May 29th, 2008

The ongoing saga of writing MISDIRECTION — which I have probably blogged way too much about — took an interesting turn last night. This is something that has never happened to me before, over the course of writing more than a million published words.

First, some background: I had a very difficult time getting this book underway. For the better part of two months I just wrote at it, more or less blindly, feeling that I was getting farther and farther away from the heart of what I’d wanted to write in the first place. At one point, I was seriously thinking about dumping the entire idea and writing something else as fast as I could, since there is a publishing deadline involved here.

Then, maybe seven weeks ago, I took everything I’d written — 51,000 words — and broke it down into a VERY brief outline. The revelations were immediate. First, I was more than halfway through the estimated total word count and less than a third of the way through what I thought was going to be the story. Second, I was writing a book that was completely out of control in terms of story and characters. Third, I was writing pretty well; I might not have been writing the right stuff, but what I was writing was good.

So I took a week off from trying to move the story forward. I wrote instead about all the things that had made me want to undertake this book in the first place, trying to simplify to the point where I could circle in on the heart of the book. Once I thought I understood what that was, I cut everything that didn’t relate directly to the book’s heart, even if some of what I snipped was the best writing in the book (which some of it was). At the end of ten or so days of merciless cutting, the 51,000 words had shrunk to 38,000 — and that included three new chapters.

And I also had new forward momentum, simply because I understood much more clearly what I was writing about, and as new scenes and ideas presented themselves to me, it was much easier to say yes or no. So as of the end of yesterday’s session, I was at 58,000 words and only fifteen or twenty pages away from the collision between two of the book’s three story lines that will make inevitable pretty much everything that follows.

But yesterday, I ran out of steam. I felt adrift again, in a perfectly good scene. So I finished my minimum word count but didn’t push beyond it, and quit for the day. I was wiped out, so I went to bed early for me, at about 10:30.

I woke up around 2 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep for the life of me. Over the next two hours, as I tried every position I could get my body, pillows, and blankets to assume, I realized exactly what was happening behind the scenes of the story, who was doing what to whom, what the long-term motives and objectives of the book’s worst people were, and how Poke could defend himself against them. It’s much more complex and much more devious than anything I had anticipated.

At 4:30 I gave up and went into the living room, turned on the computer, and got it all down. So what I have now is not a story outline but a very clear understanding of the forces and (more surprisingly) the alliances at work in the story. And it’s better than even I had hoped it would be, as long as I don’t screw it up in the actual writing.

Has anyone had a similar experience? Any kind of blinding revelation, whether it was in the middle of the night or not, about the life of your story or book? If so, will you share it with us?

I’m really looking forward to reading them.

17 Responses to “Nightwriter”

  1. Lisa Kenney Says:

    I obviously have nothing to contribute myself, but I did want to say thank you for sharing this experience. I find it fascinating, all the more because I’ve been mystified through the two Poke Rafferty books I’ve read at how you seem to write so intuitively, yet have such complicated, individual plot lines that do eventually converge.

    In a teeny tiny way I’ve experienced getting quite a way into the story before figuring out what it’s actually about, which then helped me know how it should actually begin…but that’s really not the same thing at all 🙂

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Lisa — I actually think it’s exactly the same thing. It’s just that this time a bunch of it came to me in a chunk that had enough energy behind it to wake me up. And it may have happened that way because I’d had a blockage on the book that prevented the material from coming through in bits and pieces, as it usually does.

    I don’t know how anybody figures out what a story is really about without writing some of it. I believe absolutely that we learn what we’re writing about by writing it.

  3. Steve Wylder Says:

    In the course of writing my Dickens Challenge novel, I’ve had this happen a couple of times. I’ve done some of my best writing when I’ve had such flashes of insight. What I’ve had trouble with has been putting my characters into actual events. In the last chapter it was the barricade at Lincoln Park and the police assault on Hugh Hefner. And next chapter I need to get my characters down to the LBJ Un-Birthday Party, but I don’t know what will happen once they’re there. I’m hoping I’ll find that out once I get them down to the Chicago Coliseum.

