In September, Michael Chabon wrote a piece for Rolling Stone magazine that begins this way:
"A novel in progress is a box of holes. As you go along you keep trying to fill them, until you run out of stomach, patience or box. You never run out of holes. When I was writing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the biggest hole, unfilled for the longest time, was the super-powered costumed hero dreamed up by my eponymous protagonists. Every gambit had already been played, often several times: all the animals, all the colors, all the power sources, all the gems and legends and meteorological phenomena, all the synonyms for "amazing" and "fast." Furthermore, I needed the hero invented by my heroes to reflect, embody or at least offer ironic commentary on their struggles, their conflicts, maybe even on the theme of the novel itself. For years I plugged that particular hole with a crude stopper -- a wielder of light-blasts with the lame moniker of Captain Sunbeam. Then, one random day fairly late in the game, the muse tossed me a life buoy ..."
He goes on to say that he read something that gave him the idea he'd been searching for and hoping for, and if you have read the book then you know: the superhero in question is: the Escapist.
When I read the above, I was floored. I was absolutely floored to learn that the Escapist hadn't been in the mix from the get-go. I haven't read Kavalier & Clay for a few years, but in my memory, the Escapist is rooted so deeply in every aspect of that book, I can't imagine how the author could have been working on it for years before that piece fit into place. How much revision did he do to sink those roots down so exquisitely? A lot, I assume, but you would never guess there had ever been a hole. Chabon says above that he hoped the hero would embody the theme of the novel, and he does so perfectly, that ... I'll say it again, I'm just floored that he wasn't there all along.
(If you haven't read this magnificent novel, treat yourself. It's one of the best books I've ever read.)
Anyway, I've been meaning to write something about this ever since I read Michael Chabon's article, because it was one of those moments for me, one of those silly moments, you know, when you feel temporary kinship and solidarity with an icon because of a serendipitous small similarity? You know, like: Oh my god, Angelina Jolie likes cake too! We're so alike! Ha. Seriously though, I get this little twinge of happy satisfaction whenever I'm reading about an author I admire and discover that there is something we share, like that we both write in the morning with our monkey in our lap, sipping melted ice cream out of an antique silver soup tureen. (That is my process, if you're wondering. Every. Day. And my monkey's name is Smythe.)
I know it's silly. It doesn't mean there is any real similarity, or any connection at all, but I guess we're always sort of feeling for connections whether we mean to or not, little validations, little see I'm normals. (I'm so normal.) And this was one. Me and Michael Chabon are like this.
A novel in progress is totally "a box of holes." Oh, so many unknowns. It's crazy how much you don't know when you sit down to write the book that you think you have all figured out. I feel like writing a book is, before anything else, a sounding of the depth of one's own cluelessness. You know when you hear those crazy factoids (like there are a hundred billions neurons in the brain, the same as stars in our galaxy**) that make your brain fold in on itself? Well, if you were confronted with the number of THINGS YOU DON'T YET KNOW ABOUT YOUR BOOK it would be like that too.
Sometimes the holes are tiny little gaps you'll fill in later, but sometimes they're major things upon which the resonance of your book will depend. There was a major hole in DAYS OF BLOOD & STARLIGHT. It was ... well, it was the thing that is revealed in Chapter 65. It is a revelation, something that changes the whole tone of the rebellion and pretty much gives Karou a leg to stand on, impetus to stand up and get herself together and be defiant. It is a really important Thing, and you want to know when I figured out what it was? THE DAY I HAD TO SEND MY EDITOR ALVINA THE FIRST DRAFT.
Yeah, in the first draft, there was a big gaping hole. There was no Thing yet, no Very Important Thing*** to propel Karou toward her MOMENT. Basically, when Alvina received the manuscript, there was a bracketed apology, like [I'm so so so sooooo sorry but there is a big hole here!!!] I was mortified. Mortified. Oh, also, I hadn't written the ending yet (!!!) but believed I would by the time she got to it in a day or two (I did not.) I was up against a deadline, I was so close to the end, and I was still going on blind faith that I would figure out how to GIVE EVERYTHING MEANING AND RESONANCE AND TIE IT ALL TOGETHER. And I did, truly at the last possible moment. Geez, self, give me a heart attack why don't you?
This is always the case to some degree, and for the most part, I have faith in myself that I will figure it out. I don't expect to or want to try to fill every hole up front. So often, for me, the important things arise organically out of the writing. The more you write, the more you know. For me, the planning, brainstorming, outlining stuff (I rarely outline, and only in times of desperation) is done from outside the story, looking in. The writing is done from inside the story. It's like the difference between looking into a house from the sidewalk outside, and being in the house, maybe lying on the carpet in your pajamas, making hand shadows on the wall. For Smythe, who loves hand shadows****. You can't truly know your story from the outside. You just can't. So for me, I trust that the story will build itself toward the knowledge and understanding I need to fill the holes. And if it doesn't, I have a brainstorming session and think at it from every angle. And if that doesn't work, I have another brainstorming session and think at it from no really every angle because I missed some last time because there are an infinite number of angles, and so on. Keep working till I figure it out, that's how it goes.
Smythe says good night.
**I cannot verify this claim with the rudimentary scientific instruments in my laboratory.
***"Thing" and "Very Important Thing" are examples of my highly sophisticated writerly vocabulary. Another such is "cool."
****And now I want to write a book called FOR SMYTHE WHO LOVES HAND SHADOWS. Don't anyone steal it.