Tuesday, January 8, 2013

For Smythe, Who Loves Hand Shadows

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. 

*not really. 
**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. 


Jessica said...

OMG Laini Taylor! I also have a monkey named Smythe who sits in my lap sipping melted ice cream while I write in the morning! We are SO alike! :)

Actually, the "Smythe" moment here for me was when you described the difference between outlining and writing the story. The planing phase is being on the outside, and writing the story is living in it. Because that's me, right there, today. I've finally gained access to the house and you know what? It's different on the inside than I imagined! But I have to just go with it, you know, and let go of what I thought it would be like. And the silver tureen that I'm going to take away from this insightful post of yours is this: have the faith in myself and trust in the story that I will be able to figure it out. Yes. Yes! Thank you, dear icon. :)

Laini Taylor said...

Jessica, how weird that our routines are so similar! One critical difference though. The tureen of melted ice cream is for me. Smythe munches eggshells and fingernail clippings. Ha!

But yes, the "inside" the story thing. Congrats on getting into the house! In my experience, once that happens, it may not be exactly what you expect, but it'll be richer and stranger in wonderful ways. Go you!

Leigh Smith said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again: You're a genius! Agreed that this example about the house from the inside and out (I, too, am very writerly) is so perfect. I will use this from now on to explain the difference to my husband about knowing vaguely what will happen in the book I'm writing and what actually goes on when I write it. I always tell him that it has a mind of its own (which sounds a touch cray to non-writers).
Btw, just forced (gently) Daughter of Smoke and Bone into the hands of a friend who doesn't really read a lot. I know she'll love it!

Bryan B. said...

The holes! The holes!

--an excerpt from my own novel writing.

And this makes me happy for when I turn in my first draft to my editor next week. I have nothing figured out.

Connie Onnie said...

I was teaching my nephew how to make shadow puppets on Sunday. It was so cute how he would say "Connie is this a shadow puppet?" Also my good ideas never come until the last possible minuet. And yes it stresses me out until my brain is finally like oh you need me to work ok here you go.

Savannah J. Foley said...

I'm so glad you shared this with us today. I'm fiddling with a side project while my agent reviews my ms, and the process has me in agony. After having to rewrite my sleeping beauty retelling once I figured out how to fill one of those big holes, I promised myself I wouldn't go into another story without knowing that big stuff again.

...But that's not really how it works, is it? Your metaphor explains it so simply; planning is being outside looking in, and it's not until you're inside the house that you know what it's really like in there. There are rooms, corners, and doorways in places you can't see from the street.

Sigh. This means I just have to accept my fate as a 'do it from scratch twice' kind of writer. Gee, thanks ;-)

Laurence King said...

Thank you for this, Laini! You describe it so perfectly, the planning and the writing. It is heartwarming (to me anyway) to know that so many of us feel the same way. A solidarity front of sort against the frustration I often feel when I haven't worked things out yet. Thank you for putting it all into perspective...

Jessica said...

Oh, the ice cream is for you? I see. Because if it's melted, then it doesn't technically count as ice cream for breakfast. Genius!

I have my monkey trained to lick all of the dust off the hardwood floors. No need for a mop OR a vacuum. And did you know about the disinfecting properties of monkey saliva? ;)

Jenn said...

Holes like swiss cheese! That is definitely the beginnings of a manuscript. It's often when I meet with my writers group that I get a better sense of what is and isn't.

Refreshing to know that we all have our holes to plug in and it's not so easy as it seems. But awesome writers like you and Chabon make it seem that way. Dang it.

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