Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Writing of Golden-The Novel

I had already been photographing wild horses for fifteen years when I had the opportunity to spend a week with a wild herd in the Spring of 1994.  Experiencing the above scene unfold in front of me had a powerful effect. It made me want to write a story about a wild horse.   Both the photograph and my young daughter's love of horses were the original inspiration for the book. Yet I did not sit down and actually start writing it until the fall of 2009.  In the intervening years I occasionally thought through a plot in my head, but not very thoroughly. The only aspect of the storyline I was sure of was having the horse running wild across Yellowstone Park and encountering a variety of adventures in that great landscape. Other than those chapters I really had no initial idea of what would be in the book.

Photography keeps me plenty busy without doing any writing and I successfully procrastinated writing the story for years.  What I kept in my mind throughout this fifteen year period was the stallion's name, Golden, and that Yellowstone chapter. I thought of getting started on the book many times but never managed to do so.  I knew I had this book in me but getting it out would take some discipline. I remember hearing an interview with John Grisham in which he said that if a person wanted to write a book all he or she needed to do was be disciplined enough to write one page per day and within a year they would have a book. He said it did not even mean quitting one's day job. It just took discipline and setting priorities.

Finally, when visiting a friend in the Yukon in September of 2009, I decided to throw myself into the project. The only difficult part was making the decision. Once I made the commitment and started writing every day the book just flowed out and I came to enjoy the book-writing process itself.  I went to the Whitehorse Public Library every morning and sat down with my laptop and maps and notes and began to compose. The first few days I wrote longhand on paper simply because that had been how I had always written articles in the past. I felt that I could think things through better that way. But after three days I realized that this was a mechanically foolish way to write a book these days. Inevitably everything would have to be typed and I certainly did not want to have to be continually transcribing from longhand.  So I forced myself to use the laptop and Microsoft Word.  I soon got used to it and now cannot imagine ever writing longhand again.

The library had wifi so Internet research was at my fingertips. As I composed the story I was easily able to click back and forth between Word and the web, looking up information as needed, verifying details, and even visiting locations in virtual mode.  I used to live in Wyoming and know the state well, but it was invaluable while writing to be able to see photographs on the monitor of the exact landscape I was describing rather than having to rely on my own memory. My memory provided the feeling and the Internet provided the accuracy. For the description of stallions fighting I studied YouTube clips.   When I needed to know anatomical details as a horse goes airborne and jumps over a fence the information was just a click away.  Likewise for researching the anatomy of a forest fire,  the workings of an Anderson sling, the dosage of Rompun, or the lifting capacity of  a  Bell Jet helicopter. It was all just a click away. I can't imagine writing a book like this without the Internet.

I did not work from any outline and often did not know from day to day where the story was headed. I knew that a significant chapter or two would be within Yellowstone Park, but the rest I created as I went along. At first the writing seemed a little intimidating without an outline. How could I possibly write an entire book by ad libbing?  But that's what I did.  I came to trust the process of writing.  I knew that once I sat down at the table with my laptop that ideas would flow and the story would progress.  Before writing this book I had no idea that that's how things can work out.

Occasionally I would get stumped. I would know where the story was now and perhaps have a notion of where it might be a little down the line, but did not know how to get from A to B. Whenever this happened I would go jogging and carry a small digital recorder.  I found that some of my best ideas would come to me while alone running. I don't know why. Perhaps it was endorphins, or maybe it was simply being out a trail in the forest and relaxing. This trick never failed me. I was always able to come up with good ideas for the story when exercising. It was my way of overcoming so-called writer's block.

While much of the writing was accomplished in Whitehorse, I still continued to travel as usual, always with my laptop in tow.  While photographing birds in the winter in Florida, I would work on the manuscript in the evenings.  When in western Washington state for a week, I photographed during the days and spent the rainy evenings in one public library or another plugging away at Golden.  When the libraries closed, usually around 9 PM,  I just drove to some rest stop and slept in the car and was ready at dawn to begin photographing again. It was a time of total focus and I loved it.

These days I  head south for much of the winter and in January of 2010 I began living in and photographing out of my VW van.  My laptop with the book manuscript was never far from my side.  I kept up the writing in Ashland, San Francisco, Lake Mead, and points in between.  I finished the first draft by the beginning of March, six months after first sitting down in the Yukon and forcing myself to begin writing.  I was in a fitting setting for completing the task. It was mid-morning and I was inside my VW camper high above the Lake Mead shoreline, overlooking that vast body of water, in the state that has the most free roaming wild horses. 

Much work was yet to follow, the more tedious aspect of the trade.  As my book agent, Carolyn French, is frequently eager to point out, "Writing is about rewriting."   All writers should take those words to heart.  I finished that first draft early March of 2010 and here I am this first week of July in 2011 still making tweaks and corrections to the text and adding some wild horse images (at the suggestion of a good friend)  to increase the book's appeal. The process can be never ending, especially with electronic books. In the "old days" of print, a publisher might be stuck with 10,000 copies of a faulty text with many typos and glitches.  But today there is no excuse for having an inferior product.  Corrections and revisions are always just a few clicks away. An improved version of a book can be uploaded to Amazon at any time to replace the previous version. This can occur multiple times, with ease and for no cost.

Mark Newman

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