The Stupid 365 Project, Day 86: The Little Train That Could

December 27th, 2010

When I write a book, I go through an arc like the one endured by the Little Train That Could.

And this, in turn, is linked to my own self-image.  Without getting too far into analyst territory, here’s how it goes.

When I begin a book, I’m the Little Train at the beginning of the run. I chug out of the station all shiny and cheerful, one hundred percent potential energy.  The ground is flat, the horizon is miles off, and everything is as bright and new as a morning after rain.  Everything is interesting.

It feels, for the first one-fifth of the ride, as though the track will stretch on forever, through fascinating territory, and without impediment.  It might even slope lazily downhill for a while as new characters pop up, the original idea acquires resonances and harmonies and finds its reflection in the setting.  At this point, there are absolutely no switching points at which I have any question about which track to take.

This is the stage of writing a book that makes everybody feel they can write one.  This is the stage at which all those people who have been thinking for years, “I can write better than this guy,” believe they were right all along.

It’s also the stage where flash can pass for polish and polish can pass for substance.  It’s the first two minutes of a previously unknown standup comic whose opening killed. Everyone is sitting forward, eagerly waiting for the rest of it.

As Shakespeare says, There’s the rub.  The rest of it.

As the story gains weight and complexity, some of the balls that were thrown so carelessly into the air begin to come down, and they either have to be caught or dropped. Some of the actions the characters committed so blithely begin to have consequences.  And, most important, some of the choices I made begin to limit the story.

If I’ve introduced six significant characters already and a seventh appears before me, brandishing a major plot development . . . well, it would be much better if that development arose out of one of the six people the reader already knows.  Do I (a) give it to one of them? (b) go back and eliminate one of them to avoid the War and Peace syndrome, in which most of the reader’s energy is taken up in keeping the characters straight?  If I pull a character out of the story, what happens to all the places where he/she moved things along? (c) do I blow off the major plot development and forge ahead?

Suddenly those switching points look much more complex. Suddenly the track begins to slope uphill, and I see that the horizon, now that I’m nearer to it, is at the altitude of, say, Denver.

And it’s just starting to get hairy.

About 40 percent of the way in, the doubts surround me like a lynch mob, shaking their fists and shouting challenges to everything: story, characters, structure (such as it is), tone, and — perhaps most unnervingly — why do I think anyone will ever want to read this?  From this point on, the track leades increasingly sharply uphill, with me laboring like the Little Engine: I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.

Not that it’s unrelieved agony.  Once every five or six days, everything lines up.  I have the feeling I should be playing billiards: angles are clear, interactions are decisive, the characters, who have been dragging their feet and daring me to come up with something they actually want to do, pick up their feet and sprint toward an as-yet-unseen point that feels right.

I’ve just had three of those days in a row, at what I think is about the 60% point of PULPED.  And now the top of the rise is getting closer.  It’s not time for the mantra to change to I know I can, I know I can, but I can imagine, for the first time in, say, 30,000 words, that the change is gonna come.

All this — for me — is related to, naturally, me.  I’ve felt fraudulent most of my life — glib and quick, with good instincts.  Plausible is the best word.  And for years I’ve been haunted by a line I’ve quoted before in these blogs, from Gaddis’ The Recognitions, “and all of a sudden, somebody asks you to pay in gold, and you can’t . . . you haven’t got it, and you can’t.”

That’s what I encounter at this stage of every book.  This time, the mirrors and stagecraft and sleight-of-hand won’t cut it.  This time, I have to pay in gold.

But all I (all any writer) can do is plow through it.  Behave as if, as the twelve-steps programs say: behave as if I know how to resolve the current knot, as if I actually believe that my instincts will take the characters home, somehow.  Behave as if I have the gold in my pocket.

Trust that I’ll realize some day that I’ve crested the hill, that the train hasn’t shaken apart into a bunch of disconnected units, and that I actually know where I’m going.  I may not know where it came from or when I decided I was going there, but I can glimpse it.  From then on, it’s all fun, with the weight of the story pushing me forward, like the cars of the train on a downhill run.

And then the book is finished, and it is what it is, with its strengths and weaknesses, and fixing it (if I can) becomes a kind of highly advanced plumbing.  It’s demanding but not soul-threatening.  And it goes out and people like it or don’t like it.

And I pull out from the station again.

16 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 86: The Little Train That Could”

  1. EverettK Says:

    I have good news for you, Tim! One day, you’ll grow up and turn into a mature writer, with 40 or 50 successful novels behind you, and you’ll finally realize, that, yes, by God, YES, maybe you CAN really write a novel.

    Nah. Ain’t gonna happen. 🙂 It’s that self-doubt, and the need to succeed (yes, I’m a poet, too, amongst my many other talents) that drives onward many of the creative types.

