July 18, 2008
You’ve heard of runners, marathoners in particular, “hitting the wall” — reaching a point in their run where they lose all their energy and feel like they can’t go on. Usually experienced runners will get through “the wall” and will actually feel energized for the final part of their run. Others, I suppose, don’t get through it. They just stop, unable to go farther.
Well sometimes writers hit their own kind of wall. I know that I do. What does this mean exactly? I have found with just about every book I’ve written, that when I get somewhere between 60% and 70% of the way through a book, I suddenly face some sort of crisis of confidence about the project. Sometimes (and this was particularly true with my early books) the crisis is pretty severe. I remember with my first book that I got to that point and suddenly thought, “Oh my God! There’s no story here! I can’t finish this! I have no idea where this book is going! I’m a hack! I’m hopeless! Why didn’t I listen to my parents and go to law school?” Eventually, of course, I figured out what the problem was. The plot needed adjustment, and when I made the changes, the rest of the story just came to me.
It happened again with the second book, and again I questioned myself; I feared that I was a “one book wonder”. The crisis passed a bit quicker the second time through, but it was still traumatic in its own way. During both of these crises, my wife was very sympathetic. She talked me through some of the issues and was a compassionate sounding board at all hours of the day and night. When it happened again with my third book, she started to recognize the pattern and decided that she wouldn’t be my enabler.
“This book is a disaster!” I whined. “I have no business claiming to be an author.”
“Uh huh,” she said, not even looking up from the book she was reading. “Two-thirds of the way through again?”
“Ummm, yeah. Why do you ask….?”
With more recent books, I’ve been able to anticipate the problem. I don’t panic anymore. I don’t lose all faith in myself. But I do still find that I’ll have dry spells around the 60% mark. Even if a book has been going well to that point, it will often stall a bit.
There’s a reason for this, of course. The two-thirds mark is about where you have to start pulling things together. If you’ve been throwing crap at your lead character for three hundred pages or so, you now have to start giving him or her ways to dig out from under. You have to start leading your reader toward some sort of satisfying climax and resolution. It’s not easy, and if the path to that resolution isn’t immediately apparent, it can be downright scary, particularly if you haven’t done it too many times before. This is the place where so many beginning writers get stuck.
“I have this great story that’s more than halfway finished. I love the beginning, I love my lead character. I love where I’ve taken it so far. And I know just how it ends. But I can’t seem to get from where I am now to that ending. So I recently started work on another book….”
I bring all of this up, because I happen to be at the two-thirds mark with the third book of my Blood of the Southlands series, and I have yet to figure out how to get from where I am in the book right now (a place I like very much, by the way) to the ending I have in mind (which I also like very much). And rather than grappling with the book, I’m thinking that I’m just going to punt for a while. I’m about to go on vacation for a few weeks, and I’m pretty certain that I won’t figure out anything before we leave. So I’ll put the book away and come back to it fresh in a couple of weeks. I’ve never tried this approach to getting past the crisis before. It’ll be interesting to see if it works.
Advice for beginners on scaling the wall (without going on vacation….)? Hmmmm. Nothing really profound. As with so much in writing, it’s simply a matter of putting one’s butt in the chair and writing. I like to do stream of consciousness when I’m really stuck. I’ll put myself in front of a blank computer screen (it would work long hand, too, if you prefer that) and I’ll type a question. “Why am I stuck?” Or, “What does Character X have to do to reach the end point of the book?” Something like that. Then I’ll type out a response — not in prose that I’d use for the book. I just let myself type without worrying about syntax or typos or anything like that. The key is getting past all of that to my thoughts and ideas. I’ll pepper myself with questions, I’ll argue with myself, I’ll play devil’s advocate. And more often than not, I’ll wind up finding an answer that works. Those stream of consciousness sessions have gotten me past many a crisis — I recommend the approach.
Ultimately what I try to remember during these difficult stages is that I began the project with a good idea, I’ve written a good book to this point, and I like the ending I foresee for the story. Eventually I will find that bridge that links where I am to where I’m going. It might take some time. I might even need to do some repair work on the bridge when I find it in order to make it sturdy enough to support my characters and narrative. But it’s out there. Yes, there’s a leap of faith implied in this thinking. But I write fantasy for a living. I demand leaps of faith from my readers all the time. It’s only fair that I should make some, too.
July 17, 2008
Crazy week so far, which is why I never got around to posting yesterday. We’re going on an extended trip out West early next week: New Mexico to see some friends, Canyonlands National Park in Utah to camp, and Idaho to see Nancy’s family. I’ll then go on to Denver for WorldCon while Nancy and the girls head home. Three weeks of travel for me. The day after I get back, my younger daughter starts school again. So we’re trying to get ready for the trip, trying to get ready for school, trying to get in last minute work so that we can relax while traveling. Pretty typical pre-vacation stuff.
I’m excited for the time with friends and Nancy’s family, and I’m looking forward to WorldCon. I’m totally jazzed about Canyonlands. Can’t wait to look at birds and play with my camera and get some hiking in. The girls are less psyched. They don’t particularly like the desert, which I suppose I can understand. I’m not sure I would have liked the desert when I was their age, that is, if it had ever even occurred to my parents to take us there….
