Monday, December 3, 2007

Writer = Indiana Jones

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.


Mark Terry


G.M. Malliet said...

I always have abandoned bits of writing sitting about. I tend to reach the "boring" factor and leave off.

I might come back months or years later and decide the manuscript wasn't so bad after all, and resume working on it. Or I might realize my first instinct to abandon was right. But the distance from the project helps.

Mark Terry said...

I've got a serial killer thriller that I keep coming back to, but it never takes off. I've got about 80 pages done and I think part of the issue is that I think the first two chapters are some of the best writing I've ever done, but the rest just seems like the same-old-same-old serial killer crap and it just doesn't fly for me.

Hmmm, maybe if I...

Joe Moore said...

I’ve got a lot of bits and pieces lying around like cloth remnants on the floor of a tailor's shop. Since I hardly ever throw any away, I’ve been able to go back and cannibalize from previous writings. A false start over 10 years ago of an action adventure novel containing a made-up element called thodium became the rarest element in the world in THE HADES PROJECT. And the deadly retrovirus Black Needles was resurrected from one of my dusty old, unfinished stories to star in our new THE 731 LEGACY. So when it comes to those old bones half buried at my fiction dig site, I never re-bury them, just mark the spot for future excavation.

Josephine Damian said...

Hi Mark!

My gestation period for novels or screenplays in 5-7 years. I don't write anything, just do what Stephen King calls the "basement work." I don't have a ton of projects going, but rather have a few that are complete.

Sure I get ideas for novels, but I'd never sit down to write it unless it was first fully formed
in my head.

Short stories? Sure I get ideas, but I don't sit down to write unless it's for a specific purpose like a contest or a theme based magazine. I'm not a short story writer by nature and tend to only write them as a means to an end, which is why I always finish them.

Cool blog, this, and I see some familiar "faces" from myspace.

Great post, Mark, very thoughtful.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Joe, I love the cloth remnants metaphor! And like most writers, I have lots of "fabric" kicking around waiting to become something readable.

And I'm with you, Josephine, on short stories. I've only written 3, but 2 were for anthologies that requested them. Otherwise, I leave them to better short fiction writers.

One of my goals for 2007 was to complete a rewrite of a manuscript that I've had kicking around for over 10 years (non-mystery). Fortunately, it's not time sensitive, but, unfortunately, 2007 was not its year. It's in final form, or was when a previous agent shopped it around, and it was nearly bought, but now it needs updating and overhauling. Yet it continually raises its head and begs for attention. The new goal is to finish the rewrite in early 2008. It's just very difficult to focus on something other than a book that is already bought and has a hard deadline.

Mark Terry said...

I'm always recycling bits and pieces from other things. Like the serial killer book, I just know that somehow and sometime, those two chapters that I really like are going to end up in a book somewhere. They're too good not to.

That's interesting about your gestation period. Some of my stories are like that, too. Sometimes you're just not ready.

Stephen King's noted that he doesn't keep a file of ideas or anything, noting that if you don't remember them, they probably weren't worth working on. I agree, although like Joe, I don't generally throw anything away, so I might be thinking about a story to write and say, "Hmmm, didn't I write something years ago like that. Let's see if that was something I can use to prime the pump."

Mark Terry said...

Sue Ann,
I'm not a short story writer. I've published two and I think one of them is very good ("Murder At The Heartbreak Hotel" which was in the MWA sponsored anthology, SHOW BUSINESS IS MURDERED published by Dell). I've also put one on my website ("11 Minutes") which I think is pretty good, but I find them almost impossible to write. This might be a case where I find them in my archaeological digs, but ignore them, looking for something bigger to work on.

Mark Combes said...

I work more like Josephine. I don't start a project until the concept/theme/etc is firmly in my head - and by then, of course, I'm hooked enough to finish the work.

What I do, however, is take copious notes while I travel, etc and those observations etc certainly play into my writing. Those might be my scraps of cloth from which I make a garment.

Nina Wright said...

Can we all relate to this post, or what? Nice job, Mark.

I "audition" ideas the same way you do, discarding early or saving for another time those that don't set me on fire near the beginning.

I have one half-done (45,000 ww)mystery, the drafting of which may have already served its purpose: to lead me to other *better* projects. It's my conviction that no draft and no concentrated writing time are ever wasted.

Mark Terry said...

I agree--no writing itself is wasted. There does, however, sometimes seem like you can, as the expression goes, "throw good time after bad." That is to say, if you keep wasting time on a certain type of project when a different type of project keeps taking off, maybe it's time to stop wasting time on the projects that aren't taking off.

But I figure it all falls into the "making me a better writer" category ultimately.

Felicia Donovan said...

Ummm...I just want to say that I started to write a really well-thought out comment, but I keep getting distracted by that picture, so I'm going to abandon the comment and just stare for a while.

spyscribbler said...

I wrestle 'em down. Eventually. I've never given up on one yet. This spy thriller is going to be the longest match yet, but I'm stubborn that way. Or stupid that way.

I feel like I'm unearthing it carefully with a brush so as not to break it, but it's a mile under the surface, LOL.

Aimless Writer said...

Sad little abandoned manuscripts? I like to think of them as seeds dropped in the soil...someday I'll water them and watch them grow.
I have lots of seeds in this computer...that reminds me I better back up soon. If I crashed now...
Great post!