in an increasingly tough publishing market is for other writers, the dummies, the barely literates, the younger writers. You’re no dummy. No you are not.
All joking aside, I call the work I do with book clients, “excavating the authentic voice”. The truth is this takes time. It’s a fragile endeavor. It does not stand up well to strong winds -- being rushed, criticism, family pressures, etc. We must allow ourselves the space, time and protection to find the artifacts of our soul, gently brush off the dust, discern them, write about them, and month-after-month grow strong in the roots of our innate creative force. A genuine literary work is often a delicate and beautiful creature. It needs care. It needs to be taken seriously.
Caroline Allen worked in newsrooms in Tokyo, London, and Seattle, and as a travel writer through Asia. She is now a novelist and visual artist in Oregon. She is the founder of Art of Storytelling, a coaching service for writers. To learn more about Caroline and the upcoming novels in the Elemental Journey Series, visit: www.carolineallen.com or one of the links below.