Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Moebius Life

by Marcus Sakey

I've written five books now, and one of the things I've learned--along with the absolute necessity of caffeine--is that writing makes for a cyclical lifestyle. For me it goes something like this:

A period of blank wandering about, during which I read a lot and soothe myself with metaphor (a field has to lie fallow for awhile, you can't just plant crop after crop, etc.)

Growing panic which forces me to focus on one of the ideas that have been swirling in the back of my brain.

Weeks spent wrestling with the concept, freewriting, exploring variations, looking for a way to crack it open. Also, hating it and myself.

An arbitrary moment in which I decide I will start tomorrow, goddamnit.

The first day of writing, which is one of the more intense of the year. Spending hours looking for the opening sentence. Moving words around. Moving them back. In a good first day, I'll write a paragraph.

The second day, which is really the first of work. I sit down and for awhile, I feel like a professional. The story comes along, I build out the characters, I toy with mood and style. There's a sort of "la-la-la, I'm writing a book" feeling to things. Until...

Page 200. At which point I completely melt down. I've gone the wrong direction. Chosen my traveling companions unwisely. Darkness is setting in. Was that a wolf I just heard?

Between two weeks and five months of floundering about. I reread everything I've done. I try to put my finger on what it is exactly that's got me so troubled. Is it a flaw in the story? A character thread I need to reconsider? An upcoming plot point I no longer believe in?

Slowly I push past. There's a real temptation to abandon the book, but I've never done it, and I hope I never do. I suspect that if I did, I might be opening myself up to the kind of doubt you just can't afford. You can't actually hit reset in life, you can't reload the game at the beginning of the last level.

Eventually, things get back on track. I make good progress. My confidence returns, albeit tempered by the fear.

The climax, which is one of the more interesting and agonizing parts of the process. Interesting because of the million variations I play with, both alone and in conversation with other authors. There are so many ways to tell the same story,a nd so many ways to end it. But the thing about a really good ending is that it when you read it, it seems like the only possible way to finish the book. The agonizing part of the process is that until you figure it out,it's just one of the herd of options.

But eventually I spot it, the ending for me. At which point I write the remaining 50 - 100 pages in a mad fucking rush, often a week or two.

My wife takes me out for dinner and martinis.

Then there's the cooling off period, the rewriting, sending it to other people, receiving their reactions, and the like. This whole period is actually a sort of disengagement, though. You're beginning to unplug.

Finally, there's the part when the book is accepted and essentially done--not counting copyediting and so forth--and it's time to begin to start thinking about the next one.

In other words, see Step One.

Right now, I'm somewhere between Steps One and Two. It won't be long before the panic forces me to click over. It's an odd time. I feel very lucky and sort of guilty and a little blank, blank like the page I'll soon be facing. This cycle has started to become central to me. I realize that I very much mark my life by the story I'm telling at the time, and there's something quite sweet to that.

Though it would be sweeter if I knew what I was doing next.

For you writers, does this seem familiar, or do you do it differently? And if you're not a writer, what is it you use to mark your days? When I was in advertising, I know I saw things differently...

18 comments:

Delphine Pontvieux said...

hello Markus,
thank you for this enjoyable post!
especially the part "I realize that I very much mark my life by the story I'm telling at the time, and there's something quite sweet to that."
i can completely identify with that. When i was writing ETA, not only did i live with these characters while i was typing away, but i would dream of them every night, and they are pretty much the ones that told me where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do next.
Sometimes in real life, -say, while ordering a coffee- i would find myself pretending i was one of the characters and act the way i knew they would if they were in that same situation. there is something even more exciting about it is that no one but me at the coffee place knows that i'm playing a part in my own parallel world, and that is a very exciting and empowering feeling.

Delphine Pontvieux said...

I also happen to be in transition between writing books right now. Writing the first novel was a big undertaking for me, yet i was fueled by the energy of being a "first-time writer". i have started to write what could be the sequel to ETA (or maybe not, it is yet too early to tell), but i am yet to get in the groove of really throwing myself into it, which i find quite daunting at times as i now know what it implies for the months to come. Will it be as exciting as the first time? Will i be up to the task to deliver a great story? WIll it measure up to the first one? I feel like i am about to throw myself from an airplane again: i am already aware of the sensations to expect this time around, and yet, still, i cannot predict my landing.

Libby Hellmann said...

You nailed it, Marcus..

except that the feeling of panic never quite disappears for me, especially around the half way mark.

I am known to drink vast quantities of rum or wine during that period and I whine to anyone within earshot.

I'm just starting a new book as well... I've been doing research for almost 2 months, but it's only just now that I'm feeling comfortable enough to start writing.

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