  4. Larissa Says:

    Well, while I can’t really speak to this in a big, big way I do know that right before I wrote chapter four of my Dickens Challenge I had a moment of “I get it now” about my main character. I remember sitting down to write and truding along and I typed something and my brain went “click” and I sailed through Chapter 4 and into the beginning of Chapter 5. Sadly, you can see and feel the memomentum drain off as I hit about the third paragraph because I went uhm…wait a minute…I don’t actually know anything about the character I’m trying to write at the moment. That’s what I’ve been in the process of doing the past few weeks. Learning about this character I’m trying to utilize so that things begin to make sense. I am at a point where something needs to happen or all of the readers will fall asleep. I think a huge part of writing comes from figuring out who needs to do the telling at what parts and what the significance is for them. You can have a million great characters but if the part of story isn’t theres to tell, it won’t get told right. I’m babbling now. So the short answer is yes, the long term answer is no but I am dreaming about my characters so the answers are in there somewhere.

  5. Lisa Kenney Says:

    And the update and new odd phenomenon this weekend is — suddenly I’m writing like crazy and the word count is growing leaps and bounds, but even as I’m typing, I know I’m overwriting and I know I’m trying to get to something that I haven’t reached yet. I know I’m going to end up cutting 90% of what I’m doing, it’s just that I feel like I can’t find the way to what I need in any other way except to write my way to it. Until this point, I knew each week what I wanted the purpose of each chapter to be. I thought I knew what the purpose of this chapter is too, but now I’m not so sure. I just read Ethan Canin’s new novel, AMERICA, AMERICA and one of the things I loved about it was how deftly he moved from the present to the past and back all the way through. I am thinking maybe the structure of his book can teach me something about what I’m doing because timeline-wise, it’s pretty much the same thing. But moving between time periods is a big part of why I continue to write this chapter and I haven’t discovered the boundaries yet…if you have any thoughts, ideas or advice, I could use them.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Steve, Larissa, Lisa — Well, this is really interesting. I’m having every single one of the problems each of you is having. All of them. At the same time.

    My middle-of-the-night inspiration gave me an invaluable insight into the book’s world, but didn’t instruct me on how to tell the story: what the scenes are, which characters to put on the page and in which order, what parts of the story can safely be left out — problems pretty similar to the ones Steve and Lisa focused on. And, Lisa, I also have a thread that happens in a different time frame than the rest of the book (as if it weren’t already sufficiently complicated) and I have instinctively resisted moving from one time period to another within a single chapter. (I’m not talking about brief character background or internal monologue, where it seems to fit, but actually weaving the two chronological threads into a single chapter.) I’m not saying it can’t be done, just that I wouldn’t know how to do it without having recourse to long passages in italics or something. I know that’s not very helpful, and I’m sorry, but right now I can barely handle getting a character through a doorway.

    I just read an interview with Kate Mosse, whose followup to “Labyrinth” has just been published, and it too has a two-tiered chronology. She said she wrote the two stories individually and then figured out how to braid them together.

    And Steve, I’m much more comfortable with not knowing what my characters will do in a scene than I am with not knowing how to get them into it in the first place. This is an issue I’m hitting my head against right now. And I can’t go to my normal reaction, which is, “If I’m having so much trouble getting them into this scene, maybe it’s not the right scene,” because if I listened to that now, I wouldn’t be writing at all. What I’m doing to deal with it is simply starting the scenes late, when the meat of the interaction shows up, and writing from there, worrying later about whether I need to fill in how they got there/why they went there. Sometimes that will come out in the scene itself. (And sometimes it doesn’t.)

    Larissa, I’m having your first problem, too, mainly with the antagonists, who are far too shadowy to generate much menace. The only thing I know how to do is write them, but there are also some good tricks: you can write your other characters’ impressions of the character who’s giving you trouble — everything from the physical impression he makes on them to what kind of energy he seems to give off, whatever it is you personally pick up on when you meet someone. (This is for you, not necessarily for the book, although some of it might wind up in the book.) You can create a brief outline of where your character’s been throughout the story and what he/she has been doing when not on the page. You can go back to the old standard of asking yourself whether you’re clear on what he or she wants/needs/fears/ intends.

    About the reader falling asleep, I’d suggest two things. First, imagine that ideal reader across the table from you as you write, and TELL THE STORY to her as you write it, being sensitive to the times when her attention seems to wander and structuring what you write to have the most impact on her. Second is not to worry about it — to get the story down and make a commitment to review later the pace of action, revelation, whatever.

    God, this is long. If I were clearer in my own head, it would be shorter.

