Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Teasing loose the logjams

Barbara here. These are the lazy, hazy days of summer, when I can be found lounging on the dock at the lake, sipping that evening drink, and waiting for the barbecue to work its magic without dirtying a single pot or bowl. The light lingers, the final rays of sun stay warm...

The TV is rarely turned on. The news is followed but at a distance. In Canada at least, it seems like a sacrilege to waste time indoors in front of the babble box when the all-too-precious days of summer are calling.

It would be nice to take a break from all work, to do nothing but read, eat, sleep, and hang out with friends. But writing is a full-time, 24/7 job. Deadlines beckon, and in the writing business, there is no one but ourselves to snap the whip. My novels usually take about a year to complete, and during that year the publisher and editor sit quietly, trusting that the completed work will land in their inbox by the contracted deadline. So it's up to me to set the mini-deadlines. It's easy to let a day slip by without writing, saying "oh, I'll make it up tomorrow". Easier still to let the second day go by, and pretty soon, I've forgotten where I was going in the book, I've lost the momentum, and the whole project feels like one giant millstone. I don't know how many times in the past few weeks I have said "I hate this book, I don't know where it's going but I'm afraid it's nowhere."

People often ask me if I write every day. I say yes, I write in some fashion. It's the only way the book will get written. But sometimes the "writing" is really thinking. Pondering the next step, untangling a mess, trying to figure out where it should go next. This thinking is essential, because in my modified "pantser" style of writing, I often don't know what ought to come next. So even though I may barely put pen to paper, by thinking, I may dislodge an entire logjam of ideas to move the story forward another few chapters.

For me, one of the worst logjams occurs when I am nearing the end of a book, before I have figured out how it will end. Before I have figured out how the main character will solve the mess or who the villain will prove to be. I am at that point in my current WIP, the third Amanda Doucette mystery, Prisoners of Hope. I have half a dozen story threads on the go, a few suspects, and a bubbling cauldron of problems. Amanda is on the move, chasing down one of the suspects. But will that suspect be THE one? Or will there be more twists?

One of the elements I love and hate most about writing mysteries is this climax, where everything has to come together simultaneously. The main character must figure it out at the last minute, just ahead of the reader, and the whole solution must be revealed in a dramatic, exciting finish. Drawing room discussions of guilt or innocence, a la Hercule Poirot, or courtroom accusations like Perry Mason are now a cliche, and todays' readers expect more. Moreover, twenty-page epilogues to tie up all the loose ends are an anti-climax. As much as possible, loose ends should be explained in the main climax.

All this – the big reveal, the dramatic finish, the maintenance of suspense, and the tying up of loose ends – is no easy feat. No wonder I get exhausted just thinking about it, and am currently circling around and around the ending. I poke away at the logjam as I drive the car, walk the dogs, wash the dishes, and even as I sit on the dock with my glass of wine, letting the evening haze settle over me. I know the answer will probably not come in a single stroke of brilliance but in a series of small "what ifs" that nudge the logjam from the edges, teasing possibilities free until something shifts and the way forward is revealed.

I know it will happen. I have learned, after fourteen books, to trust that I will eventually figure it out. But it always feels as if this time, I may crash and burn.

Hopefully not.


Aline Templeton said...

Oh Barbara, I do sympathise. I nodded my head all the way through your great post: right, right, right. You keep telling youself it will work out in the end,it always has,so there's no need to get so stressed, it'll be just fine this time too...probably. Good luck with it!

Sybil Johnson said...

I was nodding my head as I was reading about having to set your own deadlines. Yep, if I don't I can easily fritter away the day doing other things. I'm a hybrid outliner/pantser so I always know who did it at the end, but I don't always know how they're caught or what that confrontation scene is going to look like. Endings are tough!

Donis Casey said...

How to reveal everything at just the right time in a logical fashion is a terrifying task. That is my greatest aspiration with every book, and I admire any author who can consistently do that well!