I had an epiphany this week as I was struggling with one of my novels.
I often stop writing for a while—for an hour, a day, anything up to a week or more—when I’ve reached some sort of impasse. In the past I’ve told myself it’s because I don’t know what to write next, that I don’t have a clear idea of the plot, so I don’t know what should happen. But now I think it’s something different: I stop because I don’t know how to move my characters away from the scene they currently inhabit, even when it’s clearly necessary.
I’ve already admitted that I polish my prose too much in the early stages of the game. It can feel productive, when I don’t have anything original to write, to smooth over the rough spots in the bits I’ve already written. This has another downside in addition to postponing the moment when I get on with the new writing: By the time I’ve read and re-read, and polished and refined a scene it becomes more and more imbedded in the “reality” of the novel and thus much harder to change.
If, until the 20th reading, Miss So-and-So and Mr. Whatzit have arrived at the baker’s, chatted with the baker and picked out some pink-topped cupcakes, it is really, really hard to have them by-pass the baker and walk into the hardware store instead. For one thing, all the conversation they had with the baker about sprinkles and chocolate ganache doesn’t translate well to the hardware store clerk, and instead of cupcakes they would need to buy wrenches or something instead. And that feels “wrong,” because I’m so emotionally invested in them having that conversation with the baker and buying those dam’ cupcakes.
In a way, by trying to change the scene I’m changing a reality that’s become as real to me as the real world. (Do I get points added or taken away for using change, changing, real and reality so often in the same sentence?) I’ve come to believe in the world the characters inhabit just a little too much.
All right, that’s one manifestation of the problem, and I should be able to take it in hand by not re-reading and revising my early drafts so much. I’m working on that although, truth to tell, I’m not getting very far. Sometimes my re-reading is almost a compulsion. It starts as a way to remind myself of what led me to where I’m about to pick up the story, but then it becomes an end in itself (Hey, this is pretty good; I’m liking what I did there, what if I change the order of these two sentences . . .) and a substitute for writing, and that can’t be good.
Note to self: Don’t begin your writing day by reading.
The other manifestation is a tradecraft issue: the inability to envision how the characters get from here—the corner of Ninth and Main, to there—a penthouse apartment on Parkside. Do they walk? Take a cab? Fly through the air on gossamer wings? And whichever way they travel, does the reader need to take the trip with them or can the next scene open with them sitting comfortably on a sofa in the penthouse, sipping martinis?
Experienced novelists solve this problem all the time and for us readers, its seamless. But the ragged seams showed plenty while it was being written, believe me.
Most often I manage to open the next scene with my characters already relaxing in the penthouse. But every now and again I get tangled up in what I call the MapQuest version: They strolled down Ninth Avenue, turned right and crossed the street at Pelican, stopping for the light at Parkside before . . . etc.
Note to self: Forget MapQuest; go straight for the martinis.