Since my title pretty much says it all, this might be a shorter post than usual (hold the applause). For me this has been a gradual discovery whose importance has lately become unusually clear.
As I’ve said before, my day job and the writing and theatre work associated with it, often mean that my writing opportunities come in spurts. This spring has been a case in point since I’ve barely written a word since mid January when I went into rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A combination of other factors has meant that it doesn’t make sense to start the next book I have under contract (Book 3 of a series whose 1st book isn’t out yet) so I suddenly find that I am approaching the summer—my main writing slot—without a major project to get my teeth into. I’ll have plenty of editing to do, but when I mentioned to my agent the prospect of heading towards the end of the year without a new book in the works, her advice was simple: start something new.
I had an idea for a book which had been rumbling away at a slow boil for a few weeks but it was very unformed and needed a lot of thought, let alone plotting before I felt able to write a word. But my schedule now presented me with an ultimatum: figure it out fast and write it faster, or go into the fall semester with little more than what I already have now.
Put it that way, and it’s a no brainer. I wrote the first few pages yesterday and hope to really get to grips with it as soon as I can put this semester to bed.
It’s absurd, of course, the idea of dreaming up and executing an entire novel in a couple of months, but I’m a great believer in the old maxim that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. If I say I need a year to write this thing, that’s how long it will take. Obviously the opposite isn’t true: I can’t decide to write it in 2 weeks and expect that to happen, but a few months? Maybe. If I don’t get it done by the time other things have to move to the front burner, so be it. At least I’ll have a decent chunk of something I can tinker with thereafter, and finishing an extant project is psychologically a heck of a lot easier than starting a new one.
But there’s also something to be said for just getting it down fast. Given a lot of time I’ll fuss with plot points, with questions of tone, of world building, and walk around with the whole thing noodling around in my head for weeks or months. This way feels more like spattering paint on the canvas and then pushing it quickly round while it’s still wet. It might be a disaster, of course, but I’m promising myself that if it sucks I’ll be honest with myself and scrap it. That should be easier to do if all I’ve invested in it is a couple of months, rather than a year and a half. This way perhaps it will stay fresh and spontaneous and exciting through the whole process, a great firework of color and light. I can see how that might work, and I’m thrilled to try it. The story is fairly high concept and likely to stand or fall according to its central idea rather than the minutiae of the execution, so this seems like the time to go for it in flurry of activity.
I’m still plotting, but I’m spending hours over decisions that usually take me weeks. I’m following my instincts and making quick, impulsive decisions. If they’re wrong, I’ll try to fix them later, but I like the idea of taking the plunge and chasing the idea through, discovering the story like an actor in rehearsal, making bold choices and not being afraid to fall on my face. My plan is to grab big ideas, strong images, compelling characters and get them down in big strokes, not allowing myself time to second guess the decision, to worry the thing to death. It’s like cartooning with spray paint and for me it’s the opposite of all my academic impulses towards caution, towards scrutinizing each piece before I position it, towards weighing all possible consequences before committing the story to anything.
I’m not saying, you’ll notice, that the book will be done in two months. I’m saying the first draft will be. Then I can put it away for a little while, work on other things, try to forget about it (easier to do if, again, it’s the product of 60 days work, not 400). Then I’ll come back, reread and see if I have something worth showing to the world. If I can get the big stuff done now, no matter how rough it is, I don’t mind dwelling on the revision as I polish it up.
Will it work? No idea. Will I actually do it? I hope so. Ask me again in August.