Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why there were no words

Yes, I've been silent for a while.  In more ways than one.

I'm not sure if I've said it before, but I don't get writer's block.  While I'm no Isaac Asimov, churning out thousands of perfect words every day, something always comes to my fingertips one way or another.  If not on one story/book, then on another.  They may not be the right words or the best words, but they are there.

A couple of months ago I began the task, some of which has been documented here, of bringing my 1985 historical romance Legacy of Honor into digital republication.  I encountered a lot of minor and a few slightly major snags, but the project progressed steadily. 

As I got down to the last few somewhat major edits -- three scenes that had been heavily trimmed without adequately compensating the narrative for those cuts -- I ran into a time crunch.  That was the bad news.  When I needed a couple of free days or at least a few hours at a time to work on it, free time diminished to a few minutes here or there.   The more frustrated I got, the less attention I paid to the project.  Legacy languished.

But there was good news as well.  I acquired a new critique partner, the first one I've had in almost 20 years.  We swapped opening chapters, had a nice long session of going over each other's work and thinking through some of our own weak spots.  I came home invigorated and enthusiastic and jealously guarding any stray moments I could find for writing.  The book I had given her for critique was a new one, with just that single opening chapter completed.  I was eager to get on to Chapter Two.

For several days I struggled to find the right opening for it.  Chapter One had ended on a portentous note that I felt flowed right into the next chapter and the next scene.  Eventually, the right words and sentences came to me and I eagerly added them, but they were few and far between. 

And then they just stopped.  On a day when I had the peace and quiet and privacy to write, no words came to mind.  Fortunately, the incipient panic didn't last long enough to develop into anything serious.  At first, I blamed the lack of words on lack of thinking time.

My day job is unlike any other job I've ever had before.  It requires complete and total mental focus.  There's no giving half my mind to the work while the other half wanders through plot possibilities and character details and potential dialogue.  When I was writing back in the '80s and '90s, I always had that luxury.  Now, even though I work at home and on my own schedule, when I'm working that's all I can do.

Furthermore, that kind of intense concentration requires recovery time.  I've likened it to holding one's breath for a very very very long time.  Just one big gulp of air isn't enough.  The whole body has to recover, with gasps and exhaustion.  It's impossible to go from that state of oxygen deprivation to singing an aria with a single breath.  And that's how my brain feels during my working hours.  There is no mental breath left for the opera.

But that didn't explain why, when given an entire peaceful afternoon to devote to my writing, there was nothing there.  I knew I had to be doing something wrong, something different from anything I'd done before.

I knew what I wanted to do with this story -- it's planned to be the first in a series of related novellas -- so why couldn't I write Chapter Two?  My characters had backstories and complications, there were internal and external conflicts, and I had the ending set so it led logically into the next story.

But what I didn't have, I quickly realized, was an outline.  I knew where the story was going, but I didn't know how it was going to get there.

I'm a staunch believer in outlines, and the more detailed the better.  If not scene by scene, at least major plot development by major plot development.  What had happened to me during the fifteen or so years since I'd last spent any real time on a novel that I'd forgotten that oh-so-important technique?

I don't know.  But as soon as that little flash of memory hit me, I grabbed a cheap mechanical pencil and a cheap spiral notebook and I began scribbling.  This happens and then this happens and then this happens.  Tim is convinced Melissa wants a divorce.  Melissa believes Tim wants a divorce.  Francesca can't imagine a couple happier than Tim and Melissa.  One event led to another, each conversation laid bare more secrets, and the map of the journey started to take shape.

I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn't want to write.  Be a writer?  No, that wasn't it.  I just wanted to write.  The words were always there, more than I could ever hope to put on paper.  The stories burst into my brain without effort, sometimes complete from beginning to end like Firefly and sometimes a bit at a time with major changes along the way like Legacy of Honor.  But I was never without the words.

Even when I took my more or less voluntary hiatus from writing fiction, I never left the words, and they never left me.  So when they seemed to have disappeared, I did feel some concern.  But I also knew it was just a matter of finding my way back, and that they would be there again.

And they are.

       The key turned soundlessly; with just a slight nudge, the door swung inward. Tim glanced around quickly, then stepped back to usher Melissa into the suite.
       "Oh, my God, Tim, this is unbelievable!" she exclaimed.
        She heard him shut the door, turn a deadbolt, and slide the security chain.
       "It's a hundred and fifty years old. What did you expect?"

1 comment:

  1. Your comment about your day job is insightful. I've always had jobs that require a lot of mental focus, whether it's on the details or something more high-level. That's why I like to sit down at night with a good book, one that's going to amuse and entertain without requiring too much higher brain power. And maybe that's why I don't feel like I 'have a book inside me'. Because the other stuff is crowding it out.

    Keep writing!