Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Painting Within a Tended Field

It frustrates me how easily I give myself over to Yes This Is The Answer. When I find a solution for something, even if there's no chance it's sustainable, I tend to be all I AM THE MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE I FOUND THE ANSWER HUZZAH!!, and then I feel very foolish when whatever it is falls apart upon use in the long term.

Lemme splain.

Remember how I talked about hating to outline? All that still holds true. But there's a lot to keep track of in the KUFC book, a sort of A plot/B plot construction (global plot, personal plot) and some other people's plots that have their own arcs even while our heroine is blissfully ignorant of them. Plus the unfamiliar universe, plus a number of odd characters, plus a backstory, plus being certain that I'm self-styling instead of just plunking the prose on a sentence-by-sentence basis. (Sidebar: the Greenland novel was even more complicated than this, and I think if I'd had an outline, it wouldn't have turned out such a damn mess. For revision, if I ever fucking revise that book, I plan to create an outline and edit it, and then edit the book.) So but for this book I thought I'd do what I usually do and make copious notes in a pretty journal to the side of my desk. That wasn't enough, it turned out, because after I'd written my prologue, after writing pages of notes about the universe, and even after a few hundred words of Chapter One, I still didn't know what happened next.

So I wrote Chapter One on a new page of my notebook and scribbled what I already knew about it: I was going to open with action, with my heroine freerunning, doing what she calls her night work. I thought that was all I knew about it, but then I wrote down what I needed to establish about her, and what I thought was likely to happen to her in order to establish this stuff. Suddenly, more ideas were flowing: little details about the universe, character names and traits, something essential and very interesting about her background that reshapes things a bit. None of this amounted to what anyone would call an outline, because it was just notes and the majority of it stretched way beyond the first chapter, but it gave me a grounding for what I was going to write, which meant that I had a more structured and yet somehow more innovative first chapter when I got down to business on it.

Very stupidly, I presumed that this little bit of outlining had created momentum that would sustain me into Chapter Two. Which it did not. I wrote about a third of Two before I had to stop and go back to the notebook, and scribble through what was going to happen next and why. Then I came up with even more ideas: ways that her personal life was tied in to some of the intrigue of the book, characters who were going to appear sooner rather than later, other characters who weren't going to show up until later and the devices that were going to drag them back into her life. Before even writing it, I fixed what would have been a major mistake: drawing the A plot into the heroine's story too soon.

Everything feels much more orderly. I don't feel restrained, as if I'm doing the prose version of this:

Wait! I know! It's a giraffe! 
But more like I'm running around in a field that has been carefully bordered and mown. Tended, sure, but not unnaturally limited. Plus, I can always jump the fence. While writing Chapter One, I shifted gears to create a character who hadn't been part of my plan, and she's going to be useful.

The work I've ended up with is so superior to what I could have written, with so many more little cables wiring itself to the rest of the book, that I feel...just...grateful, and wholly stupid for not doing this with other projects before now.

I know I'm going against the advice of absolutely every writer I've ever heard of (and surely thousands I haven't), but writing every day doesn't seem to work out for me unless I'm a) short-storying or b) barreling headlong toward the end of a project. Everyday writing on a novel makes me feel resentful of and bored by the work instead of fascinated by it. I feel like I've got all the stuff of my life in the evening (dinner, Matt, movies, relaxing) on one side of a seesaw and writing on the other, and it seems unfair that writing is always heavier. Thus far on this book I've been writing every other day (sometimes with an extra off day in between), and the work has seemed much fresher for it. Sometimes I'll sit down with my notebook on the off day, and sometimes I'll do the notebook thing before writing that evening.

(This all sounds a lot more orderly than it is; a routine has still not been established. Yesterday I spent all morning at errands and didn't get to my job until 2:30, which meant that there really was no evening, just a shower and some Skyrim-watching and bed. Today I'm dawdling in the morning and I don't know if I'll get to anything but dinner at night, although I do hope it's a writing night.)

THE POINT IS, to make this into a Solution, the idea that outlineish note-taking in my notebook is the way that I'll write from now unto death, is wildly premature. And yet I'm thinking Yeeees, This Is The Answer. This is how I outline. See? Problem solved. Now I can be a writer.

It's so exasperating to do this, because I'll trumpet and crow about whatever solution I've just come up with, be very self-satisfied, and then find that this method doesn't work at all for the next project or the next stage of life. Back in my early 20s, I thought the way I wrote was to write completely nonstop for a few weeks, eating, sleeping, breathing the work, and then at the end of it I'd have a novella. That notion was born partially of being in my early 20s and having fewer other responsibilities, and partially of the creative machine being a very different thing then than it is now. A few years ago, it was trudge and slog and write through the pain, and I thought that was effective. (That might have been delusion rather than changing circumstances.) Now it's this notebook/every other day thing. And I'm sure in a few years it'll change again.

It's just like my job-hopping. It gets embarrassing telling your family members at Thanksgiving that you have a different job than you had last Christmas. Again. And telling them that no, you still haven't had any more stories published. Yes, you've changed your method of writing for the 18th time, but you're sure this time you're really on the trolley and nothing will ever change again, so when you're asked about it next year, you'll be able to say yep, that's still the way I do it, I'm confident and secure and totally not a wishy-washy idiot.

Um. Got a little sidetracked there. But I stand by it: I do feel like a wishy-washy idiot sharing these methods and then being like no, I had to tear down that building and build another one four inches away from the first one. It cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in the currency of personal pride, but it'll definitely be worth it. After all, I've written seven thousand whole words now! Totally worth it.

In unrelated news, I thought we had black-chinned hummingbirds, and then I thought they were Anna's hummingbirds, and now I seriously don't know. Half the hummingbirds native to this area seem to have greenish backs and red throats and dark heads, as these do. Whatever; they're full of pep, and I love watching them. When I'm actually on the patio, in my reading chair, I can hear them going ttttthhhhhhhhrrrrrrrRRRR as they zip by.

1 comment:

Denise said...

I get what you mean about feeling wishy-washy, but you know it's really ok. You're doing what you need to do for now, and it can and will change. You're not changing thoughtlessly, and you're not sticking relentlessly to things that don't work, so I think you're good. Hearing you talk about writing makes me feel exhausted. It sounds like a lot of work, but maybe that's just because I am exhausted right now and the thought of doing anything extra is overwhelming. Hence the reason I haven't posted on my blog lately. But I'm glad for you that writing is going well! And I love the hummingbirds!