    This was a rather … déjà vu … blog for me. I just finished, in one GIANT gulp, reading through your “Finish Your Novel” columns for the first time.

    Much sage advice, Master Yoda. Try not, just do!

  2. barbara macdonald Says:

    whew, fascinating glimpse into a writer’s mind….once upon a time many many years ago i thought that i could be a writer….and as time went by it became patently clear that writing was TOO HARD, once i had that realization all was calm and cleared the way for me to take up watercolour painting, way easier and every day is a learning experience!

    whereas you put yourself right out there, despite the train ride (roller coaster ride?), gotta admire that – and you write swell books too!


  3. Beth Says:

    I have never considered writing a book. I not only don’t have the talent, I never even had an idea.

    One thing I have done, over and over, is prepare lesson plans and create seating plans and much of what you have written about the stages of writing a book applies.

    It isn’t just that the teacher has to know the material being taught. The teacher has to know the students. This is a particular problem for everyone who teaches ninth grade classes. The teacher faces a cold opening, having no idea about the dynamic of each section. No two are alike. What works with one group often won’t work with another so, although a teacher may have three sections of world history, experience teaches the teacher that the material will have to be re-worked to reflect the personality of the class.

    Sometimes when all the disparate pieces of the puzzle are in place and a class is progressing smoothly, a new student transfers in. All too often, this re-shapes the class and everything has to be looked at again from a different perspective.

    No one who hasn’t done the job can appreciate or understand the time, thought,and imagination that go into assigning seats. There are thirty students who have to be grouped in such a way that classes do not descend into drama. It isn’t enough to know the personalities of the kids in front of you. A teacher has to know the subtle things which, in high school, can evoke Romeo & Juliet or West Side Story. Break-ups happen. Either the person dumped or the person doing the dumping wants to transfer into a new section so as not to be reminded of their emotional devastation. Except the school policy doesn’t allow musical class switches because of romantic turmoil, so the couple is stuck with each other for the semester and the teacher is stuck with both of them and their army of friends, the Greek chorus.

    As difficult as this is in almost all classes, it is as nothing to the life or death situation created when a teacher has to match lab partners. One year, when the gods were really crazy, I found myself as the facilitator for six sections of chemistry. The department head who had to take on this murderous schedule turned over such tasks to me because I most certainly couldn’t teach chemistry.

    It isn’t just lab partners that have to be carefully paired. There are two teams to a table multiplied by four. That is the number of students who can provide significant distraction to just one person in a team. So once partners have been paired, all the tables have to be reviewed and moved before lab periods (which run 90 minutes). It is in this situation that the teacher really has to behave as if he/she knows what he/she is doing.

    When it is all finally in place, when no one has inflicted grievous bodily harm on another student, when the tears have stopped and new couples have formed in the terribly fraught romantic lives of teenagers, it is the end of first semester and, except for lab classes, two or three sections a teacher has may be a one semester course and at the end of January the whole dance starts over.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hey, Everett, now that you’ve gone through it with CHRISTMAS DRIZZLE, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It was the pause between the time you finished the first part and the moment Suzanna materialized to guide you the rest of the way home. Multiply that by about 30,000 words, and that’s where I am with PULPED right now. EXCEPT THAT I STARTED PART THREE THIS EVENING!!!!! Simeon and Madison are together at last.

    Now all I need is something for them to do together.

    Hi, barbara, and thanks for the nice words about my books. I like them, too, in patches, and in some books the patches are bigger than others. One thing I like best is the sense that the characters in a series (and this is especially true of Poke and his family) grow and change in between books, and every time I go back to them, the first thing I have to do is learn what’s new. And there’s always quite a lot.

    Writing is hard primarily (I think) because you pretty much have to do it daily and because there’s really no finish line — a scene, a paragraph, a sentence, can always be better. Sooner or later, you just have to quit, but years later I’ll open a book to a line and immediately see a better one.

    Drives me CRAZY.

  5. EverettK Says:

    Tim said: there’s really no finish line — a scene, a paragraph, a sentence, can always be better. Sooner or later, you just have to quit, but years later I’ll open a book to a line and immediately see a better one.

    Well, today’s world (or the coming future of publishing, however you want to look at it) is almost a Chinese curse (“May you live in interesting times.”) Now, you can publish the book electronically, and then revise and re-release, and then revise some more, and…

    Good news, bad news. 🙂

  6. Gary Says:

    If it was easy, everybody would do it.

    For everyone who does do it, there are thousands who give up. Who maybe never get beyond just thinking about it. You’re privileged to be part of a very small percentage of mankind who actually write, and write well.

    Be thankful for that. And welcome the agony.

