The “Misdirection” Marathon

September 14th, 2008

After only five months of agony, MISDIRECTION is finished.

On Sunday — a week ago today — I typed the final lines and, as I’ve already said, got all teared up.  “Teared” is not a variant on “tore,” the past tense of the verb “tear.”  It’s a moderately colorful and slightly less embarrassing way to say that I burst into tears.

And, as I suggested earlier, it was partially because the book ends on a line that is designed to bring a tear or two, but it was also sheer relief at having come to the end of the longest writing marathon I’ve ever had to run.

I first knew I was in trouble in April, when I realized there was no way, given the characters who had presented and then defined themselves during the writing of the book, that I would ever get to the ending I’d visualized when I started to write.  Well, I’ve been there before.  I figured, just plow on and watch things resolve themselves.

So I plowed on and wound up with 61,000 words written and 75% of the story untold.  This would be okay if I were Marcel Proust, maybe, but a mystery/thriller that’s a quarter of a million words long is not something publishing companies get into bidding wars over.  So I stopped, spent a few days writing about the aspects of the idea that got me interested in the first place, rediscovered the story’s center, cut about 35,000 words, and — once again — plowed on.

And, after doing some of the best writing of my life, realized (a) that some of it belonged in a different book, and (b) that I still didn’t have an ending.  In fact, I had a story in which no fewer than three story lines seemed to be completely unresolvable.  I might have been able to resolve them one at a time, if each had been the center of a separate novel, but finding a way to tie them all off at more or less the same time would have required mechanics that the reader would have heard creaking and groaning even with the cover closed.

But (and I’m proud of this) I never stopped.  I sat down every single damn day and pounded keys for at least four hours.  I wrote tens of thousands of words and cut tens of thousands of words.  And then, one morning in the shower, I realized that I didn’t NEED to resolve everything.  Lives don’t always get resolved.  And that revelation opened me to a bunch of possibilities, and the next day, brushing my teeth (don’t you love these homely details?) the whole thing was revealed.  Everything that had been going on behind the scenes, who was responsible, why certain things had happened.  And it was simple, even inevitable (in retrospect), and it stood the whole book on its head.

I’m not claiming it’s great, or even good.  It’s still 15,000 words overweight and there are maybe 500 fixes that need to be made, and it hasn’t been shut out of sight in the dark long enough for the really bad pieces of writing to float to the top.  But it’s a whole story, with a beginning, a (long) middle, and a very good ending.  I’m sort of proud of it.

This piece is not intended to demonstrate how cool I am.  The goal is to present the idea that the only way to finish a book is to keep writing, even when (and maybe especially when) things go wrong.  If I hadn’t kept myself open to the book’s world — even during the periods when I was waking up at 3 AM with flop sweat — I never would have understood what was actually happening.  By the way, that very passive way of phrasing it is precisely the way it felt to me; I didn’t “make up” what was actually happening.  I discovered it.

The more I do this, the more convinced I am that the stories already exist, perfect and complete, somewhere in the writer’s mind, and the job is to keep shining that flashlight on it, and writing down the bits and pieces you get to see each day, without trying to force the connections, without trying to create the future.  The end of your book exists when you start, just as surely as the beginning does.

Even though getting there can be difficult.

18 Responses to “The “Misdirection” Marathon”

  1. Merrilee Faber Says:

    Reading this post I can feel the energy and joy you felt on conquering this story. Congrats on finishing! You’ve intrigued me, and I’ll be looking for this one when it comes out.

  2. Greg Smith Says:

    Congratulations,Tim!
    Despite all the slings and arrows you’ve cranked out another one. That’s what’s so inspiring (besides the really good writing)- that you don’t just talk the talk, you show us how to finish.

    Another pretty good writer, Steven King, first exposed me to the notion that stories reveal themselves and that they are found things or relics that must be unearthed, cleaned up, polished and finally presented.

    So kudos for another successful excavation. I can hardly wait for the book to hit the racks (or whatever they hit these days): mp3s, kindles and ipods, oh my.

    PS: You don’t have to mail me the Simeon Grist book I ‘won’. I’d love to pick it up in person over dinner or something when you get back in town.

  3. usman Says:

    I love these aha moment stories. Gives me hope and a lesson on how to respond to the dark periods in writing.
    Thanks Tim.

  4. Mitch Says:

    Congratulations on finishing Tim! Sounds like it was a trying and arduous journey, but it must feel absolutely fantastic to reach the end. How many words did your first draft end up being?

