Sunday, June 20, 2010

Writing and Peripheral Vision

I've made no secret of the fact that 2009 ranks as one of my least favorite years. My health issues so contaminated the novel I was writing that I had to set it aside entirely; even now, it exudes a miasma that seems unhealthy. Since publication of Shock and Awe at the end of 2007, I've completed one novel (Earthly Vessels, which, alas, is entirely unsuited to my MNW autorial persona), and had two others grind to a halt 100-200 pages on in glorious 2009.

I'm not ready to return to those WIPs, though I think both of them are potentially good novels. So I've been working on something new, based on a single opening chapter I wrote some time back. And, to my amazement, it's going swimmingly, and I'm eight chapters along. (Well, as swimmingly as writing has ever gone for me, which is to say 'flounderingly.') I've found I can even write and maintain something akin to normal blood pressure as long as I eventually get up from my desk and go do something reasonably fierce in the way of exercise to blow the tension out of my system.

Since I'm not much of a plot-ahead kind of guy, there are always what-happens-next roadblocks, both large and small. Once I've written a couple of chapters and the characters are alive and contributing their suggestions, I have a good sense of the general direction I'm heading, but the details remain fuzzy. With apologies to Aliya Whiteley's brother and sister characters in Mean Mode Median (and to Tim Stretton for citing a fantasy character with an apostrophe in his name), the best analogy I can come up with is that used by Paul Muad'Dib in Dune when discussing seeing the future: You can get a glimpse of a few hilltops and ridges in the distance, but you have no idea what awaits in the valleys between them.

And, of course, most of one's time is spent traversing the valleys, and sometimes they aren't the valley you're expecting: Instead of the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant, you find yourself in the good old Valley of the Shadow of Death. But there are constant what-happens-next-and-how questions, large and small.

Which brings me, in my typical blabbermouthed fashion, to the point of this post. Very seldom can I solve a story problem by focusing on it. It isn't math(s). Staring longer doesn't allow me to break it down into logical steps.

I should add that it isn't that I'm incapable of coming up with something to happen at the next major undecided point. It's that I can come up with several things, each of which, on careful interrogation, turns out to be unsuitable in some way.

(First ideas for solving intermediate plot points are almost always stale, derivative, or obvious. Well, I speak only for myself, there. Perhaps your first ideas are always strikingly original. I sometimes have strikingly original ideas, and when I get them early and easily, it's almost always a sign that they are striking, and original, and unworkable.)

A certain amount of staring is needed to get the problem fixed in my mind. This can often be achieved by pinpointing exactly why your proposed solutions so far suck. But after that, I have to count on peripheral vision--the answer that is handed to you when you are apparently paying attention to something else.

When I'm lucky, what I'm paying attention to is the writing; the answer to a given plot issue will often pop up--sometimes because some minor element I've written in along the way turns out to be more than merely descriptive, or will fulfill dual roles.

When I'm less lucky, I have to resort to some kind of activity to occupy a part of my brain. The physicist Niels Bohr was famous for solving conceptual problems by fixing the issue in his mind and then forgetting about it by going to see American Westerns--just diverting enough to keep his frontal lobes distracted, but not so complex or emotionally involving as to take over too much of his subconscious mind. (So who says that movies that are all fluff aren't useful?) And I know one oft-published novelist who says that any movie at all will work for him.

Not so for me. Sometimes home-construction tasks will turn the trick, but these can also become so demanding that they take up too much of my all-too-limited brainpower. Gardening works well sometimes, but not always, and that old standby, the shower, sometimes produces results--but one can only spend so long in the shower.

For me, physical motion seems most effective. Walking often allows solutions to pop up; hiking is good, too, except that there is usually a long period where the scenery pushes everything far down, and there is the added problem that when you've solved your problem you are anywhere from ten to a hundred miles away from your keyboard.

Joyce Carol Oates claims to get her best work done while she is running, but Ms Oates is built like one of the more slender species of antelope, and running for her is probably like walking for me. If I could muster up the focus to work on a story issue while running, I would no doubt resolve most of my plot issues by having all my characters sit down and gasp for breath.

Long drives can help, and I find that drives in heavy, high-speed, freeway traffic work best--for some reason, knowing that it's life-endangering to make so much as a note seems to encourage the subconscious to become especially fecund.

The protagonist in my WIP solves urgent problems by thinking hard about something else. This has given me the challenge of coming up with complete non sequiturs for him to contemplate, and "now think of something completely unrelated" isn't as easy as it sounds.

Luckily, my protag doesn't need to get up and move around for this to work. I hope to learn something from writing him.

But meanwhile I need to go exercise. My protag has raised my blood pressure enough for one day.


Alis said...

"When I'm lucky, what I'm paying attention to is the writing; the answer to a given plot issue will often pop up--sometimes because some minor element I've written in along the way turns out to be more than merely descriptive, or will fulfill dual roles."

This is definitely how things work for me. I seem constitutionally incapable of not introducing lots and lots of themes, sometimes almost so light that they're barely there, and, somehow, my subconscious usually manages to tie quite a few of them up into a convincing whole. The trick then is getting rid of the others successfully...

Really glad to hear your new book is coming along so (relatively) well, David.

Aliya Whiteley said...

Yup, this describes my method of writing perfectly as well. The eggcup in Chapter three has taken on a whole new level of meaning in chapter 15. I certainly didn't plan it that way, but the eggcup is now crucial to an entire plot strand.

David Isaak said...

"The trick then is getting rid of the others successfully..."

Aye, there's the rub. And when they get woven into the fabric, sometimes removing them makes it unravel.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Aliya--

I'm glad to hear that others stumble along the same way I do. But the example of the eggcup raises an additional (probably unanswerable) question. I guess I'll have to put up another post.

Frances Garrood said...

I'm not a planner either, and while sometimes I envy those who do plan (persumably they never get stuck), when I'm writing I love being surprised by what happens next, what people say etc. But I feel a kind of awe for those writers who have notes and charts and know everything about every character, from their birthday to their shoe size, and that's before they've even started the novel. They must be the kinds of people who have tidy drawers, and wash their cars on Sundays.

Good luck with the new book. David.

David Isaak said...

Heya, Frances--

I'd plan if I could! In fact, a couple of times, I've planned to plan in my next novel.

But it doesn't work for me any better than "now think of something clever to say." Telling myself to do something just makes me stubborn.

You'd think I'd have worked this sort of problem out by my age...