It’s Christmas break, the strike is over, my grading is done, I’m taking a break from academic research, and my latest book has been sent off to Samhain Publishing. Today is an extremely rare day–rarer still for a weekday–which I got to spend substantially all of working on my very long-term project, a novel called The Valley of Forever. At the risk of seeming self-indulgent, I thought I might do a blog post about what I’m working on and how I do it, as it’s been a while since I’ve done any writing-related posts. Thus, in this article you’ll get a brief glimpse inside the multi-year project that I very rarely talk about at length, but that you may have heard me mention in passing from time to time.
The Valley of Forever–although it stands alone as a story, it is technically a sequel to my short story The Antimeridian, written in late 2009 but not published until 2011, and which is now free on Amazon Kindle–is ostensibly a science fiction novel, but I always saw it as more than that. Its subject is nothing more or less than time: its immensity, its strange quirks, its ubiquity in our universe, and its deep philosophical implications. If that sounds like a difficult thing to write a novel about, you’re right. This isn’t a novel based on a single plot or centered around a particular science fiction scenario. It involves time travel but it’s not a standard time travel story. More fundamentally it involves memory, perceptions of time and how they differ from how time really is, and why time is at once crucial to our lives and also incapable of being understood. Finding plot(s), characters and dramatic situations that can illuminate these themes in a way intelligible to a reading audience has been the major project in trying to write this book.
Seeing Norwegian farmhouses from centuries past–like this one–preserved at the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History was a major impetus for the creation of my book The Valley of Forever. This house was built about 1690.
What sparked the project was my first trip to Norway in 2009. At the Norsk Folkemuseum (the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History) there are preserved several traditional farmhouses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Walking into these perfectly-preserved houses is literally like stepping back in time. For years I’d wanted to do a novel about time, but the Norway trip focused my thinking on a story that would illustrate time’s various features through the example of an ancient Norwegian farming village that remains frozen in time, and whose immortal residents think that it’s the year 1712 even though it’s centuries later. Beyond this core story I also wanted to include various other plots, some set in the modern day, others in various times in the past or future. But putting this all together in a cohesive plot was difficult.
My first thought was that The Valley of Forever should be interactive–similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure model which was a huge influence on my writing and creativity. The first draft of The Valley of Forever, which I completed in 2010, was in fact a 394-page interactive book with numerous repeating and interlocking plots. I had a demo volume privately printed and sent it to some contacts of mine for what authors sometimes call “beta reading.” I thought, as usually happens with beta reads, that the comments would necessitate some fairly minor tweakings, and The Valley of Forever would be ready to go after another draft. That is not what happened.
I bit off much more than I could chew. The first draft of The Valley of Forever was so radical, so experimental that my beta readers simply didn’t know what to make of it. There were some good elements, but it’s clear I’d failed in most of the basic messages I’d tried to articulate. The problems weren’t in the execution, but conceptual and structural issues. By fall 2010 I was working on Zombies of Byzantium and had begun my academic research, so Valley of Forever was not a priority. But I’d still plug away at it, writing a bit here and there, a weekend or so a month.
This was my “demo volume” of the first draft of The Valley of Forever. From how dog-eared and worn out it is, you can tell I’ve referred to it a lot since 2010.
This book, and my vision for what I want it to be, has proven a very tough nut to crack. I am now, as of December 14, working on my ninth draft of the book. I have folders on my computer full of Valley of Forever writings, outlines, chapters, analyses and failed versions. Today I tallied them up. Since October 2009, I estimate I’ve written about 6 million words that relate directly or indirectly to The Valley of Forever. The King James version of the Bible, by contrast, is 775,000 words. In the last five years I’ve written the equivalent of almost 8 Bibles, trying to tell the story of my vision of time. Only now, in draft nine, do I feel like it may be coming together, but I don’t want to get my hopes up. After this painful experience, you may understand why I’m so dismissive of things like the fulsome “NaNoWriMo” that treat writers as nothing more than monkeys pounding keyboards, producing reams of meaningless gibberish.
As frustrating as the process has been, it’s also been incredibly illuminating. The research I’ve done for the project has been amazing. In addition to a lot of stuff on how Norwegians lived in the 18th century, I’ve learned about Einsteinian relativity, quantum physics, ship construction (part of the modern-day story takes place on a ship), insurance law, the library of Alexandria, Italian politics of the 1990s, the mechanics of British motorcycles, entomology of grasshoppers, the creation of time zones in the 1880s, the discovery of DNA, the Kabbalah tradition in Judaism, mountaineering in the Himalayas, and the vanilla industry of Mexico. All of these subjects have touched something that has been in a draft of The Valley of Forever at one time or another. I’ve also learned more about writing and storytelling than I ever knew in the entirety of my life before then. The depth and complexity of writing this book has shown me nothing less than the vast ocean of knowledge and thought that exists in the world. A novelist’s task is to draw upon that ocean and illuminate the world in a new way that no one has done before. I’d like to think that’s the finish line of this process.
I’m a horror writer. I write genre books, like my forthcoming Doppelgänger, that are meant to be fun, interesting and possibly thought-provoking stories. But The Valley of Forever is my true labor. Maybe it will never be published, or if so, it might take 20 more years and 25 more drafts, not seeing the light of day until I’m an old man. Or maybe it will be done in six months. I simply have no idea. I’m less its creator than its midwife. A book about time will choose its own time to come into the world.