We had the chance to ask David Donaldson, author of the exciting thriller, We Follow the Dying Light some questions about his book, writing process and the influence of science fiction and tabletop gaming on his work. Here is what he had to say:
Can you give us a summary of your new book, We Follow the Dying Light? Wandering through East Hastings is a man whose memories are locked within a nightmare fortress deep in his subconscious; an opioid addicted mute that has exhausted the city's mental health resources.
"Cat Chambers is an anxiety-ridden psychiatrist trying to keep her experimental trauma clinic afloat. PTER, the controversial technology she uses to witness her patients most horrific memories, is the penitence she places on herself for her past mistakes."
Cat Chambers is an anxiety-ridden psychiatrist trying to keep her experimental trauma clinic afloat. PTER, the controversial technology she uses to witness her patients most horrific memories, is the penitence she places on herself for her past mistakes.
When the addict becomes Cat's patient, PTER plunges her into the pandemonium tearing apart the man’s broken mind. As Cat trespasses through his memories she discovers links to her own troubled past. Driven by a desperate bid for closure, she risks the addict’s life and her last shreds of sanity, to unlock his secrets.
"An excellent read! Fast and exciting, full of suspense and kept me engaged and engrossed until the very end. The story is told in a vivid cinematic fashion – I was able to visualize and “see” the story in my head while I was reading.
I can’t wait for the movie version to come out!" - Chris Cormier, Geeky Goodies
Can you explain the book title (without giving away any spoilers)? There are many layers to its meaning. The first layer is the idea of following the light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a certain optimism to that idea. But the inclusion of the word dying suggests the light is fading away. The second layer highlights the loss of hope that comes with depression and anxiety but clinging to that sliver that things might get better. Below that, the title highlights one of the main themes of the book about hanging on to the ghosts of our past. We follow the footprints of our past instead of living out our life in the here and now.
I always think that it is interesting, and a little brave, when an author writes a book where the main character is the opposite gender of themself, what was behind your decision to have a female protagonist? This is one of the most common questions I receive and there are many reasons why I chose to write a female main character (in the first person no less).
In the early writing stages I read about how lots of female authors wrote male main characters, but there was a distinct lack of male authors writing a female lead. That motivated me to be different. Also, when I described the story to my wife she thought that a woman trespassing in the memories of a man would come across more vulnerable than if it was a man doing the same. It’s always important to raise the stakes in your writing and making the main character a woman certainly accomplished that.
It also helped that my editor was a woman. There were a few passages she highlighted where Cat Chambers came across too much like a man, so her feedback helped make her come across more believable.
Your writing and the book overall has a very vivid cinematic feel when you read it. While I was reading it I could see the scenes in my mind as if I were watching a movie or reading as a comic book.
What do you do with your writing to create that inside the minds of your readers? When I conceived of the story I had a really vivid image in my mind of the landscape where Catarina loses herself. So I spent a good amount of time finding the right words to describe the mental picture I had created.
But aside from that, I don’t spend a lot of word count on description. I try to say more with less and say just enough that the reader’s mind can fill in the rest. I focus on pushing the action forward, and tap into my thesaurus often to find the right word to capture the atmosphere. This is a learned skill. Earlier drafts felt clunky and overdone. It’s a bit like an inkblot test. Let the reader add the first thing that comes to their mind into the scene. I just set the boundaries. I’m certainly happy with how it turned out. Now about that movie deal… lol.
Mental health and addiction play a prominent role in the book, what made you add that into the story and how much research did you have to do while writing? When I started the book I was struggling with chronic anxiety and depression. So many changes happened in my life in such a short period of time that I could no longer cope. When I started reading about mindfulness as a way to manage my anxiety I had the idea for the construct inside of the antagonist’s mind attempting to block out his past and future so he could live more fully in the present. Writing then became this outlet to pour my thoughts and feelings into something productive and over time the mental illness subsided and I became myself again. But the writing didn’t stop.
