Before sharing a few reflections about my improbable literary journey, let me acknowledge that this is my first-ever blog post. I have refrained from blogging not because it’s time-consuming, not because it eats into writing time, not because I’m reclusive, but because I just don’t have much I want or need to say. Not having much to say is, I’ll admit, a seeming contradiction for someone who has written a novel, but it’s perfectly consistent with the idea that I’m an unlikely novelist.
My dear parents (and they are very dear) taught me to stand in the background when photographed, and to speak only after everyone else had their say. I took those lessons to heart, perhaps too well. At social gatherings, I’m the quiet and curious observer who stands a considerable distance from the party’s epicenter. The only people less chatty than me are the Mayan Indians I work with in the remote jungles of northern Guatemala.
In another era, those latter traits might have been considered “writerly,” but in this age of blogging, Twitter, Facebook fan pages, and LinkedIn—none of which I do—I’m the literary equivalent of an Amish farmer.
When I scribbled the first few pages of STIGMA, I had no idea I was starting to write a novel. Not an inkling. My novel’s improbable birth occurred during a family vacation, when I was jotting down some random musings to fill unused pockets of time. That in itself was unusual for me, because prior to that moment I had never revealed to myself or anyone else any inclination to write anything.
In fairness, I knew I had a dollop of writing talent, a God-given (read “unearned”) ability I had squandered during the first 50 years of my life. It was not a well-developed talent, mind you, just enough to fool college philosophy professors into believing that my hastily rendered term papers reflected an understanding of their course work. I had a knack for quickly stringing together sentences and throwing in an occasional (but often strained) metaphor that allowed smart people like my professors to see depth and nuance where none existed. It was a savant-type skill, and, as I later learned, one that is particularly well suited to writing fiction.
Ultimately, mine was and is a modest gift, nothing so profound that it gives rise to pride or vanity. And throughout the first half century of my life, I used my Lilliputian talent to dispatch the occasional writing tasks as quickly as possible, treating them as unpleasant penances. Ironically, up to that point in my life I had applied my writing skills to avoid the occasion of writing, in a manner similar to how I applied my Catholic faith and teachings to avoid the occasion of sin (though I was far more successful at the former than the latter).
But an odd thing happened when I began scribbling those random reflections—the ones I mentioned before wandering off topic and into my college years and sinful life. As I wrote and rewrote, my doodles slowly morphed into a short story, or what I initially thought was a short story. Bear in mind, I’d never in my life had an inclination to write fiction. This was all very peculiar, and I didn’t know what to make of it.
And as Alice in Wonderland would say, it got even curiouser. For reasons I still cannot fathom, after returning home from vacation I became obsessed with writing. It wasn’t the notion of being a writer that grabbed hold of me. I’m not one who feels that I was born to write, or that the world needs me to write—that should be obvious by now, right?
But write I did, and with the energy and delight of a toddler discovering for the first time how Gerber purees can be splashed and thrown to form all sorts of intriguing designs on nearby walls. My story probably resembled a splatter of mashed peas at that point, but I was blissfully unaware of its structural and narrative problems. I was having fun and that was all that mattered.
My naiveté not only sustained me through the highly suspect early drafts of my ill-defined composition, it prompted me to expand my ambitions. Weeks into my improbable journey, I was reading Robert Ludlum’s The Matarese Circle and I thought, “Hey, I can do this. I can write a thriller novel!” Looking back, this was my Mr. Magoo moment (for those old enough to remember the happily oblivious and near-blind cartoon character who was repeatedly saved by absurdly implausible events). Then and later, lady luck rescued me from my ignorance and nearsightedness. The nit-wittedness that allowed me to so grossly underestimate Mr. Ludlum’s accomplishment also protected me from giving up when a well-informed appraisal of the challenges ahead might have caused me to quit.
My nearsightedness revealed itself in many ways, and, curiously, most of its manifestations proved beneficial to my writing. For example, I discovered I’m the kind of writer who has no idea what’s going to happen next in my story. Even while writing the final chapters of STIGMA, only rarely was I able to see through the creative fog and glimpse into the next scene. Wondering what was going to happen next became an irresistible force that propelled my writing, and wanting to know how the story would end kept me in my seat.
What made my journey a bit unnerving were the nightmares.
Well, I suppose they weren’t nightmares in a literal sense, but they were deeply unsettling. These dreams comprised scenes from my story, but the actions and words were twisted and warped by Dean-Koontz-style effects. Now, let me be clear: my novel STIGMA has no paranormal or supernatural elements. The story portrays real people in the present day world. But several nights each week during the three-year period of my book’s creation, the scene I was writing by day morphed into a kaleidoscopic miasma at night.
I’d often wake from these dreams in the middle of the night, groggy and disquieted, but with a new insight into my story’s characters. Early on, I kept a pad and pencil on my bed stand to capture these ideas, but by the next morning my “epiphanies” invariably turned out to be gibberish. Not once did the dreams yield a coherent clue that I could use consciously in my writing, but as it turned out that wasn’t their purpose.
Clearly, my subconscious used dreams to work out the emotional elements of the story, albeit in a quirky, offbeat manner. The dreams wreaked havoc on my sleep, but they seemed a necessary element of my writing process.
