Sunday, July 3, 2011
This is an artist's conception of an evolutionary experiment called Platybelodon, an ancestor -- or, at least, a relative -- of the elephant.
I post it because it made me think of writing.
It's so easy to get things almost right. One bangs away for a year at the keyboard, trying to give form to a story, working sometimes from the outside in -- let's see what happens if we go here -- and sometimes from the inside out, when the characters drag us into new territory.
Sometimes we're establishing the shape, and sometimes we're deciding whether it has fur or scales, whether it's warm- or cold-blooded. Sometimes it feels like a poodle and sometimes it's got such big teeth you don't even want to be in the same room with it. But we give it our best, try to make the characters come to life, and if we're lucky, the whole manuscript at some point wiggles a little, coughs, and exhales, and we know the book is alive.
But, once we let it stagger out into the world how long will it remain alive? Is it going to dance out there like a highly evolved gazelle or slouch toward Bethlehem like some rough beast?
Look at that thing up there. It's so close. And it's so wrong. One good idea after another, and then . . . whoops. I know exactly how this feels.
I just junked a book I had written 45,000 words of. (Sorry about that sentence.) All the parts worked. All the characters were (to my eyes, anyway) alive and full of energy. There were two story lines that enthralled me and that were (I thought) absolutely impossible to predict. But there was a problem, which became apparent only when almost half of the book had been written: It was a Platybelodon.
I was writing under a certain amount of pressure, a new kind of pressure for me. After years of benign neglect, I'd written a book that was getting some reasonably serious attention. THE QUEEN OF PATPONG was nominated for an Edgar and lost, and has just been nominated for the Macavity, another of the sort of trifecta or quadrafecta of mystery awards. It may not win that, either, but it's one of only two books written last year to be nominated for both of them.
I told myself this was no problem. I wasn't competing with QUEEN. Every book is entirely its own being, each poses its own set of problems and offers its own satisfactions. I knew that, but I was still working so hard on the writing that I stopped paying attention to the beast as a whole, and what I wound up with was a pair of perfectly good story lines that had no business being in the same book, that wouldn't have intersected if the book had been a million words long.
And there was no way to fix it. It was as though I'd begun with that ridiculous front end up there, and all the bones and sinews were designed to support it and be fed by it. There was nothing to do but put it on the evolutionary scrap heap. I'll probably use those perfectly functional ears and legs in a different book.
So now, eighteen days later, I'm almost 30,000 words into Poke Number Five, which is tentatively called THE FEAR ARTIST, and it's making me very happy. It's got a good shape, and I'm keeping an eye on it.
(By the way, the artist whose work adorns this page is named skOOtie, and he has a gallery at http://sk00tie.deviantart.com/gallery/?offset=24)
at 12:07 AM