So I’m cruising along, enjoying the time spent with my characters, dealing with Dacey Brown’s unexpected revelation of bipolar disorder, generally digging being a full-time writer and then this week, blammo, I come up against the brick wall of plot. It’s all well and good to have funny characters who are clearly defined and well-thought out themes that fascinate me and bear exploration, but, as it happens, without some action to hang it all on–it’s hard to move it forward.
This has always been my struggle. What happens? For me, usually, the answer is: Not much. And that makes writing a novel really, really hard. So I’ve been thinking about the plots of books I’ve read lately and trying to boil them down. In Annabel, a child is born a hermaphrodite, is raised a boy in outport Newfoundland, and begins to explore femininity with sometimes disastrous effects following a move to St John’s. Basically. Right? Help a sister out. Boil down the plot of a great book you’ve read lately so I can see how it works.
Here’s one thing I realized last night, when I was out watching the excellent Michael Jerome Browne. Fallsy Downsies is short on antagonists. Antagonists create conflict, conflict creates plot. D’oh. How can I have been a writer for thirty four years and still be having the simplest of revelations?
So yeah, plot. Share your insights in the comments so I don’t freak out.
So, lately, I’ve been struggling with Dacey Brown. I thought I knew her, and then I sit down to write her, and she comes out all robotic and weird, making snap decisions about things and refusing to smile pretty for the camera. I got super frustrated with it all today and had a very short day of writing. I said one sentence about it to Kev and he said, maybe she’s mentally ill. And I’m like, no, uh-uh, no way, she is not, I don’t know anything about that, I’m not writing it. Then I went to Ryan’s to play Boggle for a couple hours (oh Boggle, how I love you), and we had further conversations, during which his partner Erica brightly suggested, maybe she’s bi-polar. And again, I’m all in denial nope no way no how.
Then I get home and I have a couple hours to kill before my next thing and so I go spend a little time with my pen and paper and Dacey Brown and whaddya know… she’s a little on the bi-polar side. Like, on the spectrum. You know? Not diagnosed, not medicated, not dangerous to herself just–a little up and down. She’s making some crazy decisions right now, and we’re just going with it. The writing I did once I accepted Dacey as she is… best writing of the day.
This is one wild ride, that’s for sure.
Not for me today, but I’m not the only one writing in this house. As I type, Kev is trying to write a song and it is not going well. There’ve been muttered performances, punctuated by cursing and discordant slams on the piano keyboard. The song, I should point out, is not actually being written on piano. Aaaand that’s the end of that writing session for now.
Eleven pages seems to be comfortable to me. It feels like not very much, but most days, it’s where things settle out. Today, eleven pages took three hours, though those hours were broken up with laundry, making baked beans and some staring out the window. Plus, I figured out some things about Dacey Brown. It’s amazing how I feel like I know these characters so well, have lived with them inside my head for two or three years now, have been all up in their business for weeks–and still can have these flashes of OHHHHH, THAT’S WHY SHE’S LIKE THAT. And that often those flashes come not while I’m actually at the desk writing, but while I’m doing some terrifically mundane task, like taking the laundry basket down to the basement. Zing, Dacey Brown does this because of that. Zonk, here’s how Lansing Meadows and Evan Cornfield end up in the States. Zap, something’s gotta go wrong to bring them together, and here’s what it’s gonna be.
It makes it all very crowded and noisy inside my head pretty much all the time, but I guess that’s why it’s good to have a couple months off work to just do this. Because it makes you temporarily insane.
I could do this, I could. I love my job, I do love it, but I could do this forever. I get up when it seems right to, and I make coffee. Maybe I read the paper or maybe, if I woke up with a sentence in mind, I write first. In any event, at some point in the morning, I put my hand on a pen and the pen on a page and I make sentences, and the part of my brain that occasionally says things like, hey, that sentence sucks! gets told to shut the hell up. Your time is not now, you’ll have your time later. And I write till it feels like it’s time to stop, and if it’s Monday, I go to the gym for yoga and a run. Or else I have lunch. Then I write a little more, and think about what to defrost for supper.
I love my job, but man, I love this more.
So, it’s going. Not at the pace at which I’d hoped it would, but it is going. We went to Moncton and Amherst last weekend for a belated Christmas visit, and Kev’s step-grandmother died while we were there, and so the visit was extended and expanded and hugely emotional. I’m glad we were there, but it was tough, and I tried not to think too much about the days of writing I was missing.
We got back to Halifax on Tuesday afternoon, and I’ve had a good day and a bad day since then. Yesterday was just vile. I was all at sea with Dacey Brown. What is her purpose? What drives her? If you know, please drop me a note, because I couldn’t find any of it yesterday. I wrote a miserable and plodding six pages and then hung it up for the day. This morning, I woke up thinking about a scene I want to write, a scene about which I know all the important stuff and have only to embroider the fun parts. I put on a pot of coffee while Kev stayed in bed, and instantly pounded out six pages without thinking or pausing. I am imagining the rest of the day proceeding apace. And I’ll write Saturday and probably Sunday as well, just to make up for missed days earlier this week and late last.
I’ve been writing across the street at the neighbours’ house, and that’s been great. Whatever conversations might happen over there have nothing to do with me, the cats are not my concern… I am able to just sit and write. The view is boring–it is of my parking space. So I look out over my own car, most times. It’s perfect. Great to be able to cross the street and go to work. Yesterday I made a cup of hot chocolate and put it in my travel mug, filled a big mason jar with water, took my duvet slippers and tucked in. It would have been perfect, had the writing gone better. I will leave that part of the book for now and just move on. Come back to it later. Just a first draft. Doesn’t have to be perfect.
Someone asked about the writing by hand. A variety of reasons. Among them, the unreliability of computers, which can crash and take with your entire manuscript. And yeah, you should back up your stuff, but I don’t know anyone who does. Also, we have only one computer and Kev works from home as well, so it’d be a battle royale every day. And most important, I’m a better writer when I write longhand. I am a very fast typist thanks to my years as a journalist. So I can type almost everything I’m thinking. Thing is, it’s not all gold. Most of it is not. By hand, I can really only get the best parts, the distillation of my ideas. At least, I think it’s the best parts! Hope so! Anyhow, it seems to be the right process for this particular book.
Nope, not a TV show for kids, nor a book featuring me in a striped shirt and a dopey stocking cap, lost among the madding crowd. It is, however, a popular google search right now. Perhaps it’s what you used to find your way here. If so, welcome! Here I am!
I am taking two months away from my regular gig to tend to my irregular (but much more longterm) gig: fiction writer. It’s how I’ve described myself since I learned how to print, sometime in the early Seventies. This whole radio host thing–it’s a sideline. An excellent, fun and rewarding sideline, but a sideline nonetheless.
Thanks to the province of Nova Scotia, and the willingness of my folk singing husband to eat rice and beans twice a week for the next couple of months, not to mention the awesomeness of my employer for giving me a couple months leave without pay, I’m embarking on a writing sabbatical till February 28th. If you’re here because you miss me on the radio, thanks for your kindness! I miss talking to you, too, but if I don’t get this book done I’ll start feeling mean, and neither of us will benefit from that. I’ll be back before you know it. And if you’re here because you DON’T miss me on the radio, and you’re hoping I’m never coming back, well, sorry about that. But enjoy the next two months!
Feel free to drop me a note in the comments if you have questions for me. Meantime, I’ll just be here, scratching out my sentences and soaking black beans.