Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I went down to the crossroads, tried to flag a ride...

There is a certain amount of courage needed to write a novel. An author has to believe in what he or she is doing on many levels: characterization, plot, subplots, setting. It is a doubt-filled process. “Am I making the right choices?” is something we commonly ask ourselves, and the answers can be long in coming, arduous to find and disappointing when they arrive.

One of my worst writing experiences was when a novel (Cemetery of the Nameless) took a very wrong turn and it wasn’t until nearly two weeks of writing — and four chapters — had gone by that I realized just what had happened. It was a very depressing moment.

I was faced with two choices: soldier on, attempting to make it all work, or scrap two weeks of output and go another direction. Visually, I could see myself standing at a lonely intersection, vast wastelands on either side, with a cold wind blowing down my back and an empty knapsack hanging behind me.

The big question: are you going to make the right decision? What was the right decision?

I hung around that crossroad for nearly a week, unable to make a choice. During that time, I tried to imagine my way through the remainder of the book. I knew the ending that I wanted. Would the left-hand route take me there, or would the right-hand one be better?

Part of the issue was that I was loath to throw away all my work. Looking back on it now, I can see how stupid that was. My job as a novelist is to tell the best possible story that I can. How much I have to write and then discard is totally irrelevant to the job at hand.

The other dilemma was a stupid, self-imposed deadline on finishing the novel. At that point, I had one novel out for consideration with a publisher and that wasn’t going anywhere fast. I had all the time in the world to get this novel right. Who cared whether it was completed next week, next month or next year? Only me.*

But even as I answered these questions, the big one still hung over me: do I go this way or that way?

Trying to be really logical, I decided to do both. I kept writing the story arc that I was on, but I also went back four chapters and took the diverging path to see where that would lead me. It became clear after only a few day’s work that Storyline 1 was quickly adding layers of complication to my plot. I was forcing the characters to do things that required a ton of backstory in order to make their actions believable. Storyline 2 seemed to be less complex, but was that a good idea? Number 1 would be richer, more nuanced, the way I saw it.

The problem was solved by my wife. Torn to the point that I didn’t want to continue until I’d answered the questions that were bothering me, I gave her the ms with Storyline 1. She read it and then I asked her what she thought. “It was really good until Chapter 8 and then you started telling me all these things.”

Bingo! Why hadn’t I seen that? It’s “show” not “tell”, dummy! That’s what was wrong with the novel — and I fell into that pit right at the point where Storyline 2 wanted to diverge. Simple.

I didn’t even show her the second version of the ms. Next morning, the sun rose in a cloudless literary sky, I hoisted my full knapsack onto my back and headed down the left-hand path, confident that, for the moment, I was going the correct way.

Know what? I wasn’t — but that’s another story.

*Why is that most publishers want their crime authors to crank out a book a year? Are they going to get the best novel possible? Not in a lot of cases. “Literary” authors get to take as much time as they want. Why shouldn’t we?


John Corrigan said...

Great post. And great wife!

Rick Blechta said...

Thanks and yup!

peter_may said...

Life and writing are all about making choices. How often we make the wrong ones in both! But while standing dithering at that crossroads what better way to pass the time than by listening to John Mayer's version of the song on his new album - following on from the splendid live collaboration he did with Clapton. When all else fails, music can sometimes provide the inspiration!

Rick Blechta said...

There's a clip on Youtube that's my favourite and it has my good friend Andy Newmark on drums! Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-twOjwBORwg

The Clapton/Winwood versions that are also interesting. Of course, I have a soft spot for Steve Winwood being a keyboard player...

peter_may said...

Cool version, Rick. I'm also a big Winwood fan. Arc of a Diver is one of my all time favorite albums.

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