I've been working on my next novel for almost two years now. I know, that seems like a long time. It seems like a long time to me as well.
Fortunately, I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but the past couple of days have been a struggle. The reason may not seem so clear to those who haven't gone down this road themselves. The simplest explanation is a credo coined by the great science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon: “Ask the next question.”
Basically, what Sturgeon was trying to impart was that when writing a story, it must progress forward, that each paragraph, each sentence, each word must serve to move the story forward on a logical course. I like to think of a story as if the author is writing about a journey the characters make, and I think of it in terms of a road map. If you are to follow a map to a destination, you chart out a route. If we think about the story in terms of the beginning, middle and end of a journey, there should not be any breaks in the road.
When I'm driving on a real journey, I like to get off the route and explore. I remember vividly once when my oldest son was just a baby a road trip we took to Idaho to see my brother and his family. This was the first time I'd attempted to drive a long distance with a baby in the car, but we assumed correctly that we wouldn't be able to push through long distances. We mapped out our route from New Mexico to Idaho thinking that no more than six hours in the van would be all the baby would stand. We planned stops accordingly throughout the trip and learned fairly quickly that if we left for the day's drive early in the morning, the child would sleep through most of the driving.
My wife and I studied the map, because that's what you do when you are stuck in a vehicle for hours at a time going through strange territory. Before the kids, it was not unusual for us to get off the route to check out what was down a road, or to see a tourist spot. On this occasion, there on the map was a road that turned off the highway and went to a place called Incline Point. And like the siren's song, it was calling to us. The map indicated the road was about 20 miles long and that it was paved.
With a nod to each other, we decided to see what Incline Point was all about. Five miles in, we learned the map had lied – the road was not paved. It was washboard gravel for 15 miles, which meant I couldn't drive faster that 25 mph. A 20 minute drive was turning into a hot, dusty, bumpy hour long experience. The baby woke up – of course – and started fussing. Our moods got worse and worse; and yet we were committed to seeing Incline Point.
Finally we made it. Incline Point was an overlook into Canyonlands National Park. It was an interesting view, I won't deny that; but there were two adults and a baby who were wishing they were sitting by a pool at a motel in Green River, Utah instead. After a quick lunch because there was no shade. We got back into the van and spent another hour or so getting back to the highway, and another two hours on the road still ahead of us. By the time we actually did make it poolside, we were hot, dirty and thirsty. And in a foul mood because we'd just listened to a baby scream for the past two hours.
When I write a story – either fiction or nonfiction – its elements have to be linear. (I know folks who write non-linear experimental stuff. If you like that stuff, good for you. Personally, I find it tedious.)
In the process of writing, though, I have a tendency to go down that gravel road to see what is there. Most times, it's nothing. Sometimes there is interest and some times you love where you've gone. That's when the act of writing gets frustrating. If a detour off the map still gets you to your destination, then everything is just fine; except for all those things you just went around. And oftentimes you end up down a cul-de-sac. It might be a very nice neighborhood that you wouldn't mind visiting a bit longer, but it doesn't get you where you need to go.
That's why the second and third drafts of a book can be excruciating and time-consuming. The writer is studying his map and constantly saying to himself: “Ask the next question.”
This past week, I found I had not written a clear route for my characters. I could see the road ahead, but there was a metaphorical bridge out. I had to repair the bridge.
This is where a lot of writers get bogged down and tend to quit. I'm not judging, I've done it more than I care to admit. But I found that if I can talk about the problem, a solution usually presents itself. This is when my family really suffers.
For the length of our marriage, it has been my wife who has had to listen to me ramble on about the piece I'm working on. It helps that she is an artist and doesn't question my creative process even those hers is much different. (I'm extremely verbal and talkative about what I'm doing, she says nothing until her work is done.) She is great at helping me; invaluable really. She knows how I think and knows the right questions to ask. She knows that I usually need to talk it through so my mind can tell me what needs to be done. Sometimes she makes suggestions that don't make sense at first, but then lead to solutions. She keeps me going with encouragement and nagging.
That's why every book I've written is dedicated to her.
I also feel guilty because I ask this of her. So I'm trying to train my two sons to fill that role as well. I've had mixed success with that, but it's progressing fine. The youngest, who is 12, will one day make an excellent editor if he chooses to do so. He questions and challenges everything. And while his suggestions for changes in a story are those of a 12-year-old, they are of a sophisticated 12-year-old. In a couple of years, he'll be really good at analyzing a story and identifying weaknesses and strengths. What makes him good at it, is that he thinks about a problem I'll bring to him as if it's a puzzle to be solved.
His brother – the baby from earlier in this essay – is 16 and a creative type as well. His forte, though, is music. This is something I really want to tap into, because if there is a way of thinking that I'd like to emulate in my writing, it is that of a musician. The problem, though, is that he hears his own muse and has little time for other people's. It's not that he can't be helpful, it's just hard to talk over the sound of music that is constantly playing in his head. I still come to him with my literary problems, though, not because I think I'll get help from him, but because I think I'm helping him. He's heading down the road of learning how to take his given talents and create something. He's independent-minded and will rarely ask for help.
That's not a judgment, it's and observation of how he learns – through observation and doing it himself.
So even though I've been talking about this book for the past two years, my oldest son still has no idea what it's about. Every time I try to get feedback on a tricky part, I have to explain the whole thing over again. While this exercise can be frustrating, it also serves a valuable purpose. Not only am I teaching him about the problem I'm facing, I'm teaching myself.
So yesterday, I was doing a lot of talking and I came up with the solution. Then I spent several hours on the manuscript tweaking here, rewriting there and adding new things. I fixed the bridge and now can continue on my journey.
Writing can be a lonely vocation if you let it. I imagine, though, that those who are most successful at it do not do it in a vacuum. Writing is a reflection of people and our desire to tell and hear stories. How can you do something like that by yourself?