  7. Larissa Says:

    Hey. Wow, you’re a trooper for giving such a great response. Glad to hear I’m not the only one. I like the idea of looking at my character from someone else’s perspective. I’m at this stage where I can tell what’s going on in my head but it’s all very “and then this happened because of this and he felt sad and is now angsty” or something. Not exactly productive. I have done a few false starts going from different perspectives of the scene. Maybe, in this case, it just isn’t the right scene. I’m ok with that I guess. My ideal reader is a tough one to answer, though I have a decent sense of what he/she would be like. I think. (c: Putting some action in feels right to me, mainly because I’ve been copping out and using a bunch of leading sentences in the previous chapters in an attempt to jog my brain into that moment of understanding where I get how I’m going to make this all relevant. They will eventually come out of the story because they are ugly but they are also a reminder that it needs to start going somewhere. phew. good luck all (c:

    Lisa-sooo glad to hear you are writing. I say we both take two big breaths and post all of the crap we have and then get everyone else’s ideas about which one they think works best hehe. I dunno. Really glad that you’ve gotten going again. Overwriting is better than no writing. (c:

  8. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Thanks for the great advice Tim.

    Riss — I’m not ready to post yet. I’m over 5,200 words into Chapter 12 and I haven’t found the end yet. I feel like the novelist in THE WONDER BOYS with the 2,600 page single-spaced draft — ok, it’s not that bad! But I need to find the end, figure out how to do my time transitions and get it down to less than half that! But I am writing and that’s the main thing.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Larissa and Lisa — You both rock, unless that dates me. If it does, insert a phrase indicative of appropriate enthusiasm.

    The other-characters’-perspective trick can be very useful, as can doing some work on what the character most wants and/or fears. And if it’s a character who’s not on the page much, it can really help if you develop a sense of what he or she is doing in those blank spaces. Stephen Cannell, who created “The A-Team,” has a great piece of advice: “Ask yourself what the bad guy is doing.” And you can apply that to any character at any time.

    Lisa — 5200 words in? I’m green with envy. I’m back to flailing around trying to figure out what comes next, even though I pretty well understand the whole book by now. There are just too many story lines and too many balls in the air.

    This is my third day without writing, which is EXACTLY what I always tell other people not to do. Eeeeeeeeeek.

  10. Sylvia Says:

    I had this with a short story, once. I knew how it ended – in broad strokes – but I didn’t know what it meant. Somehow it seemed flat.

    I went for a swim and in the middle of a lap I thought, “She’s died.” And I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that that was what had happened to my main character as a result of the ending.

    I almost drowned. But then I spluttered and swam to the edge and sat down and wrote it.

    (Funnily enough, the few people who have read that story either shout “oh nooooo!” as they hit the end and glare at me or completely re-interpret her death as meaning something else)

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Sylvia —

    Thanks so much for this. It’s amazing the way the worlds we’re writing reveal themselves to us.

    And there is something magical about water. I have (and many writer friends have) more ideas in the shower than anywhere else.

    The reaction of your readers is the best guarantee you can have that you ended the story right.

  12. Sylvia Says:

    Now if only I could sell it. 😉

  13. Pia Says:

    I’ve had these night flashes of insight several times. Not while working on a book project (since I’m only at the beginning of my first), but on random poems, design solutions, paintings, ideas for a project, solving a plot or finding the best solution to it, dealing with the problem of a friend, ideas for articles to write, insights about a topic I am writing an article about and so on.

    And I’ve found I better get up and write things down/work on it, because in the morning I’ll have forgotten my genius revelation.

    I think it happens because when we go to bed, we’re closing up the day. We’re putting it away, saying; “That’s it, I’m done”. But our mind keeps working on the challenges we struggle with and when in bed we have let go of the pressure to actually do something about it. Our internal blockages are gone and removed. Our expectations to ourselves are non-existent. I guess that’s why the shower works so well too, to get ideas and move forward. Because we’re in a situation where we can’t actually do something, we’re in a situation where we don’t expect anything from ourselves apart from washing.

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Pia — “Night flashes” is a great term. I think you’re exactly right about why it happens — we’ve parked a question in our brains and moved on to all the other junk a day throws at us, and then, while we’re sleeping, we work it through and our creative angel shakes us awake and says, “How about this?”

    And I usually find that these midnight insights are solid.

    As to why the shower works, I think there’s something mystical about flowing water. If it wouldn’t short out my laptop, I’d write in the shower.

    Any other times ideas are likely to come to you? I find that they often arise in conversation, usually on completely unrelated topics.

  15. Sylvia Says:

    The new comments brought me back to this post and I just realised that clearly this discussion inspired my last blog post. How funny.

  16. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Sylvia —

    I replied (at ridiculous length) to your wonderful post. I think I should write about this again. The creative process is the single most interesting topic I can think of.

  17. Sylvia Says:

    I think you should.

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