Thoughts about Before I Sleep

Light ray in a frozen forest in winter
It is November 13, which means there are 13 more days until the release of the third novel in the Settlement series, Before I Sleep. The manuscript is currently in its second “Time Out” before I attack it for one final wash and brush-up.

Writing this book was brutal. Editing it was worse. I have heard other authors say that the third book of a trilogy is far harder than the first two. I suppose I know why: because you are supposed to be wrapping things up. You are supposed to be tying loose ends together. You are supposed to have made your point.

And my point, I think, has been made in spades: people are only human. Even the most capable make mistakes. Even the best-intentioned can do damage. There is no flat criteria that identifies a hero; a hero is made in our own minds.

Still, I have complicated feelings about this third novel. It took my characters to dark, bad places. There have been days when I wish I could re-write the second and third novels entirely. Days when I wish that I had set out with the clear idea that Alexander Smith, like Jamie Fraser, could do no wrong. Days when I wish I could write Superman instead of Batman.

But I didn’t, and now we all have to live with it.

There are days when I love this book, too. Alexander Smith isn’t Jamie Fraser, or Superman. He fucks up. Just like a real person. In the second book of the trilogy, Promises to Keep, he quoted William S. MacNamara more than once. I did that on purpose, after watching the documentary The Fog Of War. There’s no right and no wrong… only the side that happened to win, and the side that happened to lose. If they are wise, even the winners are uncomfortable about the outcome.

And this book is about forgiveness. Forgiveness for the times when mere humanity doesn’t measure up to narrative ideals, which is a fun thing to write about in a piece of escapist fiction.

Will Before I Sleep be the last Settlement novel? No, it won’t. I have 20K words of book 4 written. I am so comfortable with my stable of characters, and the situation has developed itself in such a straightforward and fruitful manner, that I can’t stop here. I will pause here, though.

The Settlement are my sandbox novels. I am teaching myself to be a writer, with them. In each book I make mistakes. I realize my errors before publication, sometimes. Oftener I go back to read a book a month or two months or four months later, and spend a day hating myself, my work, and my life for putting out such horrid drivel, before I go back to fix the mistakes. I have a long way to go, but I have learned a lot, too.

I wrote the first three books with no pre-plotting at all. In Dark and Deep I had a vague picture of the two major incidents between the brothers, but nothing else. In Promises to Keep I knew at the beginning who was going to die and how. In Before I Sleep, I unfortunately knew what the major cataclysm would be, as well as the major adventure (time for Beowulf to fight the dragon…) but little else.

I have a spreadsheet for the fourth book. I’ve sketched out Preliminary Problems/Goals, Crisis 1, Crisis 2, Crisis 3, and Resolution/Attainment for six major plot lines and the dozen most important characters, along with rough chapter numbers in which to accomplish those things. This is frightening for me, because I worry that adherence to the spreadsheet will squash my best creative instincts… but I have also had a lot of days when I felt that both Promises to Keep and Before I Sleep had plots with the consistency of oatmeal. It is time to try something different.

I will also, in the future, enforce a very long Time Out for new manuscripts before I will publish them. Four months. Once I have a manuscript polished to the point where I think it’s done… it will be put away for four months before I will look at it, and decide what to do with it.

I live, I learn. I make mistakes, I do better next time. Sometimes I hate myself, most of the time I’m fairly proud. A lot like Alex. Who I still, half a million words later, think is a fairly swell guy.

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