A little more information if you’re interested, though you probably aren’t

My last post didn’t really explain my reasons for starting over, despite its titular claim to do so. Toward bettering this deficiency, here’s a little more information if you’re interested, though you probably aren’t.

When I first sat down to consider a novel, I had no concrete plot or character ideas, but I wanted to write a novel. It’s one of those things some people want to do without any real reason. Anyway, what I did have was the notion that I’d produce a satire. What would I satirize? Good question—how astute of me. A satire is a critique, is it not? And in order to criticize, one needs some fundamental beliefs and some target, and typically some time spent peering into the issues and questions and whatnot. But I didn’t really have any time for peering. I wanted to get started! Well. Um. How about the Senate? I had worked there briefly and so had some firsthand experience of its ethos—even if I had no real critique of it, besides the stale residue gathered thoughtlessly when brushing against our cultural elite, our television comedies, our social-circle cynics, and the like.

Thus I set out with this weak foundation. It got me moving. It was better than trying to write a novel about nothing, I think (unless I was George Costanza, of course). And over time I put down these tracks of a story, without knowing the destination, these different threads only loosely related to each other—in a sense I was searching for the real story. I made great strides and gained a lot of confidence, but where was it all headed? How did these things tie together? In short, I felt the weakness of my foundation.

Though I had some interesting characters and encounters, my ideas for the actual business of the Senate were weak. Despite my research, I couldn’t really conceive of an interesting political battle with the intricate maneuvering one expects. So I kept the politics vague. My main character’s quest was the passing of a bill called Miriam’s Law which I hadn’t even defined yet. I gave my protagonist such a disinterest in politics that any discussions came to his ears as a form of gibberish—long lines of nonsense. In effect I was writing a “political” novel in which politics made no real impact.

At the same time, one of the threads was growing away from the rest. It’s the preposterous story of how our hapless hero is pursued by an older woman yet every action he takes to rebuff her backfires comically and in fact intensifies her desire. It’s buttressed by a few supporting characters who add to the confusion and strengthen the conflicts. This story occupied my mind. It seemed like the “real” story I was searching for, yet I couldn’t help but feel that the Senate setting was at odds with this story, or at least added nothing to it.

Now, jettisoning the Senate setting would mean losing two thirds of my work, and that would be a terrible idea! I’d destroy months of hard work, lose my momentum, and break one of my writing rules—so I rejected it, but regardless the idea remained in the back of my mind.

Some paid work came my way. For a period of two months people had me confused for a working stiff, and I did no writing. When I did return to the novel—reading through it again, organizing my ideas for the coming chapters, reflecting on the issues I’ve mentioned—the terrible truth revealed itself. The Senate had to go. It was a terrible idea, but I knew I had to do it.

It wasn’t without its sense of relief, I should note. If the story really was headed in the wrong direction, it was certainly right to steer it back. To be freed of the problems I mentioned, to be given a new beginning, a real story, a cohesive tale to put onto the page! Ah, how the mind loves new possibilities! Ablaze with inspiration, I scribbled down a thousand ideas over a few marvelous days, and everything seemed to fall into place. In a euphoric moment, I said to myself: this is going to be easy.

Next week: Beginnings aren’t as easy as you’d think

Why I’m throwing away almost everything and starting over

March is almost upon us—and with it, my (naïvely-set) goal date for completing the first draft of my novel.

So, you ask, “Are you getting close? 90% done? 80%?”

“Well, no,” I reply.

“But surely you’re at 70%.”

“Nope.”

So, you glance over at my writing “thermometer.”

“Oh,” you say, “I see you’re at 30%.” You try to be upbeat in the face of my failure. “But you’re working on another 10% and it’s almost done, right? That’ll make 40%, which is in the ballpark of 50%, so you’re halfway there. You’re a little behind, but not so bad. No so bad at all.”

“Well… about that.”

When I wrote at the end of my previous post “Next week: Why I’m throwing away everything I’ve written and starting over from scratch” it was a joke. It was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, to keep me from stumbling into my old pitfalls I have several cardinal rules for this novel, one of which is “Don’t start over.” These rules are meant to keep me moving forward, because finishing this novel is the only goal, and starting over is just the first step to never finishing. Ross knows the precariousness of the situation, on account of attempting to co-write novels with me in the past. I have a history of perpetually reinventing a story, casting off huge sections, and beginning anew, so that progress never passes a certain threshold. One might call it a highly effective success-avoidance system.