Anyway, that’s where I am right now. I’ve gotten some writing done this week and should reach 90k words on the WIP tomorrow. There’s a new podcast up at Stephen Euin Cobb’s “The Future and You” site of a panel I did at LibertyCon with Harry Turtledove and Toni Weisskopf. Visit the site and give it a listen.
July 15, 2008
Today I post an interview with one of my SFNovelists buddies, David Louis Edelman. David has a couple of new science fiction releases out this month: One is a mass market paperback rerelease of of his critically acclaimed debut novel, Infoquake from Solaris. The other is the trade paperback release of the second book in his Jump 225 trilogy, MultiReal, from Pyr. As you’ll see in the interview, David is articulate, passionate about his writing, and an all around good guy. Enjoy!
July 14, 2008
July 10, 2008
A couple of months ago I posted about copyediting. I’d just received the copyedited manuscript of The Horsemen’s Gambit, book II of Blood of the Southlands and I was going through it, dealing with the copyeditor’s queries and making some last minute changes.
Well, today I began my last task in the production process. I am proofreading the typeset version of the book, also known as the first-pass page proofs. What this means, basically, is that I’m looking at the book as it will appear in print, searching for typos, errors in formatting, and any lingering mistakes that I might have made. It’s a rather tedious job, not least because I’ve already read this book through about five times, and frankly, I’m a little sick of it. Don’t get me wrong: I like the book. I think it’s one of my best. But it could be a masterpiece on the order of A Tale of Two Cities, and I still wouldn’t want to read it five times through in less than a year.
As I find mistakes, I correct them in pencil and then lay those pages aside. When I’m done, I’ll send those corrected pages — not the whole book — back to my editor. He’ll pass them on to Tor, where the changes will be incorporated into the final version of the book. The goal, of course, is a book without any typos or mistakes of any kind. In practice, this is virtually impossible to achieve. Why? Let me explain it this way: The book is 140,000 words long, give or take a few thousand. Each word averages about five letters. (Really: next time you do a word check in Word check out the other document stats. You’ll probably find that your average word length is about the same.) That comes out to approximately 700,000 characters. There are paragraph breaks, too, and also punctuation, spacing issues, etc. But let’s keep the number round for the sake of simplicity. 700,000. Okay, now let’s say that my editor, and the copy editor, and the proofreader, and I manage between us to make it 99.999% perfect. That would be pretty darn good, actually. And it would still leave us with seven typos.
So, in a way, I’m doomed to fail before I even begin. But I’m slogging through. I’ve caught a few things and will, no doubt, catch a few more, so I already feel that the work has been worthwhile. But I’d rather be working on book III.
By the way, a big birthday shout-out to one of my musical heroes, Bela Fleck, who turns 50 today. You still rock, Bela!
Today’s music: Bela, Tales from the Acoustic Planet
July 9, 2008
The other day I was reading the New Yorker, which I do when I exercise, and I came across an amusing cartoon. It shows a pitcher and catcher talking on the pitcher’s mound in the middle of a game in front of a stadium full of fans. The pitcher is saying, “I’m sure I could keep my slider down if they’d just fire the manager.” Got me thinking.
I haven’t posted anything about baseball pretty much all season long, mostly because I’ve been so disappointed in my Mets. The firing of their manager, Willie Randolph, a few weeks ago saddened me even more. Now before this becomes a big “thing”, I’m not saying that I don’t think they should have fired Willie. I’m not saying that I agree with the firing either. I’m not sure one way or the other. The team has played well for interim manager Jerry Manuel, a guy I’ve always thought was a decent coach and manager. And I think that Willie himself had become a distraction for the team, simply because after last season’s September collapse and this year’s poor start, he was a marked man. On the other hand, I think that the team played poorly at the end of last year and the first half of this season not because Willie managed them poorly, but because their starting pitching was shaky, their middle relief has never regained the form it showed in 2006, and Billy Wagner always seems to be one pitch away from disaster.
Randolph has always been a class act. He was a terrific second baseman for the Yankees during their late-seventies glory days. He was solid if not spectacular in the field, he could steal a base, he had great strike-zone judgment, and he came through with a good many clutch hits throughout his career. He has long been an intelligent and insightful student of the game and was a key member of Joe Torre’s staff during the best years of Torre’s tenure as Yankee manager. I’m sad for him, and I hope he finds a new position soon. He’s too good a manager not to be running someone’s team.
Here’s hoping as well that the Mets perform to their full potential during the second half of the season. They’re only a few games out of first, and with Reyes, Beltran, and Wright playing well, and Carlos Delgado poised for a big second half, they could make a run at the playoffs.
July 8, 2008
As promised, a longer post about “Cassie’s Story” is now up at the blogsite of Edmund Schubert, editor of Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. “Cassie’s Story” is my newest short story, and it can now be read at the IGMS website. Today’s post tells a bit about how I came to write the story and what was involved in the editorial process. I hope you enjoy the post, and I hope you’ll check out the story.