A working title is a work in progress

At first, when the germ of my story was a husband who discovers his late wife’s secret diary, the novel was called generically The Diary. But that plot line felt like too much melodrama (and what do I know about husbands?), so I replaced the husband with a hapless thirty-something single and the diary with a love letter trapped unread in a book for many months; the novel became The Letter. Of course later I added the diary back in to complement the letter, and I called the thing The Letter/The Diary

This arrangement lasted me all of the first draft and into the beginning of the second draft, until this morning I decided to remove the letter altogether (what do I know about love letters trapped unread in books for many months?) but keep the diary, at which point the novel became the cumbersome formulation The Letter/The Diary.

That’s when I remembered the list of halfway-decent titles I had worked up a while ago (none of which really seemed quite right for the final title but one of which could certainly serve temporarily). I took the best one and gave the novel the working title The Long and Short of It. I’m sure that’ll change.

Outrunning my internal editor and critic, or not

Work on the first draft has begun and continues apace. Against the technique of my last novel, where in succession I refined and refined and refined each chapter to just shy of perfection, going at about a crawl, the idea with this one is to get the whole draft onto paper as fast as possible, outrunning my internal editor and critic (chasing behind with their red pen and big black marker and paper-crumpling hands and ridicule-spouting mouths, gaining ground and losing ground and then finding a shortcut, but never actually catching up). Speed is the watchword. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It really shouldn’t be perfect. If it’s perfect then I’m not going fast enough.

Once the draft is on paper I’ll have nowhere to run. Those pesky two will be on me with all kinds of insults and corrections and notes on grammar and general abuse, but they’ll have a good sense of the whole of the story so it won’t be idle criticism. I’ll put them to work on what needs changing on a high level with their tools of destruction. They’ll hit the big areas first—character problems, arc problems, chapter problems. With the bigger problems thoroughly yelled at they’ll move onto less big ones and even less big ones and then smaller ones and then the ones smaller than the smaller ones and lastly the fine detail of the sentences.

Then, finally, at last, after all that refining and refining, I’ll finally have my draft to a point where those pesky two will insinuate that I might as well toss the whole thing into the bonfire.

Kind of a waste of sticky notes

After four months of staring at a wall and the waste of approximately two million sticky notes, the plot outline is done. Lest you think I should have spent the time actually writing, consider for a moment that it would have taken me somewhere around ten years (and don’t think I’m exaggerating, either) of writing the long way to get where my plot is now. That doesn’t mean no more revision is needed. While the first half of the plot is solid, the second part has some vagueness and even a hole or two. But I have a lot of time to ponder the ending of the novel as I work on writing out the beginning, and I’ll probably need every second of it.

Middle muddle

For just about as long as I can remember I have been flirting with reaching a point very close to a position shortly removed from a location perched high enough to see by aid of binoculars an artist’s rendering of what an advanced computational model predicts may be the midpoint of my plot. Then I got stuck. A sort of inspiration-killing, hope-crushing stuckness.

I had been riding the momentum of two or three early, solid ideas that had all on their own propelled me to the aforementioned point but which unaccountably and quite stubbornly refused to budge another step. So it seemed I needed another “big” idea or maybe a few to push or pull me the rest of the way.

These would need to be brilliant, original, earth-shattering, mind-blowing ideas of the caliber of those first conceptions, the kind of magical, wonderful, awesome, inscrutable, inspired (possibly divinely) ideas that can’t be forced into being by sheer willpower. And yet, I couldn’t just wait around mindlessly for months hoping for them to pop into my head, either. So I sat at my desk, staring at my plot, thinking about the direction of the thing without letting it know that I was thinking about the direction of the thing, and this state (considered impossible by the computation model) lasted long enough to make its point.

As I am constantly forced to relearn, ideas from the beginning of the writing process can get lodged in the back of one’s head and persist far beyond their usefulness. The story is altered in hundreds of ways to the point where it barely resembles the earliest incarnation, and yet here these silly guiding concepts are hanging on as though nothing has changed. These push you toward thinking in a certain way, which will preclude you from thinking in the right way. Luckily, if you stagnate in the computationally-impossible state for long enough you will be forced to reconsider your early ideas, and freed of certain problematic mind grapes, you will most certainly find an answer. Given enough time.

The idea that finally seems like it will work for me wasn’t divinely-inspired or even earth-shattering like I had supposed it would need to be. Actually it was just to move one element from early in the story to later in the story, which in a black-magic sort of way bifurcates the thing into two very different halves. I don’t know yet if it’s really the right thing, but if the flood of concomitant ideas is any indication, it very well could be rather close to an idea shortly removed from a conception shaped similarly to an impression hinting at a thought filliping in the back a… well, you get the idea.

Ploddingly plotting

Possibly the best way to plot a novel is to deface your wall with sticky notes, each note representing a scene or chapter. At a glance you can see the whole of your plot, not to mention any alternatives you have running off in tangential lines. It’s easy to move a scene or a whole contingent of ‘em, and then move them all back to where they started. The whole affair makes you feel a little bit like a general positioning miniature tanks on a map with a stick.

I’ve been marshaling the notes on my wall for a month and a half now; the process is beginning to near a point very close to a position shortly removed from a penumbra of an emanation of what some scholars believe may in fact be the midway mark, though others disagree about the interpretation and relevance of some of the source documents.

All in all, I move at a glacial pace. With a full day to operate, I can think up a sheet of ideas and doodles of snakes which are then reduced with an erratic Sharpie to about one usable scene concept. Overflowing with pride in my creativity and ingenuity, I stick up the note only to realize I affixed there more-or-less the same thing three hours ago.

Alas, it’s not all thought bubbles and sticky notes. I have to actually write out the long way on non-sticky paper the important bits of a scene to make sure the thing will actually work when expanded into prose. Typically it doesn’t at first, but I keep beating it until I have a scene idea in a few sentences worthy of being added to my epitaph and chiseled into my gravestone and finally glued to the office wall. Then, in three weeks time, when I’m working on what comes ten scenes later I realize it wasn’t epitaph-worthy after all, but it’s no biggie because the crumpled ball arcing toward the trash is only an idea, not two and a half thousand words perfected by four days of blood, sweat and tears.