December 3, 2007
Stephen King came up with what I think is probably the best description of the writing process. He said that it’s like being an archaeologist. The writer sees something sticking up out of the ground. Maybe it’s the leg bone of a dinosaur. Maybe it’s a potsherd. Maybe it’s a brick wall.
It’s probably a vague notion, an outline of an object, whatever. But the writer can see that there’s something there and he starts digging.
Sometimes, King said, it’s a full-blown novel. Sometimes it’s a short story.
And sometimes, King noted, the writer breaks it while trying to get it out of the ground.
As I mentioned last week in one of my comments, over the years of writing I’ve had some projects that either wouldn’t come out of the ground, or I broke them getting them out of the ground. Sometimes I think they were just broken. I went after a dinosaur bone (yeah, I know, the archaeologist metaphor has shifted to paleontology—sue me!) thinking I had a complete skeleton of a T. Rex and what I actually had was, well, a bone. And maybe not a dinosaur bone at all.
I rarely have problems writing 50 to 100 pages on a project. If it dies before page 50, I was just fooling around and it was never meant to be written (by me, anyway). But when I work on a project for 100 to 150 pages and it dies (broken, to belabor the metaphor), well, that’s a pain in the posterior, no doubt. I hate that.
I think there might be a variety of reasons for it, though. I’m ambitious as a writer and sometimes I bite off more than I can chew. I’m a guy who’s only traveled to Canada, but sometimes I want to write some country-hopping thriller or adventure and I get bogged down in research. This was most notable in an adventure novel I tried to write twice, which was stillborn both times when the main characters hit the Congo.
Does that mean I should travel to the Congo to research the novel? Not necessarily. I’m open to travel if the money was there, but I’m not sure I would venture into the hellhole of Congo.
Sometimes some stories just don’t work for you as a writer and I think these stillbirths are the reasons. You just don’t have the skill to get them out of the ground in one piece.
I also think it is sometimes just part of the process of being a novelist. Sometimes you just have to try an idea and see if you can make it work. And sometimes if you abandon a project and it’s still calling to you, you can go back to it and complete it later at a time when you have more skill, insight or, perhaps, the time is just right.
Case in point, my novel, DIRTY DEEDS, my first published novel. It died somewhere around page 100. I gave up on it. I don’t even remember why. Lack of faith, maybe. About six months later, fishing around for some project to start, I picked up the uncompleted manuscript, started reading, got caught up in the story, and finished it off in a couple months and it was published by the second editor to see it.
These days, I’ll do what I call “boring drills.” In other words, I’ll intentionally start a project to see if it takes off (see if I get bored with it—get it?). If it does, great. If it doesn’t, eh, I’ll know by page 15 or 25 if it’s capturing my attention. None of them are bad ideas and none of them are poorly written, but if there’s one thing I’m slowly getting the hang of, it’s that just because it’s a good idea for a novel doesn’t mean I’m necessarily the right person to write it. Or that I’m the right person to write it at that time.
How about you guys? Any incomplete stories that you’re just waiting for the “right time” to work on? Sad little unfinished manuscripts that from time to time make a little bleat from the hard drive or filing cabinet: “I’m lonely, won’t you come finish me? Please!”
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. One aspect of King’s metaphor that he didn’t mention. Sometimes you abandon a dig site because your funding dried up. Shit happens, Kemosabe.