Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Turning the Corner and Heading for Home

By Martha Reed

About a month ago I sat down with the outline for my new novel just to see where it was heading and how the story was holding up. At that point I was about halfway done, writing Chapter 12, and things were looking pretty good and moving steadily along. I surprised myself by keeping up a steady pace, a chapter a week, which is a pretty good clip for me because I’m notorious slow and probably too meticulous for a writer but there it is; that’s the way I work, that’s my pace. I hit the next three chapters in a row and was heading for home when I caught that fearful cold everyone is getting and it cut me right off at the knees. I was down for four straight days of fever and when I tried to write for a week afterward my head felt about as creative as a bucket of paint.

I got a little depressed because I had been having such a rare good run but I’ve learned to give it time and not to stress out over things I can’t control, like colds. It’s one of those “inner critics” Anne Lamott talks about in her book Bird by Bird, which I recommend every chance I get to anyone who plans on writing. Stuff happens, and you have to allow yourself the time to get over it and then pick everything up again and move on. Luckily, there is an upside in that I’ve done so much writing I can trust myself to be able to pick the storyline back up again when I can, and not be afraid that I'll forget where I'm going. Having an outline helps hugely; I can review my notes to rediscover my thread and I'm back on track.

Oddly enough, having some down time away from my story and in the middle of my manuscript may have helped simply because it slowed me down. I’m very happy of where I was until the cold, and last weekend when I picked up Chapter 16 it was very slow going for the first couple of pages. It was downright hard but I’m sure every writer has been in that place where sometimes you just have to grind it out. So I dug in and started grinding out the paragraph transitions and a funny thing happened – when I got about halfway through Chapter 16 because I was working so slowly I had the time to realize that 16 was actually two chapters worth of information, 16 and a new 17 that hadn’t been planned in my outline but if I included a new and completely blank 17 it would allow a major character of mine to step out of the shadows and take on a whole chapter devoted just to her. Funny thing is, because of how powerful this character is in my mind, when she found out that she might actually get a whole chapter devoted just to her own particular splendor she ran with it. I actually felt the mental shift in my story line as it expanded to include the suggestion of a new chapter as a new idea as it took hold. Now, when I look back on my outline, I think ‘of course!’ adding that chapter makes perfect sense and I can’t imagine writing it any other way.

And now, just because I needed a lift and you may too, I’d like to recommend a great movie: Seabiscuit. If you ever wonder if your writing is important or if what you do has meaning, curl up and watch this movie about underdogs and the triumph of persistence and then get back to work!


Annette said...

I've been away from my manuscript since the first of the year and not due to a cold (glad you feel better, Martha). In just the last few days, I've picked it up again and started revising to get my head back into that world. It is amazing what happens when you've been away a while.

Anonymous said...

I love that movie!

Anonymous said...

Yes, now I understand why some writers never stop, and as soon as they're finished they start the next one. As long as you know there is a next one, it would be nice to keep up the momentum.

Anonymous said...

Even better, read the book, Seabiscuit! The author overcame overwhelming odds to write that story (and it's more accurate than the movie). Laura Hillenbrand had absolutely devastating health problems; she quite literally wrote the book in longhand while lying on her back, unable to get comfortable in any other position because of something like fibromyalgia. (I can't recall if that was it, but something similarly painful.) Talk about overcoming hurdles. She wrote an article for the New Yorker Magazine about it, called "A Sudden Illness" that won the 2003 National Magazine Award.