I’m running for the end of a rainbow! Every so often there’s one of those moments when the writing gets do-or-die. This weekend is one–I MUST finish this draft/reach the destination/find the pot of gold for this particular adventure, so I can hop off and write a different book, turn it in, then get back to this one and edit it. What I don’t want to do is to leave threads dangling, characters sitting around waiting to get the girl/finish off the villain/solve the mystery. They get all cranky:
“Is this in our contract, Fred?”
“No, it’s a violation of Schedule Two, Part 4, Clause C. The cliffhanger clause.”
“I thought that was the suspension of disbelief rider.”
“No, that’s Appendix IV.”
“What’s this one say?”
“The right to timely denouement. Breaking it means WE get to end the book OUR way.”
Stories can go stale. An ending–any ending–is necessary for successful storage. I can change it all later, but I never have that “did I leave a tap running?” feeling. Plus, the characters stay put and don’t run around turning my romance into a Stephen King special. Don’t laugh–I’ve had it happen. Unfinished business will develop a life of its own. So wish me luck–wish my characters luck–we’ve got our athletic shoes on and we’re running for the finish line!
Okay, so if 2012 is the last year of the Mayan calendar, does it necessarily mean the end of the world? Or just that it was time for whomever did the stationery order to jot a reminder note to get the next year’s pre-Columbian Daytimer?
Society at large seems invested in doomsday scenarios, from young adult readers to the homeless guy on the corner who says We’d Better Be Good Or Else in an assortment of badly garbled Biblical quotations. Whether it’s zombies, Divine Wrath, or a socio-economic meltdown, we’re perversely fascinated. At times, I’d almost say eager to end it all. Why?
My own personal theory is that most of us work better with a due date. We need consequences. The notion of responsible living for its own sake pales beside the idea that we need to buy organic or the world will end. We must live peacefully with our neighbours or we’ll blow up the world. If we don’t cut greenhouse gasses, we’ll all drown in the rising ocean. It seems to take the threat of a catastrophe to get us moving in the right direction.
And then there are those who, for whatever reason, simply want to depress us. Books and movies remind us that we are bad, bad people who will go all Lord of the Flies at the slightest provocation. Just head out to the Boxing Day sales if you want proof. This Fun With Nihilism mindset seems to be big with teens, and (in my experience) the end of the world is the ultimate expression of the hopelessness attendant on approximately 87% of a teen’s waking life. Most of us get over it. As one gets older, the struggle for survival loses its romantic patina bigtime.
And then there are the devotees of big explosions. End of the world movies usually involve something going bang. I put this down to the frustrated psyche of male directors, who turn these moments into glowing, perhaps radioactive, examples of pseudo-erotic cinematography.
I think the end of the world is what we make of it. Or, perhaps a better phrase is the end of the world is what we need it to be. Motivation? A macrocosm to our microcosm? Relief? Maybe just an end to the story?
I personally like to think of the Creator-as-potter scenario. The universe will get squished back into a blob of potential and thrown back on the wheel to be crafted into something new and beautiful. The big mystery is what sort of vessel it will turn out to be.
As I write this, it’s Valentine’s Day.
I’m sure the set dressers have been at work. Outside my window, the sky is blue with white fluffy fleecies and the harbour is as still as glass. The goody table here at work is piled with sugary treats. The only thing lacking is stock characters from a romantic comedy doing a swooning grapple over the copy machine. (Just as well. The stupid thing breaks down often enough as it is.)
Being a writer is all about looking at the world through a lens of possibility. Adventure, mystery, and romance can happen at any moment. It’s our joy and curse to see it hovering within the veil of possibilities.
· What if the courier delivers the wrong package—the one meant for the exotic zoo?
· What if the deli down the street is the info drop for foreign spies?
· What if the ugly cactus in the boardroom has a hidden camera?
· What if the photocopier goes for a whole week without breaking down? Nah, fiction only goes so far.
But looking at the world in terms of potential has applications far beyond novel-writing. It applies directly to our own lives. Daydreaming is one of the best ways to figure out what we want. Ever given yourself permission to imagine driving a race car? Running a Fortune 500 company? People who write those self-help books (you know the ones) say that creative visualization is half the journey toward success.
In utterly practical ways, seeing the possible forms the basis of every successful compromise. In business and legal terms, how do you mediate an agreement without a little imagination? What about invention? Product development? Thinking outside the box is all about potential. It got us things like cooking fires and indoor plumbing. And, occasionally, someone worth turning into our Valentine. It takes imagination to see those hidden qualities.
