Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Strangers In My Head

So I had this whole other post in mind.

I was going to share some of my research into Chicago gangs, fascinating stuff that’s been a big part of my work-in-progress. Had the entry written and everything. And then something unexpected happened: I finished my new novel.

Okay, unexpected is an odd word choice. When I laid that on my wife, she doubled over. When she could breath again, she pointed out that the ending had snuck up on me stealthy as an elephant—that I had in fact spent the last three months saying things like, “I’m so goddamn close I may as well start vacation now,” and "the end is nigh!"

Which I suppose is true, if you want to get all technical.

Still, even though I could feel the end approaching, and even though I work from a synopsis and thus knew approximately what was going to happen, the ending still snuck up on me. I finished on Friday about 5:00, and if any of you heard a strange whoop rising from the Midwest, the kind of noise that frightens newborns and sets dogs to howling, well, that was me, and I apologize.

Anyway, finishing the book got me thinking about endings. About what it means to finish something, especially something so personal and deliberate as a novel.

A book takes about a year to write. Give or take, of course: if you’re Joe Konrath, you can turn out a book in the time it takes to read this column; if you’re Thomas Harris, you finish a book whenever you goddamn well feel like it. But for most of us, a year is both the expectation and a pretty good measure of the time required.

Of course, it doesn’t take a year to write. For me, at least, the actual writing is a smallish percentage of my day. The bulk of the time is spent pacing in small circles, banging head-shaped holes in the drywall, and resigning myself to my utter lack of talent. Somewhere along the line, usually about the time my forehead hits a wall stud, something clicks. My subconscious has gotten off its tookus and delivered up the goods, and I scramble to my keyboard and jam for an hour or three.

But even this is a simplification. Because the truth is that we’re always writing. That’s part of what’s both magical and scary about starting a new project—it’s like welcoming houseguests that won’t move out for a year. The first weeks are delightful, spent getting to know them, listening to them assure you this will be easy, watching them flex their muscles. But as the year goes on, their novelty wears off. They become part of you, and everything you see and do is filtered through their eyes. Sometimes they’re wonderful friends, and sometimes you want to slap the shit out of them.

But either way, so long as you are diligently putting in your time, every day you creep a little closer towards the two sweetest words in the English language: THE END.

One day you realize that goal is in sight. You’re on the down-rushing slope of all your character arcs. Instead of introducing complications, you’re resolving them. The dominoes have been set up and nudged, and now your goal is simply to find the most elegant way to describe their fall. And what’s interesting to me is that the closer I get to the end, the less I’m planning what will happen, and the more I’m seeing it.

Which is what I mean when I say it snuck up on me. I knew what had to happen. As in any good story, the conclusion was inevitable. But the specifics, the details, they worked themselves out. Twists cropped up that I hadn’t anticipated. Characters made plays that took me by surprise. Emotional and thematic ties plaited themselves neatly into gun-battle action. I don’t want to suggest I just leaned back and typed, gasping in astonishment. But there was a momentum powered by a year of steady forward motion, and it smashed through a lot of obstacles.

Norman Mailer has a book on writing called The Spooky Art, and I've always dug on the title. There is something spooky to writing. And part of it is that after a year of thought and planning and obsession, the ending of my own book took me by surprise.

What about you? Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you ever feel that momentum?

Does it feel spooky?

42 comments:

Mike said...

Congratulations on finishing. Is that the rough draft or the whole ball of wax? Either way, I'm opening to feel that momentum someday. I've made it to about 15K one time and then realized I had nothing going on and nothing more to say. Someday.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

First, Holy Congratulations, Batman!

Second, this was sort of amazing to come across just this second because I think I just finished, too.

I write in layers so it's not like I hadn't written to the end before, but I just wrote to the end again, and have been sitting here for an hour thinking - hmm, I guess I was more done than I thought, because now it's just rewriting, baby.

How about that?

I don't think I've processed it yet. Perhaps I need a drink.

Spooky is right.

ab said...

"That’s part of what’s both magical and scary about starting a new project—it’s like welcoming houseguests that won’t move out for a year. "

That sentence made me jump in my chair. That's exactly how it feels! As soon as those characters and that story has entered your mind, they're stuck there. There is no true rest, whatever you do during the day, until the story is finished.

