Thursday, December 30, 2004

You'll be sorry you asked

OK, as requested, here's another "how's the novel coming?" status update. Read it at your own risk, since I can't promise that it will be anywhere near as entertaining or thought-provoking as previous updates. Fair warning: I may have repeated some of this previously, but since I'm the only one reading it, I don't really care. The history helps to put things in perspective.

After several years of saying, "I really should write a book about this," I finally bit the proverbial bullet this year and started writing in January. In fits and starts, I have kept going all year, and just finished chapter 8 this week. Word count-wise, I'm at about 40K, so if my estimates are correct and I really am somewhere between one-third and halfway done, then this will be about a 100K-word book. Right in the sweet spot for satirical fiction: not so long as to excite comparisons with Twain, but not so short that it's filed with the Bathroom Reader series in the bookstores.

The book is tentatively titled Hollywood.bomb©. It provides a humorous look inside a hot young software company, where you can see what happens when social norms are relaxed in deference to technical prowess, and what happens when the brainy, esoteric world of software collides with the hype-driven superficiality of Hollywood.

Hmm, that sounds pretty good. I might save that for my query letter.

I spent the first half of this year playing around with the plot and characters, thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of satire, and generally avoiding putting anything that looked like a plot on virtual paper. Then in July I took advantage of the rest of my family's annual summer pilgrimage to my in-laws' house, and took a one-week writing retreat to see if I could really write when I tried. Turns out that I can, just not very quickly.

One week of "full-time" writing got me through three chapters, and another month resulted in a fourth. Then I slowed down again and spent a lot of time saying, "I really should write tonight," or, "I should remember that for my book." I recruited some relatives to read what I had so far, and was rewarded with chuckles, guffaws, and the occasional belly laugh. And that was before they read what I wrote (ba-dump bump!).

Finally, I participated in NaNoWriMo and got serious about writing nearly every night. Once again, I was reminded that I can write, just not very quickly. I also learned that an hour of writing a night isn't as painful as I thought it was, and that I don't miss TV that much when I don't watch. This caused an unfortunate drop in the value of my Netflix subscription, but it was a small price to pay for creative productivity. Chapters 5, 6, and part of 7 resulted from this tortoise-like sprint, but a new habit was born.

I caught a series of colds in November and early December -- actually, I'm still getting over one now -- which sapped much of my energy. I went back to knowing I should write, but really just wanting to slump in my "Big Man" easy chair and watch football. Or Buffy, Season Two, I wasn't picky. I mustered up the energy for a bout of writing here and there, and even took advantage of some slow times at work, and managed to complete Chapter 7 and start Chapter 8.

I took a week off for Christmas, too. My dream was to get in at least three four-hour writing sessions over the vacation, but managed only one. On the other hand, my wife's presents were wrapped as well as I could make them, and we have almost decided on the color of the new living room furniture. Four hours was enough to finish Chapter 8, though, which was satisfying. I think that Chapter 9 will go quickly, as well, since I have already written one long scene that will go there. I just need to fill in around it and come up with a few minor plot twists to keep things interesting.

Probably the hardest thing for me about this process is that it takes so darn long. I have never had to wait more than a couple of weeks to complete a personal project, and have always dashed off anything I needed to write in a day or so. To maintain the energy and purpose over a long haul of a year (and counting) has been a real test of my patience and commitment. It's also really hard to wait for the fun parts of the book to arrive. When I started seriously considering this book (see: January through June), I came up with some very funny scenes and concepts that I thought would make the book. Unfortunately, as with most comedies, the action has to build up to the funniest stuff. So I have had to wade through exposition and character introductions and all kinds of other setup before I can get to the really good parts. In fact, I'm still not there. I have been able to write some stand-alone scenes that won't actually happen for many more chapters, so that has helped somewhat. At least I don't have to worry about forgetting that really funny image or that perfect line between now and Chapter 16. But the best part, the culmination of many interactions and tensions between characters, where everything explodes in a big messy climax, is still a ways off, and I don't feel that I can write it now.

I am also seeing something else firsthand that I have always heard authors say, but which sounded like fanciful artist-speak to me: the story changes as you write it. Now, I don't have characters waking me up in the middle of the night with a story to tell -- don't get me started on the guy who claimed that -- but I do find myself throwing things in that I had never have thought of until just that moment, things that turn out to be integral to the plot or a characters arc. That's a big part of the reason that I can't write the big scenes yet: there are pieces missing from them that I don't even know about now. if I tried to insert them into a previously written scene later, I think it would be awkward at best, contrived at worst. Those things are going to come together naturally, but I have to wait to get there.

In books, movies, or even TV shows, I love it when a story or a joke comes all the way back around to the beginning, and uses things that you didn't even know were important until just then. Arrested Development is the best example of this on TV that I have seen, with no element ever wasted. I always thought that you had to intricately diagram every aspect of your story to make that happen, but now I'm starting to think that maybe you don't, that you can just let these things fall where they may and gather them up at the end. That's a great relief to me. I don't think I'd have the patience to do it otherwise.

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