But here I am, against all my rules, tossing out two thirds of my work and trying to glue together the bits and pieces left in my destructive wake. “What are you doing?” you ask. “Are you crazy?” I know, I know! It sounds crazy—but listen!—this time I have a really good reason, and I promise it’s the last time I’ll ever do it.

Of course, I say that every time.

Kind of a waste of paper

I’ve hit the 30% mark on the first draft of The Senator’s Pants (which is really a pre-first draft, or rather a pre-pre-first draft because I like to tinker a lot before calling something a first draft; but, come to think of it, even if I do 43 more drafts, I think the one I send to an editor is referred to as the first draft (not that I’m going to send it to an editor)). (Let’s just call this the first draft now, for simplicity’s sake.)

Sometimes people ask me, “How many pages is that?” The answer isn’t as simple as one might think. These things called pages vary in size, shape, typesetting, margins, color, weight, price, etc. But as an example, in Times New Roman, 12 point, double-spaced, on a middle-weight stock, preferably light green and purchased at wholesale price, 30% amounts to 93 pages; the final document is an estimated 325 pages. Kind of a waste of paper, if you ask me.

I’ve been working in tenths. (I finished the 2nd tenth in October and the 3rd today.) It’s not a bad scheme. I start out excited. I work hard. There are long periods of creativity, where I feel at the top of my game. It’s all very exciting and enjoyable and the hours melt away. I get about 80% of the way done. The goal’s there in front of me, so I burst toward it for a longish period, but when I look up again, to my surprise, I’m not any closer (like the charging knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). I’m sort of annoyed. I take short cuts. I weasel out of things. It has become a chore. I don’t want to think about these chapters ever again. I don’t want to think about writing anything ever again, in fact. Might as well give it all up. But then I set the pages aside, call the bundle “good enough,” and magically, unbelievably, a huge burden has been lifted off my shoulders. It really is a feeling of lightness. My mind is free, creativity is stirred up; there are a million possibilities before me; I sit down and start scribbling again.

The most recent tenth, however, was less straightforward. The mixed-blessing that is a surge of paying work made it difficult to do a good long stretch of writing; the ersatz vacation I took in late October kindled my laziness; and for a long stretch I was unaware of the wrong turn I had taken. Cruising along at a good pace, (without thinking about my destination at all) I blithely followed the map I had drawn up at a much early date, plunging 7,000 words down a road of potholes, spikes, road construction, old ladies at the wheel, cattle, sharp bends, and so forth. But I was headstrong. I was going to follow my map because it was my map, and that’s what maps are for. I was going to fight my way all 10,000 words uphill, against typhoon-speed winds, on ice, with a flat tire on both ends of each axle, and an empty gas tank.

Well, to turn a long road into a short cut, I realized my map was rotten, tossed it out the window (it, and the sort-of-bipolar love-interest, the character that looks exactly like the late senator (“the double”), and the mutant strand of DNA that turns everyone into a pumpkin), and teleported myself back to where I had taken the wrong turn. There I spotted a four-laner with no posted speed limit and a race-car for sale at deep discount. I was off.

(It turns out that when writing a novel you need to consider the motivations of your characters. Who would have thought it, huh?)

It makes for interesting reading. One character disappears from the story completely and none of the other characters bother to wonder what happened to her. The chap who’s headstrong in one tenth is conflicted and neurotic in the next without apparent reason. Another character appears out of thin air in the last tenth, and everyone treats him like he’s been around for all the previous adventures. And so on.

I think it’s the kind of surprising, genius, brilliant, unconventional, visionary, fractured, wildly-original narrative everyone has been longing for.

Next week: Why I’m throwing away everything I’ve written and starting over from scratch

The writer’s life

The portrait of slackerdom I’ve sketched of my “non-traditional employment” (as our interest group likes to call it) does have its truths. Consider the month of August: my major accomplishments were defeating Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. It is this susceptibility to long bouts of funk that worried me. Could I really be a writer? Could I actually write daily, in quantity? (A scary question for someone who struggled six months to complete one of those write-your-own-caption cartoons.) Could I finish a whole novel? Would it be halfway decent? But most of all: would I like the work? September was the month to test myself in earnest.

