Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fiction Filter


Last Sunday, I finished Poke Rafferty book #5, THE FEAR ARTIST.

It did not want to get written.  In fact, during the last eight months, nothing I've worked on has wanted to be written.  Here I am, someone whose creative motto is, "A writer is someone who finishes," and I abandoned my initial attempt at Poke #5 after writing more than 40,000 words.  That really hurt.

So when THE FEAR ARTIST threatened to congeal and die on me, it was high drama.

It's no wonder there are so few movies about writers.  I spent three of the worst months of my life pushing this book uphill, writing anything at all, no matter how ragged, improbable, or boring, to try to get the characters from Point A to Point B, to try to bring to life the world they were attempting to traverse.  Every day, seven days a week (even during Bouchercon), failing, failing, failing.  Becoming increasingly certain that this time failure was permanent and that I had written my last novel.

And what would the film camera, dollying in for the dramatic high-point closeup, have seen?  A guy staring at a screen.  Who once in a while bit his fingernails.  Occasionally, in the privacy of my home, I would vent a bit, in a moderate, suburban Anglo-Saxon manner.  My wife, normally the most understanding of women, called me a drama queen.

From sarahsfate.wordpress.com20110513writers-block

I define myself as a writer.  It's not something I do for fun (although it is fun at times) or for money.  It's -- burst of music -- what I am.  I'm someone who regards real life as interesting in direct proportion to how useful it is for fiction.  Real life, to me, is potential material.  I'm a fiction filter.  A story sifter.  Even if nobody ever reads me, my job is to try to make some kind of sense out of my world and express it as story.

It means a lot to me that I create something where nothing was before, even if what I create isn't all I would like it to be.

All of that part of my life really did -- without any intended hyperbole -- seem to be over.  Every day I hauled myself to the chair, turned on the computer, and, as William Gibson says, "hoped the part of me that writes fiction showed up."  And it didn't.

Except that it did.  What I had six weeks ago was long and fifth-rate, but it was about 75% of a not-very-compelling story.  And then the magic happened, and the Bangkok floods started to weave their way into the book.  The story's setting turned out to be a world threatened by rising water, unstoppable, deadly, and completely unmalicious.  The book isn't about the flooding; but the threat of flooding, so mindlessly unselective in what it destroys, turned out to be the metaphor I needed, a natural-world complement to the story of someone who's been caught up on the outer margins of the war on terror.

Suddenly, everything I'd written made a kind of sense.  It required total revision, but now the story had a sort of sound track, the music of fast-flowing water, the music of rain, and that helped me find the language and the rhythms I needed. And lo and behold, I had moved the characters and the world from Point A to Point B, and the journey turned out to be interesting after all.

Interesting to me, at any rate.  I'm currently entering my agent's suggested revisions and reading the manuscript aloud to my wife as a way of laying bare things that don't work and need improvement, and spending about ten hours a day in fine-tuning, but I think there's a book here.

If there's a moral to all this, it's two things I already knew.  First, write even when you don't like what you're writing, because you don't actually know while you're laying the words down whether it's good or not.  Second, be open to the material the universe sends your way.  Sometimes, when we're weaving our story, we'll suddenly be presented with the strand we need most, but we'll walk right past it if we're not open to it.

On Tuesday, I'll send it to my editor, and we'll see what she says about it.  Thanks for listening.


  1. Tim, I love the line about the interest of real life! (I don't believe you really believe it though, and would put forward several of your other posts in evidence against you.) But your experience is great advice for anyone trying to write. Stanley and I have had a bit of a dry patch for a while - various reasons - but the thing is to go on. Somehow, something, somewhere makes it come together. How does that happen? To quote Shakespeare in Love - I don't know; it's a miracle.

  2. Tim, I am about two months behind you in this process. I HOPE! Thanks for these encouraging words. My solution is out there somewhere. I hope it hits me in the head hard enough to wake me up as I sleepwalk along writing scenes I am not that crazy about.

  3. Oh, you are a writer of deeply moving, exciting books. Of course, you re going to have those anglo saxon moments. What is a miracle is your openness and perceptiveness to the world, and to bring in what you see. This gives your books their immediacy. I'm looking forward it as I always am.

