Friday, June 28, 2013

Forward or Back?

Clipart.com, no. 14702038
I’ve spent the last few weeks pushing forward on The Winged Horse. My hope is to finish the rough draft by midsummer, so that I have a couple of months to fill in the missing sections and pull the plot into a single, more or less coherent thread before editing for clichés and style and all that good stuff. With luck, I’ll have the book in press by late fall, although as the days fly together and coalesce into weeks, that hope seems increasingly illusory. Still, it’s not (yet) impossible. I can dream.

But eighteen chapters in, it’s not always easy to remember exactly how I set up the story in the beginning. Did the bey join his son in drinking wine, or did he hold out for the nomadic favorite—fermented mare’s milk (koumiss)? Was the heroine present when her father stumbled? What, exactly, did they say?

Those questions sent me back to the beginning of the book looking for answers. I read it in the ePub version, as a reader would, to get the overall flow of the story—only to discover that after a rollicking if incomplete start, my hero and heroine came to a screeching halt in chapters 2, 3, and 4. I could feel my eyelids getting heavy, like the hypnosis patient in an old film. I became itchy, then annoyed, at these people who spent pages lost in thought.

I know, of course, why that happened. Nor need my readers fear that I ever intended to send the book to print with thirty-five pages of nonstop telling. My characters don’t (usually) emerge full-blown; instead, they play a kind of peekaboo, darting out to drop a line or three before ducking back behind the grilled screen, where they hover vaguely while I pound my head thinking of something for them to do that will reveal their souls to me. One option is just to let their thoughts flow, so that I can see what really moves them when they are not buffing their images for other people. Then, when I understand who they are and what they want, I can begin to write dialogue for them that both reveals their surface concerns and hints at those secrets they don’t dare share with the world because, like all of us, they fear mockery or humiliation or opposition.

After eighteen chapters, I have a good sense of Ogodai and Firuza, even Tulpar. I also have a better sense than when I started of nomadic society and how it functioned. Many things need to change in those opening chapters, some of them fundamental.

But should I go back and change them now or press on, as I originally intended, to the ending before returning to fix the beginning? It’s not as easy a question as it appears. Fundamental changes may alter the ending, so I may benefit from fixing the underlying plot line first. Yet rewriting—however necessary—can also be a form of procrastination. It’s so tempting to go back to the safe and familiar, the already written, rather than push on to a still murky future.

In the end, I went back: in part because I could see the solution and didn’t want to lose track of it; in part because my writing schedule at present, which allows about a day and a half of free-flow concentration plus whatever revisions I can cram onto my iPad in the evenings, doesn’t really provide the space for moving forward; and in part because I realized that at least one of the changes I had come up with would alter the story’s final resolution. So I will stay with revisions for a while, knowing that I still have two weeks of vacation (plus the July 4 long weekend) to push the plot to its conclusion.

What do you do, fellow writers, in the same situation?

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