There is a saying among writers: “When you write a book, the first words of the novel will sell that novel, but the last words in the novel will sell the next.” In other words, a powerful novel will make your reputation, will cause people to remember your name, so that with future books, the fans will simply pick them up without thinking. They might not need to know the title or check the reviews on your next novel. They’re fans for life.
As I was writing book 9 in my Runelords series, this was heavy on my mind. I think that to some degree, in order for a series to be successful, it needs to have a powerful ending, a memorable ending, and I wanted that for my book.
Unfortunately, I didn’t feel as if my editor was much help. He kept wanting shorter books, and wanting them faster. There’s no harm in that, I think. We both want to sell books. Yet I really hoped to make the last book in the Runelords exceptional.
So I did things like read through my series looking for minor characters that I might want to revisit, or loose ends to tie up.
I also had to reconsider the various themes in the book and ask myself questions like, “What is the ultimate meaning of this series? What are you trying to say about life? Will the book become transformative? Does this plot satisfy?”
So I began working hard on the novel, playing with various openings. I wrote two hundred pages with one protagonist, then threw it away. I tried a couple of other runs at it and felt that I was finally making some success.
Then my mother fell ill. We’d always been close. I’d called her at least once a week for more than thirty years, and on one call she mentioned that her back hurt her a lot and she wasn’t able to eat. After I hung up, I realized that I really needed to go see her myself, and so I flew home to Oregon to check up on her in person. I found her in bed, unable to get up to answer the door, and took her to the hospital. The doctors found that she had a hiatal hernia and operated on her, and the surgeon insisted that within a couple of days, had she not been attended to, she would have passed away.
Great. I managed to save her life. But the doctor’s words bothered me. In the x-rays they found that she had two cracked vertebrae in addition to her hernia, and I had to wonder, “How did she break her back?”
Blood tests revealed that she had bone cancer, and that she had just a few more months to live. So her situation was going from bad to worse.
Sort of like my relationship with my editor. While I was taking care of my mother he called and urged me to finish my novel within a few weeks. So I stayed with her for a couple of weeks and worked like mad on the book, getting several hundred pages finished. Then he called my agent and threatened to cancel my contracts if I didn’t get the book done in two more weeks.
When I got the call from my agent, I was literally holding my mother’s hand and trying to feed her some lunch.
Now, it’s important to remember that the book wasn’t even late at this time. This was just my editor becoming overly anxious. I get it. He felt stressed.
But he pissed me off. In fact, I’ve never been so angry with a co-worker. I’d put up with his tantrums and put-downs for years and had often considered calling my publisher and demanding a new editor, but I didn’t want to. I was so close to the end of the series, I didn’t feel that I needed to. But In dealing with my mother’s impending death, I just couldn’t wrap my head around that novel. So I decided, “To hell with it. I can’t deal with all of this right now. I’m going to set it aside for a bit.”
My mother had always been a hard-working person, as strong as a bull. She loved to work at gardening all day, and if she ran out of things to do at her house, she would go work in the neighbor’s garden or go down to a local church (it didn’t matter which) and plant some flowers. So I’d always figured that she would live into her nineties, but she succumbed to her cancer in just a few months.
While she was dying, I had an alternate project that I wrote just to clear my mind, a historical novel called In the Company of Angels, that told the stories of some pioneers that traveled across America in 1856, battling buffalo stampedes, Indian attacks, and starvation. This was a novel that was not written for profit, necessarily. Sometimes you just feel drawn to a book. You need to write something. I’ve always been that way. As a kid I made mosaics, sculpted, and painted, and so I wrote the novel out of pure creative instinct. Sometimes as a writer you need to do that sort of as a therapy.
My mother asked to read it in her final days, so I sent it to her. She kept calling me every day or two, in tears, and asking, “When are you going to publish this?” The problem was, I didn’t know if I would be able to ever publish it. I was writing outside of my genre. I sent it out to one publisher and they wanted it, but I didn’t like their publishing plan, so I pulled it.
When my mother passed, she didn’t leave much of an inheritance, but my wife said, “Now that your mother is dead, you know what she’d want you to do with the money.”
So I published the novel a couple of months after my mother’s death. To my surprise, it sold out very quickly, and even won an award, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year,” beating out about 400 other novels. So that was a pleasant surprise.
But when I went back to finish my Runelords series, I found myself blocked. I couldn’t seem to move forward with it. My mother had died, and I knew that grief often drains the creative energy from a writer. It’s an open secret with writers: when a parent or spouse dies, you usually grieve for a couple of years.
Given that, I decided to write another book just to keep my writing muscled warm and to push myself. I wrote a YA fantasy thriller called Nightingale, a story of a young man who is abandoned at birth and eventually discovers that he isn’t even human. I finished that one pretty quickly and decided that, due to the strangeness in the markets at the time, I’d put it out as a self-published novel. It too won a number of awards, including the International Book Award for Best Young Adult Novel, and the Hollywood Book Festival’s Book of the Year, along with several others.
I still wasn’t excited about the last Runelords novel, but I went to work on it, when tragedy struck once again. My youngest son, Ben, went out riding on his longboard and took a nasty fall, getting a traumatic brain injury. He spent weeks in a coma, near death, and we spent months working with him, re-training him to walk and talk. His injuries left us with over a million dollars in debt. At the time, I wasn’t able to get insurance in the state of Utah, so it wiped out our life savings.
Did I mention that stress kills your creativity? I had to put that novel on hold for quite a while and go to work on other things for most of the past three years. On a typical workweek, I put in about 80-100 hours per week, working seven days a week. We’ve managed to pay off thirty of the hospitals, surgeons, therapists, and so on over that time, and have only a couple of bills left.
It’s only been in the last few months that I’ve felt ready to complete that series. In fact, I’m setting aside time to finish it between now and New Year.
Interestingly enough, I keep hearing from movie producers about interest in the series—usually once a month or so, and we might actually be close to going into production on a film based on the first book in the series. But I’ve had so many false starts in Hollywood that I refuse to get excited anymore.
Instead, right now, I’m excited to write “The End” on this book. I’ve got hundreds of pages written, and perhaps another three hundred more to write. I want this to be my best work yet.
Wish me luck!
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