A Momentary Lapse of Reason

Well, I guess I’d better fix it… (Rabbit, from Disney’s version of Winnie the Pooh)

I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels. Macro Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal—they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.

Zadie Smith, “That Crafty Feeling”

Revision is a funny thing. I revise at every second at the desk. Sometimes that’s sitting silently for thirty seconds while the next word arrives. Sometimes it’s going backward to the beginning of that paragraph and thinking about a better way to merge into the traffic stream I’m in. And sometimes it’s just leaning on the delete key for ten or twenty characters, digging out the decay until I get back to bone.

I’m one of the class of writers that Zadie Smith has identified as a Micro Manager. I wait for weeks at a time until someone shows up and makes a compelling enough case that his or her story needs to be heard. And then I tell it.

The most fundamental decision is to figure out where to start. Everyone’s story extends back to that first slap on the butt in the delivery room, but my interest in their story inevitably begins somewhat later than that. Mostly, I want to start with a scene that shows a character simultaneously successful and stuck, doing well enough but not at all well. That’s the tension I most often want to explore in my stories, so I listen for that point of weakness, where the grain is starting to separate, where the crotch in the wood will inevitably fail.

Once I have that, I don’t need to stop—except for meals, sleep, and email—until I get to “The End,” a few months later. The story just falls onto me like a giant wave, and I count myself lucky to not be lost in the curl.

When the wave spits me out, I rarely conduct major structural revisions. It would be like trying to find the same wave over again so that I could experiment with a new route. That ride is done, and all I can do is paddle out and wait my turn in the lineup until a new wave makes itself evident.

However.

There are almost always one or two spots in a story that are false. Many come from me being willful, from having some version of “Oh, I’ve got a terrific idea!” instead of just shutting up, paying attention, and letting my characters drive. And because they’re good ideas—MY good ideas—I don’t want to let them go, but I have an awful time fitting them into the organic story. They aren’t part of the story at all, they’re my cleverness intruding like some boorish drunk who wants to tell his tale to all his newfound pals, each of whom is scouting around for an exit.

Those are relatively easy to fix, because they’re so lightly attached to the whole. I can pluck them off after a few months of admiring them, and only the finest scar remains to be healed.

The more difficult ones come from having been tired, and just wanting some scene or another to end so I can go to bed, or get on to the next scene that’s already making itself evident. A five-page scene that takes three minutes to read takes two days to write. And after two days, I’m sometimes not patient enough to stick with it, and I’m enthused about what’s so obviously coming next, and so I come to some clumsy, “good enough” resolution or transition and move on.

I dealt with one of those today. I’d written a story some months ago, and the end of the story came too fast. The major, though quiet, drama had already gone by, and we just fell into the denouement. I wanted the resolution of her crisis to occur off-stage, because so much of what had mattered in her life had gone unseen and un-noted. But the move from her decision to the story’s off-ramp was just too abrupt, since the easy answer of the resolving action wasn’t there to provide its natural buffer.

I was about to send this story out to my writing group, and I didn’t want to be embarrassed by it. It was an obvious error, though its solution was anything but. And as I was reading it again, almost ready to send it out to my friends even with its misshapen joint, I saw a solution. Svetlana’s resolving action didn’t need to be seen, but her decision to do it needed to be more fully tied back into decisions we’ve already seen her make. If, as David Mamet has it, character is merely habitual action, then I needed to show this surprising decision as not surprising at all. So by slightly building up scene n–1, scene n didn’t need to change at all to feel far more natural, inevitable, true.

These are the things you can’t see when you work, the momentary lapse of reason that feels okay when you do it and subsequently just nags and worries and pesters. A solution is always possible. Just wait it out, and the answer will emerge.