Thankfully my battle with mental illness didn’t stretch long enough for me to turn to drugs, but I can easily see how it could. Alcohol was probably a daily occurrence though. And there is this photo out there of me at a party where I look completely unhappy and I had lost about fifteen pounds, so I looked skinny, pale, hollow. That picture was a turning point.
I wanted readers to understand that someone’s addiction doesn’t define who they are. Addiction is often a consequence of something else the person has experienced and therefore I wanted to walk the readers through the memories of an addict to see who he once was before the life he had built slipped through his fingers.
I get a lot of my ideas from non-fiction, so reading about neurology, the functions of the various parts of the brain, the different types of mental illnesses and their symptoms, all of these just feed me more ideas to push forward the narrative, while also increasing the plausibility of the technology I’m introducing to the world.
"[We Follow the Dying Light is] layered with mental health issues that the main characters have to navigate. Their character flaws are what make them human and I hope that readers leave with more compassion and understanding of those battling mental illness and addiction."
What do you hope readers will take away from your book? We Follow the Dying Light is a fast paced thriller so if all a reader takes from the story is an exciting ride, I’ll be happy. That said, it’s layered with mental health issues that the main characters have to navigate. Their character flaws are what make them human and I hope that readers leave with more compassion and understanding of those battling mental illness and addiction.
With this as your first book, when did you first realize that you wanted to be writer? As a teenager I wrote a few short stories, but nothing of any substance. After my undergraduate degree I started to develop more complex plots, but didn’t have a writing process, so those ideas didn’t come to fruition. Even when I started We Follow the Dying Light, I didn’t intend to become a writer. But the idea for the story was so well formed in my mind that I knew I could get it across the finish line. After going through the whole process from conception to plot development, writing a first draft, and then on to editing and ultimately marketing, I realized that I loved every aspect of the process. That’s when I knew I could do this full time. Now I’m spending most of my spare time trying to make that happen.
Your book is a thriller with some science-fiction influences, are you a fan of sci-fi? What science fiction (books or shows) do your draw inspiration from? I’m a huge sci-fi fan, particularly stories that take place in a near future dystopia. I like all of the possibilities sci-fi opens up. Post Traumatic Exploratory Restitution, aka PTER, in We Follow the Dying Light is a machine that lets the user enter a sensory deprivation chamber which pulls a patients memories into the doctor’s compartment so that they can experience those
"My favorite science fiction authors include William Gibson (Neuromancer), Philip K. Dick (We Dream of Electric Sheep), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and George Orwell (1984)."
memories in the same way the patient once did. PTER doesn’t exist, but it could in a few years time. That’s what I love about sci-fi. As an author it lets you create a device or technology that pushes forward a narrative that couldn’t happen if you restricted yourself to what’s available today.
My favorite science fiction authors include William Gibson (Neuromancer), Philip K. Dick (We Dream of Electric Sheep), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and George Orwell (1984). Movies also influence my work and few in particular inspired We Follow the Dying Light such as Inception, The Matrix, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Cell and Jacob’s Ladder.
I know that you are a tabletop gamer, how did your experiences with tabletop games influence your writing at all? And [game] designer, though I hung up that cap years ago to focus on writing. I actually have another series of books in their infancy based on a science fiction universe I created for a board game called Ryth, about tribal humans, an army of cyborgs called the Orduun, the spirit race of the Rythmosians who were massacred by the Orduun, and the Murlixians, alien xenomorphs who feed on planets. The backstory is rich and exciting and I can’t wait to work on it full time.
"A great tabletop game finds a way to blend its theme into its mechanics. Writing stories requires you to follow a certain structure, particularly thrillers. So you have to find ways to weave your theme into that form."
A great tabletop game finds a way to blend its theme into its mechanics. Writing stories requires you to follow a certain structure, particularly thrillers. So you have to find ways to weave your theme into that form. From my experience you see a lot of euro games with great mechanics but a flimsy theme (oh look, I’m an 18th century spice merchant!) or ameritrash titles with absolutely gorgeous bits and backstory, but gameplay mechanics that are uninspired and after enough plays feel like a glorified game of Yahtzee. Observing that in the tabletop gaming world certainly helped me recognize if my book was treading too far in one of those directions.
