Sunday, June 20, 2010

Writing Crash

I haven't posted here recently because Tuxedo Man crashed on me. This has happened on the last three books and I thought I was controlling it, but I wasn't. It's sort of like a stall in an airplane that turns into an uncontrolled spin. One day you're writing a novel, you have 350 or so pages and you think you're closing in on the finish and then you realize that all you have is pages. Maybe there's some interesting writing in there, some good characters, a few scenes that work, but it's not a novel. There's no narrative arc, there's no point, it's a bunch of almost- novels stuck together and it's not going to be possible to weave the threads together in a reasonable number of additional pages.

How could this happen? This is my twenty-second novel. I'm supposed to know what I'm doing. Well, seasoned pilots fly airplanes into terrain, and I suppose its a similar thing, composed of slackened attention, routine and over-confidence. If you read a lot of popular fiction you may have noticed that the later novels of successful popular writers tend to be baggier than the early ones, sometimes twice or three times as large. I suspect that what happened to me happened to them too. You get to page 400 and you find you have twenty unresolved threads, and it's so interesting and you've invested so much time in getting all those subplots in there that it's unbearable to go back and pare it all away so you keep writing, 500, 600, 800 pages! And then you run out of steam and ship the damned thing off.

Unfortunately, or fortunately I have an editor who doesn't tolerate this. I'm contracted to write one thriller novel and not four half-thrillers so I decided I had to rip the whole thing apart and start over. Here's the reason I got into this fix. When I first started to write thrillers twenty-five years ago I first wrote out the plot in a synopsis, maybe five single-spaced pages, the basic story of the book. Then I wrote a detailed chapter outline telling what had to be written in each chapter, which is really important to the kind of book I do, with parallel plot-lines that all have to intersect to advance the tension and suspense that are essential to the thriller genre. Then, finally, before I started each chapter I wrote out the scenes and character interactions that had to occur in that chapter. Only then did I start on the actual text.

Now it turns out that in order to have a lively book with real breathing characters in it, you can't push this method too far, because as strange as it is to say it, characters make demands. They 'want' to do stuff that you hadn't thought of beforehand and you have to indulge them up to a point. (But not beyond that. We've all read books with fascinating characters and plots that when they conclude make us say, "What the . . .!") So toward the end of a good thriller you get twists that you didn't write down at the outset. That's fine, because if the author didn't know what was going to happen, it's pretty sure that the reader won't know either, which makes for a certain excitement.

But in my last two books, Forgery of Venus and The Good Son, I didn't do any of this. I just sat down and started to write, bareback, as it were, just keeping the plot-lines in my head as I write and following my fancy. And I have to say, this was a terrific feeling, sort of like surfing on the creative wave. Writing the thriller became actually thrilling. Because writing thrillers off a tight outline is, I have to say, a lot more like assembly line work than most people imagine, even if the thrillers are not formulaic, as I don't think mine are. So, a sort of interior rebellion--there are themes you can't really handle in the thriller genre and I suppose a part of me wants to deal with them, hence the mini-partial-novels that popped up like fungus within my thriller structures.

Anyway, lesson learned. For the past few weeks I have been writing an outline for this book and targeting vast swathes for excision. My sense is that the writing should go a lot faster now, and that I won't have to do a massive revision when I finally turn it in. I should say that there are many writers who don't outline, who just write away, let it all gush out and then cut, paste and rewrite. That's perfectly okay, but it's clearly not my native mode. I suppose the moral is to be the writer you are, not some other kind: fewer thrills, better book, or at least that's my hope.

Next: crash recovery


MErhard said...

So, it sounds like it's not so much fun to write per an outline, even though an acceptable finished product is apparently more easily reached with the outline method, as you say. Is not the production of a tightly structured book part of the reward, as a story with good structure is more satisfying -- it has good bones. Does it add a layer of angst and/or boredom to have to make wholesale revisions to material that was so exciting to write?

I love all of your books (excepting those written under the Tanenbaum name, which sadly I have not yet read), but especially the Jimmy Paz books -- those you say were written according to a plan. And what of The Book of Air and Shadows? A particular favorite -- written free-form or by outline?

Bookmaker said...

Sorry about the Tuxedo Man. But after reading your advice to young writers, I see you did exactly what you told the kids to do and deleted the work that was "too brilliant for words". But I am even more interested in your comments on memory. I thought I was the only one who couldn't remember anything from childhood. No matter how hard I try, there are only a few feeble recollections in there and most of those are actually black and white photos. But the few that can't be traced to photos or mother's recollections make me wonder just what made those memories stick? I wait for more...

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing your process- and how we love to fall in love with the creative process- 'so interesting' as you say. I really appreciate all of the road signs to these mini novels or topics you include/uncover in the narrative world-this way to a novel/essay on underworld X. Air and Shadows was wonderful this way- it makes for a richly layered terrain. Maybe you need to write some of those novellas. Good subway/plane/train reading.or the attention span of todays teen... God speed

Unknown said...

Oh my God, what a fascinating and revealing note. Thanks so much for letting us this far inside your creative process, Mr. Gruber! So sorry to hear about the problems with the novel, but based on your previous work I have a high degree of confidence that you'll rescue the work and end up with another fine novel. I've struggled with the outline-versus-just-writing-it puzzle in my own fictional attempts for years. Glad to read about how a high-level pro does it. Michael Goodwin