The Backside

Been busy with pay copy, which is why rantage has been sparse here the last few days (remember there’s always By The Way, the daily methadone treatment for your Whatever withdrawal symptoms). Being busy with pay copy is a good thing — after several pokey months, business writing-wise, things seem to be back in the swing. This makes my mortgage happy. But it can make for spotty Whateverage. Them’s the risks you take when you drop by this place.

In addition to the pay copy, I’ve also been busy plugging away at the next novel, which is now sadly overdue to the editors, who (I am grateful to note) have been sanguine at its lateness, possibly because it won’t see the light of day in book form until late 2005 at the earliest. There is not, shall we say, a massive sense of urgency. I’ve been grateful for this because as I’ve mentioned earlier, this particular book has found its own pace, which is slower than the two other novels. I’ve tried to rush it a couple of times; it resisted. Now I’m letting it go at its own pace and I’m happy to say that (so far at least) I’m very happy with the results.

I passed a pretty significant milestone in the book a couple of weeks ago, which I’ll share with you now: I reached the point where all the plot threads in the book have gone as far afield as they’re going to go, and now everything that’s come before in the book is starting the process of tying together. This is an immense relief to me as a writer. I don’t know how other writers do their novels, but the way I typically write mine is that I have an opening scene in my head, a closing scene (usually) and a couple of significant moments from the middle of the story. Everything else is up for grabs. I like writing this way because it allows me to be as surprised as anyone else by what I write, but it’s definitely a “working without a net” sort of proposition.

When you write this way, sooner or later the book lets you know when it’s time to take all the far-flung story pieces you tossed out there as you’ve been writing and start making them speak to each other, thereby driving the plot to its conclusion. This is not always the exact “center” of a novel in terms of its length, but it is the center of the novel in terms of the story. And it signals a couple of things for me. Before that point I sometimes have no idea what’s going to happen in the next couple of chapters; after that point I usually have the plot nailed down as I plait the storylines together. Before that point writing is sometimes a panicky exercise; after that point, it runs pretty smoothly.

So why not just plot out the entire book right from the start? Well, in my case it’s because I think not plotting out allows serendipity to happen — there are at least a couple of major events that will take place in the second half of the book that had their genesis in some of the “color” detail I placed in the first half. These are major events that I doubt seriously I would have thought up in an outline process, and as it happens, I think they’ll make the finished book a lot more interesting and surprising — not to mention less “programmed” in terms of plot and story. I like catching the curveballs I throw at myself, basically.

Having reached this point in the story also gives me a fair amount of confidence in terms of actually knowing I can finish the book. Now, it’s not that I didn’t believe I couldn’t do it before this point; I’ve written a couple of these things now. I know I can do it. But I think it’s like navigating a plane through heavy cloud cover: If you’re a good pilot, you know you can reach your destination using the instruments alone. But you feel better when the clouds break and you can actually see where you’re going. I can see where I’m going now and how I’m going to get there. The novel is pretty much done save for the typing. And that’s a good feeling.

If I continue to be spotty with Whatevers over the next few weeks, you can blame some of it on the pay copy. But some of it will be due to me coming down the backside of the novel. I hope you don’t mind if I spend some quality time there. I’m enjoying it, which I think will mean that you’ll enjoy the result.

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