So when you’re looking at the world through a creative lens, it’s not just possible novels you’re uncovering, it’s the basis for every advance (and quite a few gaffes) our civilization has made. For those looking for meaning beyond overpriced roses and impractical lingerie, consider Valentine’s Day a celebration of the possible. Those rose-coloured glasses might cloud our vision, but they also make us look toward the horizon.
Or into the chocolate box. Sometimes the best possibilities are right in front of us.
There are early signs of spring in the air. The TV schedules are a mess, the renewed sunlight allows me to see how badly my place needs cleaning, and everyone but me is heading off for Mexico or Hawaii. Plus, there are (simultaneously) Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s and Easter paraphernalia in the stores. Perhaps they should amalgamate and introduce a beer-swilling Irish rabbit delivering chocolate hearts. It would save time.
Anyway, spring and deadlines are coming apace. I’m in the throes of a final push through to the end of a first draft, which tends to make me ignore the real world. Entire months disappear. It messes with my internal calendar, so this time I’m making an effort to notice what’s going on outside. I don’t want to look up from the computer to realize it’s Halloween again.
Last Friday, I saw the first snowdrops in the front yard:
The only reason I saw them is that it’s now light enough to come and go from the office in daylight. That makes a huge difference for me; when it’s dark at the end of the day I find it hard to get anything accomplished in the evening. Give me sunshine, and I can go for hours more.
Another sign of the season – the first announcements for the summer music festivals. Right now lying on a sunny lawn listening to a good band sounds pretty appealing.
This will be purple hellebore someday soon. It makes me think of the spring clothes I’ve seen coming into the stores—pastels seem to be big, especially a deep lavender shade. Pretty in moderation.
And, of course, there are birds. The birch tree outside my kitchen window was covered in little grey finches (?) yesterday. I’m not a birder, so I don’t know exactly what they were, but they were looking for a bug lunch on their way through. It’s migration season, and that always makes me restless, too.
The best thing about early spring is the forward sense of optimism it brings. It’s impossible not to feel a twinge of new energy, and that’s vital when one is working on long-haul projects. I might even make it to the end of my draft on time!
In this era of work hard, play hard, it’s not surprising that authors would be required to write hard. Not that writing isn’t hard already, but the current marketplace would like us to produce works every few months. This means writing faster, hopefully without producing the literary equivalent of undercooked porridge.
Since deadlines have put me in the writing-faster zone this spring, I’ve given this some thought. In my opinion, one writes as fast as one writes. However, a person can make sure no time gets wasted putting energy into the wrong place at the wrong time. Here are a few techniques that help my process:
1. I planned my timetable. It took me a while to figure out that I can’t write faster, or at all, unless I sit down and do it. If you’re like me, unless that time is blocked off in the calendar, it won’t happen.
2. One must be kind but firm with children, spouse, Facebook, parents, and the dog that great artists must not be distracted. I give in to the cat, because the cat always wins. I just surrender and get the adoration session over with so I can move on.
3. It helps to know what I’m writing about. If I start the chapter with at least a few notes to get going, I skip the whole blank screen stare-fest. This is one of the few writing tasks that actually can be accomplished away from the keyboard. I think about what’s going to happen, what conflicts need to be there, and how it advances character development. Once I started doing this, I was pleasantly surprised how much meatier my chapters were even on the first draft.
4. I gave myself permission to put in “xxx” instead of spending half an hour on Google looking stuff up. I save the surfing until last, once my brain is fried, and then go back and fill in the missed bits.
5. This is the big one for me: just finish the first draft. I plough through it with abandon. I promise myself no one will read this version until I have time to fix it. I give myself a word count and slap down those words every day until I reach the end. The draft is awful, disgusting, horrible and painful to reread, but if I have something to work with, I can edit a book fairly quickly. I can’t edit what’s not there.
6. There is a saying that writers should not be afraid to “murder their darlings.” In my experience, I go down this violent path if I spend too much time fussing with details too early in the drafting stage. Gustav Flaubert could spend a day searching for just the right word for his Madame Bovary, but that’s a waste of time until I know what scenes I actually need in the finished product. This is a hard lesson to learn, and I have spent days polishing chapters I eventually had to throw out because they didn’t fit the final structure of the book. The moral of the story is: fine tune last.
Like so many examples of “good writing advice,” I am sure mileage varies. However, I managed to write a book, give it three edit passes, and turn in a manuscript in just over three months. I don’t think I could keep that pace up forever, but it’s good to know it’s possible.