  7. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I really like your description, above all the use of the little engine that did indeed do it. I heard a story about Hume Cronin saying (when he was at this little community college I was attending for fun) to the man holding the curtain-“it’s been 35 years, and I still get nervous.” It is my sincere hope that you will write and write. When I climbed mountains, I used to think of the beginning as exciting, and filled with anticipation. Then came the slog up the hill without a great view necessarily, just one foot in front of the other. But oh the joy at the top, with the view, and the exhilaration! That is the feeling I got when you wrote today.
    Of course, I just had to walk; you are a writer. It seems to me that your stories end in quiet triumph, just quietly back to ordinary life.

  8. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I am incorrigible-I messed up the italics!

  9. Laren Bright Says:

    All can say is that this is very reassuring. It’s also sort of like childbirth. What I mean by that is that when my wife was delivering our daughter, the woman in the next room was screaming in pain. My wife, who never went into labor, looked aghast at the nurse & said something about how horrible that must be for the poor woman. The nurse just smiled & said, Oh, she’ll be back her again next year doing the same thing.

    Another friend of mine says that this kind if pain is the kind you forget — or at least when you reflect back on it, you still decide to have another child.

    And Tim reminds us that, no matter how painful the process, you still go on to write that next book. And the next.

  10. Robb Royer Says:

    Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant The last phase is that, just as you become resigned to your servitude you kill the beast and fling it out to the public. WLS Churchill
    Everybody already knows that one? Yeah. Ok.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Beth, you do have an idea. That’s a book proposal. Choose a few specific years in which there were especially compelling stories, combine them into one and go to work. You’ve a structure already, in the flow of the semester. You’ve got built-in high points and low points. You should play with it, see if you can’t get an overview of 10,000 words and then expand it into a book. I think it’s a great idea. And you’re right in that the challenges of writing a novel are the same that arise on any longterm creative project. I’ve had e-mail about the stuff in the FINISH YOUR NOVEL section from screenwriters, memoirists, and composers as well as novelists.

    Everett, thanks for reminding me, especially since you’re responsible (in a good way) for hundreds of improvements made in books that were already up and online. And you’re also right that it’s a mixed blessing, at best. Now the work is TRULY never done.

    Lil, thanks for the great story about Hume Cronyn, and multiple thanks for the AMAZING review of CRASHED on Amazon — I really, really appreciated it. And, finally, thanks for what you said about the end of my books. I think that the best way for a thriller or a detective story to end, especially since they both begin in a world where something is seriously out of whack — is with a return to everyday life. Poke is almost eloquent about that in QUEEN — of course, he doesn’t know that all hell is about to break loose.

  12. Beth Says:

    Tim, I would be bored to death trying to write a book based on that stuff I posted.

    The things I put on that comment are nothing more than the same daily experiences of every teacher in the world. The paper work is never finished but that hardly makes it a compelling topic.

    I am a far better reader than I am a writer and I will stick to what I do best.

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Laren — That’s a GREAT story and completely relevant — I start every book feeling like it will drop from the sky and directly onto my keyboard, and every time I get into trouble, it feels like the first time. Intellectually I know I’ve been through tough passages before, but they’re all unique to the book I’m writing, they come out of the material I’m trying to manage, and they don’t feel anything like the other problems. (About the only thing I have to comfort me is the knowledge that I’ve finished the other books.)

    Robb, I’ve never heard that before, and it’s wonderful. And from one of the best and most important writers of the 20th century. (In the great new movie, “The King’s Speech — great mainly for Colin Firth and the direction), as King George VI walks to make his first great public speech, Churchill falls in beside him and confesses that he had had a speech impediment as a child. It’s a nice moment.)

    Gosh, Beth — seems to me one of the most dramatic possible settings, with one of the ironies being that the kids have no idea that they’re in one of the most important periods of their lives, and what they do here will help to determine whether they spend their lives in a private plane or in public housing. And then there are the hormones, the intensity, the rise and fall of relationships, the life-scarring tragedies that are sometimes over in fifteen minutes — if I had the experience, I’d write it. And I’d CERTAINLY read it.

    Captcha “Proper wiglet”

  14. Beth Says:

    Tim, you do a great job of selling the idea, the whole concept.

    All it would take is someone with some writing ability and talent to put it together.

    I do not have it. That is an honest assessment. I am a pretty good editor; I honed those skills helping kids write college application essays, speeches for contests, and all the other things that high school students have to write.

    You could very likely write that book without having taught in a high school. You were never a dancer on Patpong or a female child growing-up in Issan, but you wrote an extraordinary book about the experience without having the experience.

    If you wrote a book about a high school no one would know you didn’t teach in one and everybody would want to read it.

  15. Debbi Says:

    My experience with writing novels has been horrifyingly similar to yours, but you’ve expressed it so much better than I ever could.

    So thanks for that! 🙂

  16. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I doubt that, Debbi — that I’ve expressed it better, I mean. I just happened into a metaphor and prolonged it unreasonably, but only because it worked. Few things are less enjoyable than plugging away at one that doesn’t.

    I’m very happy you liked it.

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