  4. I will cut right to the chase, pilgrim. You are one of the best there is at what you do, and your suffering is an inspiration to us all. Keep up the good work.

  5. Hope that you are away from all the flooding. Saw your 11/2 blog on the flooded command center.

  6. A great meditation on what is difficult but also what's great about this thing we do Tim. You just have to keeping bashing those words out no matter how hard it is, or how bad it seems. I've returned to a story I'd left a few months ago, the initial writing of which had been liking grinding water from a stone. I started reading through my fingers expecting it to be truly bad. It wasn't. It was actually quite good. It needs work. There isn't a book that doesn't, but it was an example to me of a how just persevering and getting it down is always worth it.

  7. Hi, Everyone. Since I wrote this, it's been12 hours a day, proofing, revising, and tightening the book, reading all 120,000 words aloud to my wife and making about 1000 changes as a result, and then, yesterday -- ZIP -- I sent it off to my editor at Soho to try to make sense out of it.

    So I apologize for not having responded sooner.

    Michael, I suppose the idea of life-as-material is overstated, but in all candor I have to say that in the middle of most of the really difficult moments of my life, I hear a dry little whisper saying, "This is material," And somewhwere, a check mark is put against this experience to mark it for retrieval as needed.

    Annamaria, there are times when the best metaphor for (my) writing process is mining for coal using my forehead. Just keep banging it against the coalface until a little bit of coal emerges, and then seize it and make the most of it until it's time to go back to banging my forehead again.

    Lil, your compliments are, as ever, gratefully received, and I just wish every current book knew about the past ones, because they all seem to behave as though they're certain they've been entrusted to the wrong hands and they're holding back their secrets until I'm replaced by someone better.

    Thank you, Jeff. My confidence level is pretty low at the moment but it's good to know that suffering benefits someone. Although my wife addressed my suffering by saying, "Come on, you've still got two legs," which put it into perspective. For a minute or two, anyway.

    Liz, I'm about 6000 miles from the flooding, in Santa Monica, although I felt like I was in the middle of it as the floodwaters began to flow through the book.

    Dan, as writer to writer, one of the most valuable things to know is that we don't usually know whether we're writing well or badly. That piece of knowledge along should be enough to get us through the rough patches, but it wears thin as the rough patch extends over weeks, or even months, without the occasional patch of sunny inspiration.

  8. Reading this blog was an "Ouch!", "Yes!", "Oooooh, yes, been there too" experience.

    About 15 years ago, I thought I had lost it. As in lost-it-completely. I had been stuck for four years at that point, trying to finish one lousy fantasy novel. I was beginning to wonder whether one could simply stop being a writer. Having been one since my mid-teens, the problem that presented itself was this: If I wasn't a writer, who the hell was I?

    I was saved from that question by the onset of inspiration, so I still don't know. :-)

    Anyway, thank you for this. And odds are (going on past history) that you have written a great book.

  9. Fantastic post, Tim. I love hearing about some of your process. I can relate to all of what you said.

    Further validation is that every book my husband writes he is convinced is the last one, that there's nothing more he could possibly say on his subject. Until the next one, the next thought, the next wave of something that, for whatever reason, needs to be shared.

    I can so relate to your point about following intuition/gut for what needs doing without the slightest idea of why. And I love those wonderful moments when, seemingly from nowhere, the reasons for what was done appear.

  10. Hi, Lene, and congratulations on working through such a disastrous block. My process is perhaps different, though: I almost never have an inspiration unless I'm actively working with the material. That means I may write 100-200 substandard pages, which at the very least show me ways NOT to solve the problem until I suddenly realize that I know where the problem is and (perhaps) how to fix it. These solutions frequently come to me in the shower, but if I weren't banging my head against the material on a daily basis, I could shower until I drowned and not get the ideas.

    Shelley, your husband and I share the sense that every book we write is the last. That's why I usually start a new one the next day. In the case of THE FEAR ARTIST, I started two, and we'll see which, if either, I follow to completion.

    And I agree completely with you about intuition. I wrote on the third page of THE FEAR ARTIST that a dying man's head was sunburned and didn't discover why until I was about 300 pages in. And it turned out to be important. That's why I feel that writing is more like archaeology than architecture -- we're uncovering something that's already there (somewhere) rather than building something new.