What was behind your decision to set the story in Canada and in Vancouver specifically? I debated basing the book in San Francisco instead of Vancouver for a long time. But I’m Canadian, and therefore I thought I could write about Vancouver more convincingly than a city I’ve never visited. I live in Toronto, but I’ve spent time in Vancouver and have a number of
"All of a sudden you’re on East Hastings street. You’ve entered a different world where the drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness and poverty is so obvious your jaw drops. You wonder how a city as wealthy as Vancouver could have an area like that cut right through its core."
friends who live there. What really struck me about the city is how gorgeous it is. You drive in and marvel at the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. But as you make your way downtown, all of a sudden you’re on East Hastings street. You’ve entered a different world where the drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness and poverty is so obvious your jaw drops. You wonder how a city as wealthy as Vancouver could have an area like that cut right through its core. I thought to myself, each of these people have a story, each of them got here somehow.
I finally settled on Vancouver when the Fentanyl epidemic broke out. I read that nearly a thousand people had overdosed from the drug in a year. This opioid that most of us had never heard of was suddenly ravaging the area. I wanted to learn more and did so by incorporating it into We Follow the Dying Light.
How do you select the names of your characters? By avoiding the names of my co-workers or their kids, LOL.
There’s no real science to it. I try to find something a little different, but still believable for the setting. I think Indiana Jones has to be one of the best character names out there. It pairs a simple common name with something unique. That’s how I landed on the name Rhodes Walker. I also like alliteration in names, such as the main character and her father’s name: Catarina Chambers and Charles Chambers. I liked it so much I did the same with my pen name David Donaldson.
How long did it take to write We Follow the Dying Light? And can you tell us a bit about how the book came together? From the time I wrote the first word to the release date it took just shy of three years. Early on I was following some guidelines recommended by a formal writing course. I spent weeks planning out the plot, but wasn’t actually making any headway on writing the book. Then I read Stephen King’s On Writing. His recommendation is to stop trying to plan everything, and instead let the imagination flood gates open and see what comes out. To him, he sees the first draft as this almost otherworldly being, and he is just the gateway it takes to enter our world. I now adopt this same style and can get a lot of word count produced in a reasonably short amount of time given I’m writing on a part time basis. It’s not always great stuff, but that’s what editing is for.
All together I think the book went through five major drafts where large structural elements were changed. I also conducted another five or more smaller editorial drafts in between the larger revisions. My editor’s recommendations were instrumental in getting the pace of the book right as I never quite nailed Act 1 until after she provided her feedback.
Do you have a specific routine when you are writing? My full time job is in risk management and economics. I take the commuter train to and from work. I fire up my laptop at the beginning of each ride and just start writing. I don’t censor myself during the writing stage. Every word is fair game. It’s all about producing content and upping the word count. Editing comes later. On a given train ride at 34 minutes, I can produce anywhere from 500 – 1000 words. I bounce around between scenes and don’t write the book in a straight line. Sometimes it’s helpful to write the ending first to understand where you’re going. As I dig into later drafts though I become more methodical about the process to make sure the book hangs together from start to finish.
What characteristics do you feel are needed to be a writer? Persistence is essential. You must be willing to write every day, whether you feel inspired or not. You have to keep writing even when self doubt says you should forget about this dream. It takes confidence in your work and ideas. And that means you can’t have a fragile ego. You’ll get criticism along the way that you need to absorb thoughtfully. If you get defensive over every quibble, your book will never be as good as it could be. I always said along the way “I care about my book, not about my ego, be brutally honest with your feedback.”