I began the month by creating a schedule for writing so-many-words, five days a week, and kept it. My paid work was virtually non-existent, so five or six days a week I could play the role of professional writer: twiddling my thumbs, crumpling up pieces of paper and tossing them into wastebaskets dramatically, tapping on my typewriter in an idle way, chain smoking, grimacing meaningfully at the blank page, corrupting the youth with subversive ideas, but mostly just putting in something like six hours a day of writing.

There were days of creative bliss and days of miserable fruitlessness, but the balance was shifting in the right direction. The legwork I had done on the story allowed many starting points for my mind when stalled, and the simple repeated act of writing fueled a snowballing of creative energy. My daily effort increased when it was feasible; many workdays started at breakfast and ended a few hours after supper.

Each day was mentally draining and also stressful, apparently, because I suffered an eyelid twitch for more than a week. (It’s hard to imagine what my body was so worried about, but what can you do? He’s the boss.) But that was beside the point, because I was really enjoying myself. No boss, no subordinates, no clients—just me, a cup of coffee, a couch, sometimes a cat, and always the freedom and duty to amuse myself with silly thoughts and moreover to get lost in the world of my imagination.

As I neared the end of September, I had scrawled a jumble of thoughts, scenes, descriptions, and dialog across a hundred some pages, but I had not yet seen what it would add up to. The last full week of the month I devoted to organizing, revising, and polishing the first tenth of the novel, now known by its working title: Dr. Fancy-Fingers and the Secret of the First of the Time Wells. (Since re-titled: The Senator’s Pants.) That Saturday I printed out the resulting five chapters. I couldn’t sit down and actually read it through for most of the day, my brain was so unfocused with excitement. Here I was, holding the first tangible evidence that I’ve been doing something; but when I did read it, it wasn’t just something, it was the genuinely kind-of-good-in-a-halfway-decent-sort-of-way opening of a novel; certainly the most mature (not saying much, admittedly) and well-written thing I’ve yet put to paper.

There it was: I really could be a writer. Writing had become a daily habit; that nervous question “Could I finish a novel?” had been replaced with a vague confidence that I would indeed; though I couldn’t know yet if it is publishable (as an approximation of quality), my work seemed plausibly halfway decent; and yes, I did like the day-to-day work—quite a lot, actually, thanks for asking.

Today I didn’t write because of this stupid blog.

Before my world-domination phase I was just a glum writer-type

Before I wanted to be a millionaire entrepreneur (but after I wanted to be a juggler) I wanted to be a writer. There was a phase where I trained to climb the tallest volcanoes and BASE jump into them, yet the idea of writing remained in the back of my mind, and even during my practical deliver-postal-mail-for-forty-five-years-and-retire-with-a-great-pension period, I couldn’t shake the desire to scribble a few silly thoughts onto paper and call them a story. So, unemployed and bored, I once again returned to my writing aspirations, which partly explains why I haven’t done any writing. On this blog, I mean—so allow me to catch you up.

In May I worked on two short stories with only limited success, one story spawning some seven different versions, all bad; in early June I completed a first draft of an entirely different story about a horse on a trampoline; a week later, invigorated by the trampoline tale, I completed a first draft of The Portraitist, my longest story to date (about 7,500 words); around the same time I tinkered with something about a spaceship crewed by TV-loving robots; late June I began working on a novel. (That’s all true, too.)

The novel is loosely based on my short time as a Senate employee, although by loosely I mean not at all. The son of a late Senator is appointed by the Governor to serve out the remainder of his father’s term and is thus charged with passing the bill that will solidify his father’s legacy. Joining him is a cast of ridiculous characters who make his every move pretty funny—at least in my head it’s funny. Progress was initially quite slow, as I morphed the story from butterfly to caterpillar to donut, but now that I’m set on a firm course with a detailed plan, things are just as slow. The good news is I’m about 17% of the way to 100,000 words (or an average novel size), and my plan has me finished with the first draft March 1.

The first anniversary of my job-quitting is nigh, and although it looks to the average person that I’ve accomplished absolutely nothing in three-hundred-and-some days, you now know for real that their presumption was accurate.