Writer's Notes: Nelson Lowhim
Writer's Notes is a series that invites writers to detail their projects at any stage in their process. In this installment, author Nelson Lowhim explores his muses —both in life and in literature—and how they have guided his writing process.
Now, when I explain my writing process, I suppose I should say that the muse, the “rush” of a scene lived and what follows, is something ephemeral. So trying to place where it came from is a matter of guesswork (not the editing, I suppose, but the source is partially a subconscious act), and I tend to look for all that was influencing me at the time. I also take issue with the oft-stated thought that a book is autobiographical. Even if the book is written in the first-person, even if there are many aspects that mimic my own life, it is still—for me—a different life lived. I imagine a reader would take that life lived and point to the similarities and say that, yes, it is about him. It’s not and there is not enough space to tackle all the psychology behind it.
The short story that kicked off the idea of the Labyrinth of Souls gestated on the clattering, rocking D-train as I headed from the Bronx to Manhattan for a veteran’s writing workshop. That short story was published in Omni a year ago. I’ll let you decide whether it’s good. The basic story was about a man in a post-apocalyptic situation, albeit a calm one, with robots in charge.
At that point, as a writer, I had yet to write about robots or anything so science fiction-like. The closest thing was When Gods Fail, which was a post-apocalyptic situation but focused on how humans do in a survival situation. When I finished the story, I put it aside and was hit with another muse. The prequel to this world beckoned.
What I would embark upon next would be one of the longest and most painful journeys I’ve ever embarked upon as a writer. The muse came as a thought about how algorithms will change our decision making and will possibly usurp them. This thought was combined with the increasing drone wars in the Middle East, the constant cycle of war, and the specter of that cycle of subjugation never being overturned.
It was with that in mind that I pushed my character through his world; a changing one, and one in which all that grounded him had crumbled. It was based in New York and had some haunts I knew, but from there it changed and morphed. A labyrinth was born, a robot was met, the fight against subjugation was underway.
About halfway through my book, I was stuck. Part of this was the fact that my life was becoming too unpredictable, but also that I had my characters and world but the battle that had arisen was not yielding a proper arc. By this I mean that the robot there was helping the main character to fight his enemies, but I wanted this to be more than just a fight. And at more than 150,000 words, the fight did not seem to want to end and had managed to involve just about everyone.
The entire story had become much too complicated, too unwieldy, and if even I couldn’t keep the story under control, what would my readers think? So I sat down, wrote out the characters, the shifting alliances, the possible outcomes, and a clarified story line or at least a breakdown of who was who and how exactly they would face off with each other. I made a few emotional, character-based arcs, but I was already favoring an arc for the cityscape, for the zeitgeist over a single character. With this in hand I finished the novel.
The editing process, carving down a 210,000 word novel to 160,000 words, was daunting. More important, though, was the affect this entire process had on how I thought about writing. I mentioned the other influences during the gestation of the story. Not mentioned was the literary influence. During the writing of this novel I was (and am) reading a lot of Borges. I was more in love with the short story (and pseudo-essay) than ever before and loved trying to write as much as possible in as little space as possible. This was reflected in some parts of my book, which started with a broad sweep of the brush before diving into a narrative:
How do I escape impending death? I ask because I see my own coming for me; ravenous, disgusting, and to top it all off, giggling away. I see the same for my people. There is no hope. Or is there?
The seed of our destruction—and by our I mean civilization's and by civilization I’m really referring to those of us comfortable enough on our thrones of picked-clean bones, high enough to not smell the stench of blood and decaying flesh of those upon whom our thrones sit—threatens to lie in our every action wrong.
And so it goes, as that more modern Bard said; as some of us go through the codification of our souls—kicking and screaming, mind you—we try hard not to feel these things, these unsettling matters which tend to obscure our view of the manicured lawns and houses or shiny buildings or ‘place your history here’-facades.
I would have never tried a start like this before. I probably shouldn’t have done so, but I did and the prose soon dives into a narrative.
Now I know that in the future trying to say more with less will light my path. Currently, it means that my knack for writing novels is gone and I’ve been churning out short stories, or pseudo essays (essentially, ala Borges, these are obituaries or book reviews about people who never existed or books never written). My main question today is if I should string together a plethora of these stories and make a more recognizable, and hence a more sellable, plot arc and story.
This may seem a large, perhaps solipsistic, digression from the nuts and bolts of writing a book, but bear with me. I mentioned above that this novel also pulled me away from focusing on a character’s emotional arc and looking more at the bigger picture’s arc. But the idea of the arc was also made obsolete, in my eyes, by writing this book, by over thinking the labyrinth. So I’ve experimented on my blog with fractal stories by using html links to expand the story in a more natural way.
And I’m still experimenting—funny where a book written can take one. I certainly hope that people are even somewhat as affected as I am.