Grinding It Out

10Jul10

Wow, it’s been way too long since my last post, but it’s been a very busy and demanding month.

My last post was made when I was  reshuffling the sequence of events in Small Fish. The index card concept was beautiful for organizing and writing the changes. Once the rough changes were done, I reverted to a rudimentary process where I read the entire manuscript and listed the sequence of events on a legal pad  with three columns – page number on the left, event in the middle, and notes to make on the right.

The 12 pages of notes spotlighted some significant knots in the sequencing – for instance, the mentioning of an indictment before it had occurred, a conviction before it had occurred – and in the end, even the final edited manuscript that I sent to CW, I discovered, had a few small glitches. It’s a vexing process!

But that’s just old Fish.

I am one of the thousands of writers whose first novel was squeezed out of personal experience – in my case experience that simmered in my psyche for a period of 15 years. When Small Fish was completed, it was time to get on to the next one – which required the creation of a plot that had nothing to do with my personal experience. Could I do it? Was I just a story teller with one story to tell? Or could I invent something entirely new, even to me?

The answer to that question is still a long way from reaching the jury, but the process might be instructive.

First, I have the good fortune that a friend and client is a retired homicide detective, and he’s shared a lot of his experiences with me. That provided the germ of the plot for number two – the murder of a drug dealer and how it threatened the reputations and careers of law enforcement personnel, prosecutors and other innocent bystanders.

With Small Fish finally out of the way, I had no excuse not to finally dive into this draft and forge ahead. I’d squeezed out 6,000 words over the last 4 months. I’d barely made a dent, and my plot development was still nascent – a simple two page plot summary, bones with no meat.

I needed to isolate myself from the distractions of family and legal work to get a handle on this. As luck would have it, my dear friend lives in a lovely cottage on the water in Hull – his family was away for three weeks and he was traveling for business. He left me his key and a free pass. How cool – a shaded porch twenty feet from the water!

Tuesday, the temperature on the porch was 98 – in the shade. I brought a small fan with me, but it blew hot air. I sat on that porch in the hot shade and sweated out the hardest 1000 words I’ve ever written. In 3 hours, 4 pages. But more progress was made than just those words, because the sweat had produced pictures, ideas, meat for the bones.

During the night, the wind had shifted to the east, and the cool Atlantic breeze dropped the temp to the low 80’s. With a less hostile environment, I thought I’d easily hit 2000, but heh – I didn’t count on the construction crew working next door. My headphones and Pandora kept out the nail gun and skill saw, but I’m not at the top of my game with Duke Robillard in my ears. I eked out another 1000 words, but at the very end of the day, as I was struggling to finish a scene, at once a bubble burst somewhere inside, and for the last ten minutes, I wrote out the thought picture. It contained several scenes and a major new plot point. I now have a nice, clear picture of where I am going – for the next 20k, anyway.

The point of this (beside posting something before everyone forgets who the hell I am) is this:

I’ve heard a million times during the past 4 years that a “real writer” writes “every day.” I think that’s bullshit, if taken literally, but figuratively axiomatic. What we do to be “writing,” is open to interpretation. Building thought pictures and working through plot lines in your head at 2:30 am? That’s “writing,” as far as I’m concerned – or it #$%^%$ better be, because that’s what happens in my brain – every day – and if it doesn’t count, I’ll be very angry to find that out when I meet the Big Guy.

Whatever it’s called, and whenever it’s done, it’s definitely something I can fairly describe as grinding it out. Sometimes it’s a pleasant feeling, sometimes it’s like a root canal. But it’s necessary.

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12 Responses to “Grinding It Out”

  1. 1 Margaret

    Pete, Good for you for grinding it out. You probably don’t have time, but look up John Irving’s recent You Tube interviews about writing, the craft and the difficulties. He’s a master of course, but he’s humble and gives some good advice. I want to acknowledge your achievement. congratulations.

    • 2 Pete

      Hey those sound like fun, Margaret – I’ve always got time to listen to a guy like that! I think we all do.

  2. 3 Phillipa

    “The 12 pages of notes spotlighted some significant knots in the sequencing – for instance, the mentioning of an indictment before it had occurred, a conviction before it had occurred – and in the end, even the final edited manuscript that I sent to CW, I discovered, had a few small glitches. It’s a vexing process!”

    You wait until a copy editor and proof reader has had a go.

    Glitches are like lice, you think you’ve got ’em all and then just as the MD of the publishing house opens the first printed copy the little sucker appears – right on the page he turned to.

  3. Pete, I have those grinding it out moments too. They better count! And no, I don’t write every single day. But I do think about it and work on little scenes. Do mental gymnastics with them, so that when I do get them down in black and white, they’ve been coreographed to death. Nice to hear you’re still swingin’ for the fences. Keep in touch. 🙂

    • 6 Pete

      My problem, Lisa, is that when I do the mental gymnastics, I frequently FORGET the brilliant idea I had.

  4. I count all of it as writing – the revising, the plotting in my head, working on the query, thinking about the next story, all of it. The ‘writing’ is only part of the whole! 🙂

  5. Dear Pete,

    And there’s the conundrum: what’s “writing,” what’s daydreaming and what’s procrastination. I’ve heard many writers say that they concentrate on a plot problem before going to bed and voila! in the morning they have the answer. Doesn’t work for me. I merely muse and mull and then often have a hell of a time falling off to sleep.

    When stuck on an idea, or staring at a blank page, I play Spider Solitaire, supposedly to free my mind. Whoops — 20 hands later, the mind’s not all that free. But an idea just may slip in between the spaces. Then again, maybe not.

    I find that there’s an ideal that I haven’t reached yet: the mull time versus the writing time. We need both — but we don’t need to kid ourselves that procrastination is just that. If only mulling meant writing, then I’d be on my 10th novel by now!

    Here’s to highly productive “mull” time for you.

  6. Great post. I agree on what a “real writer” does.

    And I’m so glad to hear things are going we’ll. I had the same fear, did I have another book in me. I finally seem to have found it and it’s a huge relief.

    Keep us updated.

  7. Peter, it sounds like you’re making progress. And yes, I believe that any time we turn an idea or a phrase over in our brain we are writing. It just doesn’t happen to be on paper in a way we can share with others…yet.

    Best luck as you grind it out.

  8. 11 Malc

    I’d like to own Diary of a Small Fish. (Have credit card, would purchase.) Where or to whom should I apply?

  9. Hi Pete,

    I completely agree with you. Writing is mostly dreamtime – we can’t put it all down in one go, you have to allow the ideas to percolate through. The time that you spend at the keyboard is the thin end of the wedge!

    I do my best writing when I’m walking, it’s just difficult to keep a record of what I come up with. Poems tend to come the easiest because I can repeat them over and over again, working through the problems and by the time I get home, I can write a finished poem down.

    Go Pete!


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