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Charles Harvey just published his first novel, Xylene, on July 12th. In his own words, Charles tells the story of bringing this book to life, the next novel he’s already working on, and shares some advice for seeing an idea through to fruition.

"I’ve never not been writing. I have ‘books’ that I wrote in the first grade. I wrote and sold memoirs to my friends and a lot of people I didn’t know. I wrote stories and sent them to magazines, and I think I was getting close to a sale, because I was getting hand-written notes back from the editors. College slowed me down, but I kept working at it. I took two creative writing courses, and one saw the birth of the short story that would eventually turn into Xylene. About twenty years later, I read a book about plot structure and novel writing, and it inspired me. I had a box of short stories and aborted book ideas to draw from. Out of that box, I picked Xylene.  

What kept bringing me back to this particular piece was the fantasy of suddenly becoming a rock star. While writing, I lived vicariously through Mike’s experience. Joe is a rock star guitarist. He is a musical genius, but he’s tortured by the demands of the industry and his own drive for perfection. He has a breakdown, and another personality emerges: Mike. The Mike personality thrives under the demands of the industry, but he can’t sing or play guitar. The story follows Mike adapting to Joe’s life despite his lack of skills and knowledge. And, to some degree, Joe’s life adapts to the new personality of Mike.

What surprised me most about the process was my reaction to finishing the rough draft. I realized I was going to miss my characters, the way you miss old work friends when you get a new job. I also learned a lot about myself through creating these characters. I learned that I am not like Mike, who is intelligent and charismatic and calm under pressure. I resemble the Joe personality, who is driven, short-tempered and obsessed with details. Joe has a talent for something that doesn’t really interest him. He has made a series of correct life decisions but has ended up in exactly the wrong place for him to be. The more I thought about it, the more parallels I could find. Unfortunately. While I discovered a lot about myself while writing, the most rewarding part of my experience has been talking to people who have read my book (and don’t want their money back!). I like seeing the connections people make, especially the long-distance ones. A character may say something in chapter 21 that was said to him in chapter 12. Or a character does something odd in chapter 7 that’s explained in chapter 20. The end of the book is saturated with references to earlier details throughout the book. I intended my book be read twice for this reason. One person claims to have read it six times, and he says he still sees new things. That’s gratifying. For my next project, I wanted to write something with more action, so I’m well into the rough draft of a fantasy, sword, and sorcery story. A group of inexperienced misfits join forces to seek adventure, and they end up saving the universe. So, there’s action, but, like Xylene, there’s also moving drama and hilarity.  

Xylene took a long time to grow into a book, and that experience in turn helped me grow as a writer. For anyone else who is looking to turn an idea into a project but isn’t sure how to get started, here are some of the rules I created to guide myself along the way.

  • Rule 0: Be yourself and be true to yourself. It’s my Rule 0, because if I don’t follow this rule, then nothing else matters.

  • Rule 1: Learn to ignore your internal editor. For me, writing is ideal as an art form because I can’t do anything to permanently ruin my previous work or even my raw material. If I were sculpting, for example, I wouldn’t have complete freedom to follow creative whims. But for me, writing the rough draft was easy once I learned to ignore my internal editor, because, after all, anything can be undone. If something hung me up, like thinking of a name or a word, I’d write anything and keep going. I’d plow forward like ‘something that plows forward dramatically’. (It works for similes, too.) I’d tell myself I’d fix it later.

  • Rule 2: Create for yourself. I decided I would write a book that I would like to read. It swept away those pesky dilemmas about what people might want. If I’m the target audience, then I know exactly what I’d want. Generalized to any art form, Rule 2 would be: Have a vision of what you want to achieve and then work to realize that vision. Do what you can to improve your craft. If you discover that you need to learn something, then learn it. If you need better tools, then get them. Once you have created exactly what you intended to create, then you have succeeded. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. But there’s a good chance that if you’ve satisfied yourself, then you will have satisfied others as well.

  • Rule 3: Continually search for what works for you. There are as many techniques for writing as there are writers, and there are as many methods for expressing artistic creativity as there are artists. Learn from your successes and failures. Learn from what you discover is fun and/or satisfying.

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