What I Know After Three Weeks

You’ve been here.

I took a week away to do some professional writing and to help organize a local friend’s memorial service, but this past week, I was back at it, and blew through another 9,000 words. Absolutely incredible, it feels like molasses while you’re in it, but at the end of the day you’ve written a real, meaningful scene.

Lots of stuff happened in the story this week, but we’re in the point of the book where it becomes a spoiler if I tell you too much about plot. Ray becomes a little less of a farmer, and Cale becomes a little more of a farmer (to his chagrin), and everybody has a few too many margaritas made in the bad midwestern style with Mr & Mrs T premix.

All I knew is that the Royals had lost their sparsely attended afternoon game against the Texas Rangers, I’d finished my chile rellenos and then my enchiladas verdes, and a sequence of large, frosted yellow glasses had come across the booth and been emptied. They tasted like Mountain Dew with tequila, and I didn’t care.

Everybody’s a little more complicated now. And we’ve hit the part of the storytelling where “themes” are emerging. I didn’t put them there, but I’m starting to see similarities between different characters’ problems, mildly different tones of the same dilemma, so I can now keep those categories in mind and bring them forward when they make sense. But I think that themes have to be inductive. You just have to start with characters, and let patterns emerge. I’ve read too many books where the author clearly started with patterns and then pressed some misshapen characters onto them, characters that never once became people.

This is also the place in the manuscript where questions of pace start to become more important. The opening of a book is easy to pace, it just natively wants to go fast. You’re introducing everything all at once, place and people and contexts and competitions. But now, sixty-five pages in, we know everybody we’re gonna know, we know all the places we’re gonna be, and you can’t rely on simple novelty to make the reader go on to the next page—and, as Peter Ho Davies says, “Novels, in the most basic sense, whether we’re talking about Jane Austen or John Grisham, are machines to make us keep reading.” So we’ve reached the point of the story where the machine is running efficiently, but could easily bog down if the added complexity isn’t just as interesting as our first glimpses of the characters. The saddest review of a book is “DNF 40%.” That’s what it looks like when a promising opener stops paying off.

I used to tell my students that the first four weeks of a course is new and exciting and filled with brand new things to think about. The last month of the course is tense and filled with production and deadlines. And that two months in between there takes a year and a half, you think it’s NEVER going to be over. Reading a book is like that, too. That middle half is brutally difficult, because it occupies the native emotional trough. When it’s played well, it seals you into that world completely. When it’s given even the least little bit of room, it squiggles into the corner and takes a nap.

That’s one of the great things about writing blind, about following the story where it leads me. If I’m excited by these new developments, then I can convey that excitement through tone and syntax, and it’s more likely to be exciting for a reader. If a writer is road-mapping a story, and they know they’re at A and need to be at B pretty soon, it’s easy to take the nice dull interstate and see nothing along the way. I get to follow my characters off-road, into a Mexican restaurant after a bad late-morning doctor’s visit.

Weepy, woozy Tex-Mex music was playing, the walls were draped with Christmas lights and sombreros, and all the windows had been darkened. Perfect. Funereal. I thought about sitting at the bar, but figured that if I drank enough, I might fall off the barstool, and I wasn’t wearing a bike helmet. So I let the pretty young hostess lead me to a booth, and chose the side from which I could see the TV. A young man appeared magically with water, chips and salsa, followed soon after by the room’s only lunch waitress. “Hey, hon, welcome to Playa Azul,” she said, rhyming the second word with dull. 

You’ve been in that room, you know you have. Nothing better than Mexican food for self-pity. So now your own experience of being there is mapped onto Cale’s, and your own emotional resonance colors his. I can borrow your own history to ease you through the increased density of the trip.

Every time I do this, I learn something new. I can’t imagine anything more fun.

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