Sunday, July 3, 2011

Almost Right

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.

A Platybelodon.

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


  1. Your description of writing sounds familiar. It is much like raising children.

    I believe that people shouldn't get married until they are 27. 18? Nonsense. 21? Still have their heads in a place that allows no daylight. 25? Almost but still easily distracted by the flashy things of the world. 27? If they haven't got a pretty good idea of who they are and what they want in their lives, it may never happen.

    When they finally stagger out into the world, parents are terrified because the time for tweaking and fixing is over. They are the person they present to the world. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don't but it is other people, the people who don't see or understand the process by which they arrived where they are, who decide if they have passed the test, whatever the test is.

    Comparing children? What a terrible mistake that is! Each is unique and wonderful in their own way but it must be hard to be the parents of some truly good and decent people who do their best everyday but who have a sibling who won a Nobel Prize in medicine.

    I have read all the Simeon books and CRASHED more than once. Simeon and Junior share some traits but they aren't two characters in the same body. I have read all the Poke books more than once and he is an absolute straight arrow compared to the other two.

    THE QUEEN OF PATPONG deserves to win every award except the one for best first novel. It isn't your first and it shows. But when you worry about duplicating the success of THE QUEEN, go back and read BREATHING WATER.

  2. I think that you need to be happy with what you write or you won't do the good work on it that you do. The other isn't lost; it is resting somewhere. Needless to say, I will look forward to reading "The Fear Artist." I still have "Incinerator" for my Hallinan fix. Thank you for talking so openly about your writing process. We all have platybelodons, by the way.

  3. I feel for you. The fear of something like this happening is why I remain an outliner. Nothing wrong with outlines, but that risk aversion may also be why I'm not published.

    So it goes.

  4. Thanks to all three of you, and sorry it's taken me so long to reply. You all said something wise, but I have to say, Dana, I'll probably never outline. The risk of walking the wire is about 40 percent of the fun, and this is only the second time I've ever pulled the plug, although some readers probably wish I'd done it more often.

  5. Hi Tim - your words express so much, so well and are so entertaining. Good luck with the new book and my sincerest regards on your loss of its predecessor the Platybelodon.


  6. Thank you, Yrsa -- and I had just taught it to roll over and sit.

  7. Having hatched my own Platybelodon of sorts (and hatched is the right word for I believe it of the playtypus mammal type that lays eggs--appropriately), I feel your pain. And great joy at being on track again. Terrific news on #5.