The Unfinish Line

November 17th, 2009

Never begin a blog with the word “I.”  There, that takes care of that.

I am at a juncture in the writing process that I don’t read about often— the point where you’ve actually written the last words of your novel, you’ve wrapped up the story and brought home all the characters who are coming home, and you know there are one hundred twelve thousand things wrong with the book.  That’s something a writer can live with, because it just requires 112,000 fixes.  The real killjoy is the doubt, looming like a thick, cold fog, that the whole thing doesn’t add up to a weed salad.

What does a writer in this position do?

What this one does is fix the 112,000 things that are wrong.  I’ve been making notes as I wrote the book and the story and characters morphed beneath my fingers into something I never expected.  I make all those notes in a second document that’s open on my computer the whole time I’m writing.  As the story takes unforeseen directions, I remind myself of things in the earlier chapters that will need to be goosed, or — to put it more elegantly — rethought.  I also make notes of the scenes that wake me up in the middle of the night, screaming, “I’M WEEEAAAK.”   And the characters, both major and minor, who might as well be sock puppets for all the vitality they project.  And everything else that has bothered me during the writing period.

I do these things in strict manuscript order, starting with Chapter One, which, much to my surprise (since I haven’t read it in about eight months) is killer.  When I finish making the changes to Chapter One, I outline that chapter — its title, what day of the week it is, what interval of time it covers, its location, who’s in it — major characters who are appearing for the first time are named IN CAPS to help me track that — and, of course, what happens.  So here’s the outline for Chapter One

CH 1, TEMPORARY HONEYS: Friday night, 8-9:30, Patpong: RAFFERTY (unidentified)  in the Lap Bar, watching Lek dance, ARTHIT in the street below, caught up in the carnival, watching the machine at work as it converts youth and allure into cash.  We track them to their meeting at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the Lap Bar, where they perform the charade that frightens Lek all the way back to Isaan.  Rafferty heads down to Silom to meet Rose and Miaow for dinner.

So I work through the changes in each chapter in order, tightening and rewriting as necessary, and adding to the chapter outline as I go.  I try not to get bogged down on any one change, so I also have my second document open, which allows me to note the places that still need work.  When I’ve finished, I review the outline, looking for everything from chronological problems to real problems — it’s like a 20,000-foot view of the book.

I’m on Chapter 11, THE MOON BELOW, now, and it’s coming together pretty well.  There are patches that are kind of grim and others that are tired and/or lazy, but I can fix those on the next pass.  Bigger questions are looming, though, and those will be more difficult to deal with.  I made a conscious decision when I set out to write this book never to get inside the villain, never to try to explain his pathology, but rather to experience him as his victims do.  That may be wrong, and if it is, major surgery will be necessary.

I also had the temerity to write a center section, some 130 manuscript pages long, that’s told largely from the perspective of a 17-year-old girl and is populated almost entirely by women.  This decision wasn’t made lightly; I’d had eight novels published before I had the nerve (in THE FOURTH WATCHER) to write a scene between two women without a man present.  So now I’ve got something like 35,000 words that’s essentially girls-only.  It was necessary if I was going to tell the story I wanted to tell, which is basically how an unworldly 17-year-old village girl named Kwan, or “Spirit,” becomes Rose, the extremely worldly, and somewhat damaged, woman Rafferty marries.

These last two problems — the big ones — will almost certainly have to wait until I’ve put the manuscript aside for a while and until I’ve read it aloud to my incredibly patient wife, and it’s been read by my two first readers, who are my agent and my editor.  During the interval between the time I send them the manuscript and the time they get back to me, I’ll be walking into things and waking up at 3 AM asking myself why I let anyone see the story.

And then, if they like the manuscript enough to put the effort into making it better, I’ll go into production mode, improving it at every stage (with a lot of help), and eventually there will be an actual book, a sort of congealed slab of imagination, that I can hold up and show to people and point at while I say, “I did this.”  And then, in my mind, it will become inert, a noun instead of a verb, and I’ll be thinking about whatever story presents itself next.

For now, though, I’m in the “unfinished” stage, which is a little like suspended animation.  But at least I finally know that the story actually does have an ending.

7 Responses to “The Unfinish Line”

  1. Philip Coggan Says:

    Don Rumsfeld did the world few services, but at least he pointed out the distinction between Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns. It’s the unknown ones that are the killers. (Hey, that sounds like the starting point for a novel…)

    Hang in there baby.

  2. Dana King Says:

    The knowledge of Rose you have obtained through the first three Rafferty books will make the “women only” section work better and easier than you expect. No question you have the chops for it, and you know the character.

    Piece of cake.

  3. Suzanna Says:

    Hi, Tim

    Phew! Really good to know that you have the framework for your book in place. Thanks for sharing how you keep all the characters, events, and locations in order. Sounds like an invaluable writing tool, especially in your multilayered stories. Best of luck with the fixes!

  4. Phil Hanson Says:

    Nice writing techniques, Tim. The one I like best is the way you set the hook, then reel us (your readers) in. It tends to make the anticipation all the sweeter.

  5. Sphinx Ink Says:

    Thanks for the fascinating description of your writing process, which is also great advice for aspiring writers.

    It was a pleasure to meet you when you were in New Orleans on your book tour. Your presentation was excellent, and the writing handout was good lagniappe (“a little something extra,” in New Orleans idiom). I look forward to reading your WIP when it’s published–more exciting adventures of Poke and his entourage!

  6. Larissa Says:

    Hey Tim,

    It’s good to see you’re still out there and kickin’. I keep “hearing” your words in my head “after all the fat rises to the top” I think that will give you a lot of clarity. And no pressure about writing the all girls scene-we’re not that hard to decipher. 😛

    Good luck and congrats on all of your hard work! You’ll get it all spitshined and purty and then wonder what all the fuss was about.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, everyone —

    Sorry to have taken so long to respond (I should make a one-keystroke macro for that phrase), but the little final-pass edit I was going to do has turned into semi-major surgery, and not cosmetic surgery, either. Not so much a better nose as a whole new circulatory system.

    But some of it seems, momentarily at any rate, to be terrific. The all-girls section benefited considerably from being edited to Tegan & Sara, who should be on everybody’s iPods. And the last part was redrafted in part thanks to Dylan’s epic masterpiece “Brownsville Girl,” the only song I know that could inspire at least three novels.

    More later — the MS is beckoning, and I am its slave.

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