    I really like your notion that stories already exist, and we’re more or less just uncovering them. I’m trying to keep this in mind as I write my own novel, and I’m trying hard to focus on letting it go where it wants to go, rather than forcing anything.

    On another note, the mere thought of cutting 35,000 words from a piece of work sets my heart to pounding. What a courageous move! I’m guessing that to cut that much you must have felt it extremely necessary, and it looks like it paid off in the end, since it led to the successful completion of your story.

    One last question: When you’re done letting your manuscript sit alone in the dark, how much time do you typically spend on editing before you send it off?

  5. fairyhedgehog Says:

    This is very inspiring, to see how you follow your own advice to writers to go on writing no matter how tough it gets. I have huge admiration for you.

  6. Jen Forbus Says:

    Congratulations Tim. I’ll be on pins and needles waiting for it to come out!!

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, everybody. I figured out this AM that I actually wrote, and cut, about 50,000 words from this book. And I’ve got to cut another 15,000 now. When you figure that the final book will be no more than 95,000 words, that means I’ve written enough unusable material to fill more then 65% of a book this long.

    I still don’t know why I wandered so far afield on this one, but it will come to me.

    Merrilee — I visited your site, and we’ve been going through the same thing. I commiserate and send you support.

    Greg – “Excavation” is a great metaphor. I didn’t know King had written that, but I’m sure many writers share the sensation that the whole thing is already perfect and complete somewhere.

    Usman — The best way I know to respond to the dark periods in writing is to increase my daily minimum word count. If it was 1500, make it 2000. The worst way to respond is to start taking days off.

    Mitch — Thanks for the congrats. The final is about 110,000 meaning I’ve got to get rid of 15,000. Some of these will be easy — plot lines I started and then allowed to wither, foreshadowing for events that never happened, etc. Some of it — meaning bad writing and overwriting — will be more difficult. And then there will have to be some real surgery, in which things I love get cut because they’re just not germane. This will take me about two weeks, and then my agent will read it, which takes another two weeks, by which time I’ll be ready to look at it again and by then it’ll be MUCH easier to spot the passages that are best read while holding one’s nose.

    fairyhedgehog, I would have quit — taken a break, at least — but I know I would never have come back to it. The only way I knew how to handle it was to continue to write until I struck a vein of something worth mining.

    Jen, thanks, and congratulations for your award nomination. (Jen’s site about books is terrific.)

    It’s set to come out in July

  8. Larissa Says:

    Hey tim, told you I’d check back for this post. (c: Ok, so hearing it a 7th time won’t kill you-Congratulations on the finish. I think you hit on something really crucial-not everything gets tied up in a bow at the end of the story. I think it’s easy to get carried away with that idea in some writer’s cases but with a well trained eye and a good “bullshit” detector in place it makes for some great writing because it’s as you said, life doesn’t get resolved. I am trying to get some perspective on my story at the moment…it’s hard balancing the desire and the “I have to do this” feeling to move forward against the fear and gut feeling that half of it is crap and I’ll have to do it all over again. You’re proof that it can be done.

  9. Dana King Says:

    First, congratulations. This one sounds like a struggle. Since good reading is hard writing, it will give us all something to look forward to.

    Second, I’m delighted to hear you say not everything needs to get resolved. There are too many books written now that show great promise until the author defies all disbelief by forcing the ending to resolve any open questions. If I want unbelievable endings created so I can feel as though everything came out all right for everyone, I can watch television.

  10. Lisa Kenney Says:

    I’m utterly amazed at your level of productivity. The idea of writing a book from start to finish in such a short period would be astonishing enough to me, even if you never made a wrong turn. But the thought that you did make wrong turns and had to backtrack, cut and rewrite and still finished in such a short period seems nothing short of miraculous. I am in awe! Congratulations!!!

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, I never thought I’d get this much response, and I’m grateful for every word of it.

    Riss — I usually advise strongly against going back and changing things until the first draft is finished, but I had to break that rule on MISDIRECTION because I wandered so far afield. I normally make notes in a separate file of things I want to do when I go back to the beginning, and in the meantime I just continue to move the story forward. My usual rule is to keep writing and editing separate and not to rewrite unless I know exactly how to make it better.

    Dana — Right, about resolutions. One of the things I was trying to do in this book was to demonstrate that in Thailand some people are simply unaccountable, and one of the things that was hanging me up was trying to figure out how to make one of those very people pay for his actions. The short description is duuuuuuhhhhhhh. But there was another story, too, that resisted gift-wrap ribbon, and I decided that it was stronger only partially resolved.