Do you have any specific advice for new authors? Don’t be a perfectionist, especially during the first draft. No one writes the next great novel on the first try. You need to build the skeleton before you can put meat on the bones. Just commit yourself to a daily word count and stick to it. If you can write 500 words a day, in five months you’ll have a novel longer than We Follow the Dying Light.
We Follow the Dying Light by David Donaldson
I feel like many writers could edit their book forever, how did you know when We Follow the Dying Light was finished? I gave myself a deadline: the book had to be released before the 2017 holiday season. Sure, you can always find something worth editing, but I’ve always held the philosophy that perfection is impossible in creative work. It’s completely subjective. So, I used the deadline to force me to focus on the important edits and not get caught up on wondering if this or that sentence could be tweaked just a little bit.
Can you tell us something that you edited “out” of this book (without spoilers)? There are more words on the editing room floor than there are in the final novel. Large chunks of the first draft have been totally carved out.
But to be specific, there was a long scene where the main character took her dog for a walk through Vancouver where she struggled with a number of anxiety induced hallucinations as she tried to disentangle the web of problems she had to sort out to keep her clinic from going bankrupt. It was cut because a) I had to get my word count down to maintain the fast pace of the book b) the section didn’t progress the plot forward c) the hallucinations were too closely clustered together and tended to confuse my test readers.
Your book is self-published; do you have any goals for this book that you care to share? In the short run I’m looking to build up the number of reviews I have online on sites like Amazon where most sales are generated. This helps lower the risk for prospective readers. Medium term I’ll be trying some different avenues to get interviews with major media outlets such as newspapers, radio and other institutional newsletters. The mental health and drug addiction aspects of the book are relevant and topical and I think I have a relatable personal story to share to go along with a taut thriller that people would also enjoy reading purely for entertainment. Longer term I aim to produce more books, get a literary agent and secure a major publishing deal and then see what kind of interest can be drummed up to turn the book into a movie.
Can you tell us a little bit about David Donaldson (background, likes/dislikes, hobbies, other job, etc.)? Professionally I’m trained in economics, finance and risk management and enjoy writing about the markets, politics and economics as much as I do fiction. In my spare time I like to play board games (my favorites being Agricola, Twilight Struggle, Dominion, Pandemic and Age of Empires). I also enjoy running, cycling, soccer, and a good drink, though not necessarily all at the same time… now wouldn’t that be impressive. Thanks for giving me the idea for a new life goal Chris!
"I like to play board games (my favorites being Agricola, Twilight Struggle, Dominion, Pandemic and Age of Empires)."
In all seriousness though, my family life is most important to me. I have a three-year-old son, a dog, cat and of course my lovely wife. We like to stay busy on the weekends, especially in the summers, so writing tends to be more concentrated during the work week.
What's next for you and what are you working on now? I’m writing the sequel to We Follow the Dying Light. The working title is In the Starless Dark. It’s coming together as a twisting crime thriller with a second and third act that takes the reader on a journey through a comatose man’s mind to solve the mystery of who nearly killed him. But once inside his head, you wonder if life might be better if he never came back. I won’t give any more away because I don’t want it to accidentally spoil anything in the first book. I also have a plot worked out for the third book in the trilogy. It’s the most ambitious idea of the three and will force me to flex every new writing muscle I’ve built.
Where can people contact and connect with you? Twitter is the social media platform I use most. You can find me @AuthorDonaldson
I also have an active Facebook page - Facebook.com/DavidDonaldsonAuthor
Finally there is my website, DavidDonaldson.ca where you can sign up for my newsletter, read regular blog posts where I write experimental flash fiction to test out ideas, see photos and find out about upcoming events.
The book can be purchased online from a number of places, but I typically direct most people to Amazon.
ABOUT DAVID DONALDSON: Since childhood David Donaldson has dabbled with writing, movie direction, drawing comics, and designing board games. Formally educated in economics, finance and business management, David also has significant experience writing non-fiction. For several years he authored the website the Dismal Scientist. In addition to writing, David has self-published two board games and continues to lend his creativity to his personal and professional life.
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