Today in the Dojo: Getting a handle on stories that don’t quite know what they are.
There was this cliché at the bookstore chain I worked for, eons ago when things like chain bookstores in malls still existed. Customers would come in all the time, collar one of the booksellers, and burble, “I need this book! I don’t remember the title, the author, or what it was about, but it’s this big and it’s blue!” About the only thing that changed in the parade of people coming in for the book whose subject, author and title weren’t recalled was the relative size indicated by their desperately waving hands. It happened so often that the manager of one of our stores, upon hearing this request for the billionth time, joked, “Oh, yes, I know that book. It’s right over there in our this-big-and-blue section.”
The sad thing is, she then had to chase down the customer, who was marching on the wall of shelves she’d pointed to, apparently expecting that bookstores had a “This Big and Blue” section right up there next to “Fiction,” “Reference,” and such. I’m not sure how the customer reacted when told the manager had only been joking.
That anecdote comes to mind because that’s much how this current novella was feeling. I don’t know the title. I think I know the author, but sometimes I wonder, especially when staring at her in the mirror after a hard night’s pounding the forehead into the keyboard. I had no fucking idea what it was about. But it’s roughly this big, and it’s definitely blue. Undoubtedly.
I got almost 19,000 words in and stalled out. Stared at it for days, wondering what the hell the emotional through-line was. Plot? Don’t make me laugh. Theme? Yeah, right. I wrestled a few more words in using brute force, then sighed, and set it aside as a bad job. No use trying to write something that refused to be written. I knew what that dead stop meant. Meant I had thinking to do. That’s how I roll. I’ve learned that when the words stop flowing, it’s because if I go any further without putting some serious thought into it, things are going to go terribly awry. I’d rather figure it out now that write any-old-thing and make the revision worse than it has to be. So, fuck you, NaNoWriMo.
I went to the notebooks.
And I started with describing the house. The house wasn’t clear. I had very little idea what the house we were stuck in looked like, and that was bugging me. I spent a night researching architecture and searching for pictures on the intertoobz of houses that vaguely resembled it. I spent another night or two putting the house together. But that wasn’t coming together either.
Okay, then, so it’s not the house holding me back. Know enough about what it looks like to be going forward, so what else? I started considering the people in that dining room we were stuck in. And I determined I needed to sketch out Ticaal’s life from birth to this moment to start figuring it out. That’s what I’ve done for a while now. Takes time, this, involves some re-reading and some pondering and a lot of tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep because this shit’s worrying me. Progress was slow, but steady.
And then, one day, I stepped outside at work to have a cigarette. A cold wind hit me like a blast from a homicidal industrial freezer. I wandered off a few steps, puffing, and the image of snow on the karst mountains hit me. And I knew Naaltoba, the old man who was dead to begin with, loved that snow. He didn’t get to see it often. He was usually down in the Siaan in the summer. But there was the midwinter break, and the festival, and this old man joyously grabbing whatever noisemaking implement was to hand and joining this line of people raising a ruckus while Ticaal’s mother pretended to disapprove.
What was this old man, whom the family didn’t like, doing down there with them at midwinter?
And then that thunderbolt struck: what if he was the one who actually held the family together?
Now, you may think I ran straight back to Scrivener and began typing like a fury, but I didn’t. That seed needs time to germinate. I continued plugging away on the History of Ticaal. And I kept considering whether this was the truth, whether this old man whom everybody thought was a bad influence on Ticaal but ended up hanging round with the family all the time anyway was actually their center of gravity, and if they would fly apart now that he was gone. It felt right. And it explained so many other threads of thought that had been spun out. And it provided a framework.
Sunday night, I’d made it to the point in the History of Ticaal where he meets Naaltoba for the first time, and how that changed his life, and I found myself doing work that will provide fodder for this novella, another one currently stalled, the novel its own self, and possibly much else besides. That, I can tell you, is an excellent feeling. I’m starting to understand. And when I’m done with this, within the next few days, I should be able to return to the current novella and get through (hopefully) to the end. Then I can revise to tighten up everything, in light of this new understanding of what this story is really All About.
So, what are the takeaways for you in all this babble?
If you get stuck, don’t be afraid to walk away. Not far, mind you. Don’t just stop writing, or move on to the next shiny project that will quickly stall. Spend some time dealing with the incidentals. Figure out what you don’t know and set out to know it. Let your subconscious do the hard work while you accomplish some of the necessary busy work. Allow yourself to do the stuff that isn’t necessarily putting words on the page, but is going to get better words on the page later.
I’ve discovered writer’s block isn’t so much a matter of a lack of inspiration as, quite often, a signal that some shit needs to be figured out. Don’t be afraid to figure it. Writing’s about telling a story, yes, but so much more goes in to that than just the words the reader will see.
And never ever forget that the notebook can be your flotation device when you’re lost at sea.