    Lisa — I haven’t been clear about the amount of time the book took. I’ve been in trouble since April, but I started it in November of last year. Then, through a screwup, I temporarily didn’t have a contract with Morrow for about six weeks, so during that period I wrote a completely different book, the beginning of what I hope will be a new series. Now, that’s fast. And, in fact, the writing of that book was probably one of the things that derailed me.

  12. Dana King Says:

    One of the things I liked best about A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART was Superman’s uncertain status at the end. I was never quite sure how I felt about him all the way through, but I wanted things to come out all right for Miaow’s sake.

    I’m glad to see he makes an appearance in MISDIRECTION, but his disappearance at the end of NAIL helped to root the book in its realism. We were made aware of how children drop in and out of sight in Thailand; it’s easy to decide, “So it goes” if you only think about it superficially. His disappearance made the problem more real, happening to someome the reader “knows.”

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Dana — I agree, and keeping that story unresolved was the only issue on which I had to do battle during the publishing process on that book.

    The Superman who comes into MISDIRECTION is both the same kid and a somewhat different kid, due to an experience he had between books. We learn about it as his story unfolds in the new one. But he’s still in charge of a flock of runaways. And I have to admit that it was fun to write him again.

  14. Andrea Says:

    Congratulations, Tim! And thanks for the great description of the process.

  15. Mariam Says:

    Tim,

    Wow – I’m glad I took the time to visit your site! Congrats are in order. I’ll buy you a drink when you are in town.

    I guess the book signing tour for number two went okay. Now number three is done – keep up the good work!

    When will you be back in Cambodia?

  16. Chris HK Says:

    Congrats!

    Question – now that you have that finished manuscript, do you sit on it a few months and then revise entirely before sending it off? Or do you get it straight off to your agent/publishers and let them pick it over? I know that many successful authors are in the position where a first draft is all they need, but how many times do you go revise the whole shebang before you stick it in the mail?

  17. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Andrea — MISDIRECTION has sort of dominated the blog for a while, simply because it dominated my life, but I think I’ll write one more entry, about what happened to my process, if I can clarify it further in my mind,

    Mariam — What a treat to hear from you. How are things in Phnom Penh? (Mariam heads up an organization that encourages filmmaking in Cambodia.) Looks like I’ll be back in February, if I don’t just skip a year.

    Chris HK — Normally, I put the MS in a drawer for 6-8 weeks to cool off and then take it out and start hacking at it. This time, though, deadlines are pressing, so it’ll go to my agent on Friday. But it’s not really a first draft, because:

    1. I begin every writing session by going back 3-4 days’ worth, and revising the writing from those days until I get to new territory. So everything’s already been revised at least twice.

    2. I always keep a second window open in my word processor, containing a document called “fixes.” As things occur to me during the writing process, I go into that doc and note them — weak scenes, changes that need to be made to the first chapters, names I’m not happy with (names drive me crazy), factual stuff I need to check out. The first thing I do when I finish is grab the FIXES document and do everything in it.

    3. When I’m stuck in a scene or I don’t have a satisfactory description, or anything else that slows me down too far, I type RHUBARB and move on. The second thing I do with a finished MS, after working through the FIXES doc, is tell my WP to find RHUBARB, and I make those fixes.

    4. I’ve been working since Monday to get through the manuscript one page at a time, fixing, cutting, sharpening. I’ll finish that by Friday, when my agent needs it.

    5. My agent is a remarkable editor, one of the best I ever had, and he’ll go through the manuscript with a microscope and a scalpel. By the time he sends me his notes, I’ll have more distance from the story and it’ll be easier for me to edit it dispassionately.

    Sorry to answer at such length, but you asked.

  18. Larissa Says:

    I am a huge fan of multiple documents. I have one called Brainstorming where I just babble endlessly to myself about my characters and where things could go and try out different endings and middles and I dunno what else, just to have a place for all of it to go so I can go back and add it to the “real” document later on. Sometimes it’s like a broken record as I get fixated on certain elements but it’s helpful.

    I have a hard time critiquing my own artwork after it’s first finished because I feel really connected to it-good on you for being able to detach more quickly than I can for the sake of deadlines hehe. (c:

    So, does this mean you’re going to continue to entertain us with Counter-Clockwise stuff now? Please?

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