So congratulations to ending your new book, Marcus, and (at least temporarily) being a free man!

Annika Bryn

Chris said...

Spooky, sure, but that's what I write for. I'm a compulsive outliner, but I love finding surprises in the empty spaces -- the ghost in the machine, I guess.

I'm polishing my first novel now, but crossing that finish-line on the first draft was like nothing else I've ever done. I drove my wife nuts for a month claiming I was on the brink, but that last day, when twenty pages flew by as fast as I could hunt-and-peck, I was surprised as hell.

Congrats, man. Now go and have a drink.

Duane Swierczynski said...

Congrats, Marcus!

And yeah, I know exactly what you're talking about. Especially the part about "always writing." For me, most of the battle takes place in my head, in random bursts. When I'm actually writing, sure, there's creativity at work, but it's usually reacting to an idea that hit me on the El six hours earlier. Wouldn't it be cool if...

I always have a hard time answering the question, "How long did it take you to write this book?" Both "three months" and "34 years" seem to be honest answers.

Marcus Sakey said...

Thanks for the support! My feet haven't touched the ground since Friday--I feel like I've been humping an anvil around, just finally set it down.

It's only the first draft, but I don't write in layers, so reaching the end is major. There will be tons of polishing and detail work before I feel ready to ship it to my editor, but the bulk of the thing, the framework, that's complete.

Duane and Chris, it's like you guys are reading my mail. Get out of my head. ;)

Also, hope no one minds me diverting my own comment thread, but I wanted to take a moment to offer hearty congratulations to fellow Outfit member Libby Fischer Hellman, who was just nominated for an Anthony Award for her short story "House Rules," part of the MURDER IN VEGAS anthology. Go Libby!

D.A. Davenport said...

Marcus,
What a great achievement. Con-
gratulation! I'll be the first one in line in Denver to read it.

Even though I'm a neophyte compared to the rest of you, short stories only, I was delighted at how everyone here spoke about the spookiness of writing. I though I was weird. The first story I started became an obsession and things about my charater began to BE there, with almost no pre-planning. She was speaking, in my head, with an English accent. She was a pre-Columbian fanatic...and that's what she stayed. Her reactions were her own, her breakdown was her's...it was very spooky. It's like being posessed or channeling some other entity. Of course, I crack down a bit when I re-write and polish later, but that initial burst of creation is almost scarey, especially when I am writing someone who is dark...then I DO get worried about where it's coming from. And that happens more and more as I break through my own reserves and just let it go! But I have to say, it's a good kind of spooky!

Michael Dymmoch said...

Congratulations, Marcus.

What's even spookier is when you have the book all but finished, you have a witness coming in to ID the offender, and she says, "I never saw that guy before in my life."

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks for the kind words, Marcus. And to everyone else who's emailed me over the past two days. This was a total surprise... but a happy one. Amazing, when you consider the company I'm keeping: Nancy Pickard and Barbara Serenella?? Wow...

I know that obsessive compulsive feeling, Duane... and the spookiness... and the fact those characters grab you by the throat and won't let go.. in fact, barring any strange developments in Chicago, I'll be blogging about that soon.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Man, I am so envious. I'm sitting here sweating the deadline for the new book and wondering if I'll ever make it. I get the momentum, sure, but only in fits and starts and I'm looking forward to crossing that finish line.

At this point, however, it seems a long, long, ways away.

Congratulations!

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Great news, Marcus. Frances Fitgerald once said that, for a novelist, a work in progress is a job and finishing it is something like getting fired. But it's more like getting fired when you know you have an even better job waiting. As proud as you are of what you've just done the next job promises to be even better and that's part of the excitement, I think.

And congratulations to Libby as well. That's awesome.

Marcus Sakey said...

Thanks again, all! Good news: my mother, who was kind enough to read the novel in two days, proclaims that it's the best book ever written by anyone. So it must be true. ;)

Don't sweat your deadline, Rob--you'll knock this book out of the park, just like the last one.

D.A. Davenport said...

Mothers are never wrong, Marcus. We know how gifted our children are and will stomp the snot out the world is it disagrees!

Kevin Guilfoile said...

My mother said my novel had "a lot of swearing" in it.

Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

I will read anthing Marcus's mother recommends.

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