Last night I passed the 19,000 word count on my novel, which means I’m 6,000 words behind my goal for this point, and I’d have to write more than 2,000 words a day to reach 30,000 before Wednesday. In Nanowrimo days, that wouldn’t worry me, but my credo on this book has been “don’t write crap” so the writing is taking a lot longer. In past Novembers I perfected the art of tv watcher writing – cramming 250-500 word jolts into commercial breaks while I watched my favorite shows. Obviously, I didn’t put a lot of concentration into that writing, but it meant I could easily pound out 1,000 words in a half hour, including bathroom breaks. Provided I knew what I wanted to say, this was pretty effective. But, with this book, where I’m figuring out the story as I go, the tv would be too distracting. This month it’s taking me at least an hour to get a 1,000 word chunk written.
I’m also starting to run out of clear story ideas, which is making it tough to keep going.
E. L. Doctorow famously compared writing to driving a car at night where “you can never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Well, last weekend I had a minor crisis when my headlights burned out. Saturday through Monday, the most I did was pad prior chapters and work on segues. There’s definitely work to be done in those sections, but I had hoped to have the major scaffolding for the book completed by the time I start my class in October, so plot and tone are where I want the majority of the first 30,000 words to go.
The hardest part for me in writing something so large continues to be maintaining the same point of view and mood over a long enough period of time to write the thing. I might spend an hour or 90 minutes a day writing a chapter for the book, but I need to spend 10 or 12 hours in that frame of mind beforehand in order to have ideas to write about. If I spend my subway time reading someone else’s fiction or a story about a celebrity, when I sit down to write, it’s going to sound like that. Probably the most common advice a writer receives is “write what you know”. For a short piece this generally means, “write about whatever’s bothering you right now”. But for a longer work it turns into “keep bothering yourself with whatever you’re writing about”. And before you Devil’s Advocates chime in -- don’t get me wrong, I do see the value in adding some new surprising elements if things start to get stale. Sometimes looking at my characters from a new angle can invigorate a story. But, in general for me that works best in the second draft or very late in the first. Too much distraction in the first draft just makes me want to scrap it and go write something else instead.
Tuesday and yesterday, I pulled myself out of the magazines and DFW tributes (I love Infinite Jest but my book is 1 million miles away from that style of writing) and started constructing the environment I need to stay focused on this book. To stay in a sci-fi frame of mind, I spend my 20 minute morning walk listening to science podcasts – WNYC’s Radiolab, NPR’s Science Friday, and science related TED talks. On the train and before bed I’m reading almost exclusively Ray Kurzweil books. (Last week I finished “The Age of Spiritual Machines” and I’ve now moved on to “The Singularity is Near.”) I’m trying to read slowly, because Kurzweil’s tone is so close to what I want to capture in my book – a kind of controlled optimism for the future -- appreciating the dangers that advanced computer and biotechnology pose, but embracing the inevitability of progress and focusing on the tremendous benefits that are possible. Getting dangerously close to talking about plot points here, but – the future in my book isn’t a dystopia, and I want to stay as far as possible from any science-run-amok, power-mad scientist clichés. So I’m drinking the Tang (=kool-aid for scientists) and reveling in technology.
On a sidenote -- did you know ants recognize dead ants entirely by the chemicals they emit? According to E. O. Wilson if you rub the dead ant smell on a live ant, the other ants come and cart him off to the dead ant pile. No amount of wiggling or antly protestations will convince them he’s still alive. (Let the Monty Python jokes commence.)