An even more unexpected aspect of my novelistic journey was my transformation from a get-it-done-with-the-least-amount-of-effort sort of writer to an it’s-never-good-enough writer. By all accounts, Raymond Chandler was never satisfied with his manuscripts, and his editor had to rip each one from the writer’s hands to meet publishing deadlines. I became a poor imitation of Chandler and was obsessed with matters of style and expression. I couldn’t leave a sentence until it was just so. After completing a paragraph, I’d immediately rewrite it a dozen times and then tweak it again and again during each of 25 editing passes. I would agonize over an adjective, removing it, putting it back, removing it . . . on and on this would go through countless cycles of editing and polishing. The biblical Abraham probably had less doubt about sacrificing his son Isaac than I had about the placement of a comma.
This, of course, was not a healthy circumstance for a first-time novelist. I had given birth to, and unwittingly nurtured, an internal editor of Herculean muscularity. But happily, I didn’t know any better and welcomed his presence! (this must have annoyed him greatly)
Like many of you with fulltime non-writing jobs or young families to care for, my writing time was constrained. Despite those limitations, I wrote 5-6 hours every workday—that is, almost every waking minute that I was not at work. On weekends, I usually wrote at least 10 hours a day, and often more (it’s nice having grown children).
For all that effort, my daily word production was just 2-700 words. Not two hundred to seven hundred words; the lower end of my daily word count was two (as in, one plus one). Only when I was having an out-of-body writing experience did I reach 700 words in a single day.
Like many novelists, I started each day by editing the previous day’s work, which often meant changing the order of the two words I had produced the prior day. You’d think I’d grow weary of endlessly editing the same stretches of narrative. On the contrary, I was as happy as a pig rolling in . . . my words. I enjoyed every moment of the process. Except the nightmares.
With very few exceptions, I wrote seven days a week. At the end of three long years, when I finally wrote “THE END,” I was completely spent. I was the untrained, unfit marathon runner crawling across the finish line long after everyone else had gone home.
But it was a good feeling. I had written a novel.
Wow, let me say that again, louder . . . I had written a novel! My early scribbles had germinated in my subconscious and become a 500-page thriller with layers of intricate mystery elements and characters I had grown to love. Lest that last statement sound self-congratulatory, I don’t intend it as such. Using a God-given skill for which I can take no credit, I merely wrote down what seeped from my subconscious—and voilà, out came a book.
Well, perhaps I’ll take credit for bringing a mysterious energy to the task.
And putting up with the nightmares.
Mine was a most improbable journey: a baby doctor with no yearning to write, no goal, no writing experience, no writing group to focus his efforts, and a bad habit of inserting too many parenthetical asides into his writing. And contrary to all logic, the elixirs that sustained me during this journey were my wickedly sadistic internal editor, and my boundless naïveté.
Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, the dreams that I’d never had before writing STIGMA vanished as soon as I completed the book. My nights were once again peaceful and dreamless—that is, until a few weeks ago when I started doodling ideas for a new novel.
And so, my question to you is: What event or endeavor in your life has brought about unexpected changes in your attitudes or behavior?
SPECIAL OFFER! Several gifted authors, including MSW’s own Allison Brennan, contributed their time and talents to the fabulous anthology, ENTANGLED. And it is fabulous! As many of you already know, all royalties earned from the sale of ENTANGLED are being donated to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which funds clinical research projects around the world.
A friend of Allison’s has offered to make a matching donation to the Foundation. Starting today and continuing through October 20, all royalties earned from the sale of ENTANGLED will be matched. For the next 7 days, every donation will be doubled, so tell your friends to act now and buy this great anthology.
In addition, Phil Hawley will give a copy of STIGMA to anyone who purchases the anthology during this period. Just send him a message at Philip@philiphawley.com, specify whether you want your copy of STIGMA in Kindle or Nook format, and attach a copy of your purchase receipt for ENTANGLED.
For the price of a cup of coffee ($2.99), your get two great books and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation receives $4.10. I hope you’re tempted by this incredible deal—you should be!
Please support this wonderful cause!
From Allison: Phil Hawley is an amazing author, and an even more amazing doctor. I read STIGMA in 2007 when it first came out and could not put it down. I remember standing in the airport in Sacramento eager–desperate–to read the final 30 pages, even though my luggage had already come off the conveyor belt. I’ve told people that if Phil was a girl, he’d have been marketed as romantic suspense and his hero and heroine would have gotten to have sex 🙂 … I even know when and where … LOL.
Seriously, STIGMA is one of my favorite books of the decade, and I don’t say that lightly. I am beyond thrilled that he’s “doodling” a new book. I’ll be the first in line to buy a copy. And if you don’t believe me, here’s what others had to say about STIGMA:
Tess Gerritsen: “STIGMA pulses with tension and drama. Philip Hawley has written a top-notch thriller!”
John Lescroart: “STIGMA is a blast of a read from start to finish. Phil Hawley is the real deal and the thriller world has an authentic new voice.”
Ridley Pearson: “Philip Hawley delivers a rare combination of taut plotting and brilliant writing. Sit back and enjoy. Phil Hawley is for real.”
Jonathan Kellerman: “Action-packed . . . rich with authenticity. Philip Hawley tells a great story.”
Here’s the cover copy for STIGMA:
When science surrenders to man’s darkest impulses, who will protect the innocents?
In Los Angeles, a young Mayan boy with a blue-crescent-moon tattoo dies mysteriously. In Central America, a puzzling illness is spreading among Mayan tribal villages.
And soon, E.R. physician Luke McKenna will discover the link between these events and demons from his dark past. The secrets that haunt Luke are about to pull him and the woman he loves into a terrifying house of mirrors where nothing is as it first appears. Time is running out, and only by reawakening the ghost of Luke McKenna’s past can they discover the truth.
His enemies may also discover a truth: When threatened, Luke McKenna is a very dangerous man.