Two weeks ago, I finished The Book That Would Not End, aka Nowhere Near Respectable, aka Lost Lords 3 (scheduled for May 2011 and featuring Mackenzie, if you were wondering.)
We’ve all experienced huge, life consuming projects, from studying for final exams to writing a PhD dissertation to getting the house perfect for the first visit of the new in-laws. Finishing a book has its own particular crazies, so I thought I’d list some of them. A few of these may be peculiar to me, others include many, perhaps even most, other writers:
Process, Part 1:
**There are some writers who work consistently through a book, finishing long enough before deadline to let it sit and mulch a bit before final read through and submission. We don’t talk about creatures like them. <g>
**Many, perhaps most, writers perform best when deadlines are lethally close. I think this kicks the mental editor to the curb and allows us to finish a book running on sheer screaming adrenaline. Unfortunately, it seems that the longer one writes, the closer one has to get to the deadline in order to panic the muse into real productivity.
The Muse and other madness:
**In my experience, most writers are hardwired for their creative process. We may be able to do minor modifications, but we are largely stuck with the one we’re born with, whether it’s slow and meticulous or ricocheting rewrites. (I knew one writer of Loveswepts who had a great and exciting day job, but once or twice a year, she'd barricade herself in her house and write like a madwoman for two or three weeks, living off of pizza deliveries and letting her hygiene slip. Wrote great books, too.)
**Corollary: whatever creative process you’re born with, you will be convinced that everyone you know has a better, less painful process.
**The first part of a book generally goes more slowly because there are so many decisions to be made about the setting and the characters. What year are you? Where is the story set? If you’re in London, where is the house located? What season of the year is it, and how does that affect the story? Are there servants, and if so, are they invisible wallpaper, or do they have distinct personalities and stories of their own? (Like Wharf, Adam’s valet in Loving a Lost Lord. He was not planned. But it was nice when he showed up.)
**Whose story is this? Which of the protagonists changes more and needs to have a larger share of the POV? It isn’t always the person you think it will be. Though the book I just completed was inspired by the roguish charm of the hero, I ended up spending more time in the pov of the energetic, confident young heroine who found herself discovering unexpected new worlds.
**For me, there are long spells of time when the story just sort of lies there like a wet rag. I look at it, it looks at me. We limp along. 1000 words a day is a very good day, seldom achieved.
Then deadline panic sets in somewhere around the middle of the book. A lot of the story decisions have been made, the approximate path to the end is visible, and I HAVE TO GET THIS FREAKING BOOK DONE BEFORE MY EDITOR BLOCKS MY E-MAIL AND MY CAREER IS OVER!!!!!!!! The last day of NNR, I wrote over 4000 words. Would that I could do that all the time!
**That said, I’ve had a lot of terrific editors in my career, and most of them understand how to work with the volatile and often neurotic beasts known as authors. As my first editor, Hilary Ross, once told me, she could insist on the exact deadline and probably get a book that was okay. Or, if the author needed a little more time, give the author the extra time and get a better book. (Hilary is the editor who said with rapier accuracy that I “always delivered in a timely fashion, in a latish sort of way.” <g> Still true!)
The Overfilled Brain:
**During the early part of a book, when there’s not much creative flow, it’s easy to catch up on other things that need doing. Get new glasses, visit the dentist, go away for the weekend. Then the terror switch flips and everything except The Book is jettisoned.
**You want to get a good night’s sleep so you can work better the next day, but you can’t because The !#$%&* Book has taken over your mind and is filling your thoughts and dreams ALL THE TIME.
**You want to try an interesting new recipe that a friend sent you? File it until after The Book is done.
**Speaking of the soup, during the final crash of The Book, I live out of myr freezer. An appliance that is usually packed gradually develops echoing caverns of emptiness. I like making huge quantities of soup and freezing in quart (three servings) containers.
When finishing The Book, I pull them out for lunch and sometimes dinner. The major thought involved is remembering to thaw different varieties, so Portuguese potato kale is followed by cockaleekie is followed by lentil tomato, etc. There is also the prepared food section of my local grocery story.
**When I ride in my car, I no longer listen to NPR because there is no room in my head for other people's words. Music is good, though. As long as it doesn't have words. <G>
Process, Part 2:
**At least once toward the end of every book, I sit down with a yellow lined tablet (letter size) and a blue Flair pen. (Ritual is very important in these matters.) Then I list the events that have to happen before the end of the book, and I work out what sequence they’ll have to follow. This is the essence of plotting: hunting through all the squishy, amorphous possibilities, then hammering them into a sturdy structure.
**Plotting was my problem with NNR. No problem with the characters—they were vivid and well-defined from the beginning. The early events in the book were also clear and dramatic.
Plotting: aka Falling Off The Cliff:
Then the story careened over a cliff. My synopsis had been pretty much a matter of “And then they go to Bath and Stuff Happens.” Except that when I hit that point, I realized that Bath was boring and the story as currently structured didn’t have the hero and heroine together enough. I.e, it wasn’t going to work. I was doomed!!!
So I had to figure out something that would work, and it was a slow process. Rather like carving granite with a butter knife. There were long spells when I wasn’t sure how or even if I’d make it to the end. When I finally stumbled over the finish line, I realized that, amazingly, The Book actually worked.
**Conclusion: Even though your basic process may be hard wired in, each particular book offers a whole new way to make you nuts.
**Conclusion 2: When a brain has been so thoroughly rode hard and put away wet, it does NOT want to immediately dive into another book with a killer deadline. (Do not tell my YA editor how I know this…)
So how does your brain handle crazed deadlines? What kind of projects have sent you careening in circles, fearing a crash and burn—and yet, miraculously, working out at the end? As the theater manager said in Shakespeare in Love when he talks about how a play comes together: “It’s a mystery.”
Mary Jo, adding that she knows this is actually a labyrinth, not a maze.