Losing the Pulse

ImageThere is something so magnetic about a new idea.  It has a force all its own that drags you into a groove of creativity that is unmatched at any other time in your life.  It is such a high that Bill Burroughs would choose it over fixing – just kidding, he never chose anything over fixing.  But that feeling, that urgent need to write words on paper that we sometimes call the muse, is as ephemeral as smoke. 

Sometimes it fades on its own.  Sometimes the idea turns sour.  Sometimes you see something on TV that is a little too close to the idea you’re working on. But sometimes all it takes is a little disruption in routine. 

I had developed the SciFi story on my daily walks through the greenbelt behind my house and eventually the urge to write it down became too strong to resist.  I switched my attention from Pawn Takes Knight and the story just came streaming out.

Then it rained.  For three days.  Also, I went to the movies one night instead of writing.  The movie I saw, Star Trek: Into Darkness, really got in my head.  There was almost exactly as much wrong with it as was right with the first one and I simply could not stop cataloguing all the mistakes and missed opportunities. I am now worried that the Abrams team will fail to take ownership of the Star Trek universe they themselves created and will, instead, just start remaking old Trek movies with slight plot changes.

By the time I returned to work on the SciFi novel, I found the fire had died.  You ignore the groove at your own peril.  It will desert you.  I found myself sitting at my desk, fingers on keyboard, nothing coming out and no desire to type a single word.  This has happened before which is why I keep multiple projects in the hopper, but this time things turned out a little differently.

When I started writing this post, I planned to end it by saying I was going back to work on Pawn Takes Knight, but a few walks in the greenbelt following my irascible pointer (everyone in three neighborhoods knows his name because I’m constantly calling him back.  “That’s too far, Charley.  Charley!”) kept bringing to mind a line I intend to put somewhere in the middle of the book (looking at this planet’s version of a wolf, he says to himself, “I wish we had dogs.”) and that brought it all back.

If I can get the groove back that easily then this project stands a good chance of seeing a complete first draft written in one go, a rarity.  The downside of that being that if Pawn Takes Knight keeps getting pushed back, the people who once were interested in a sequel to The Vengeance Season will lose interest.




The Book of Greatest Impact

I started out very good at math.  Mostly because my father made me memorize my multiplication tables up to 12 and then showed me how you could break larger problems down and use the facts you knew to solve them.  But then I ran into algebra and trig and calculus and my brain looked at the numbers and symbols on the page and all I saw was static.

In the beginning it was all about apples and oranges.  I could understand a problem of division because I could act it out in my mind and it made sense.  If I had twelve apples and gave half away I would have six remaining.  But if I had a quadratic equation and I used the FOIL method to solve it… well, how does this tell me how many apples I have left?  But worse for me were the rules, like the aforementioned FOIL method.  It just seemed arbitrary. 

Then, just before I was heading overseas to begin my tour of suffering duty, a friend began raving about this very big book he was reading called Gödel, Escher, Bach.  This book, which was even thicker than a Stephen King novel, was about how the concepts of math and music and art are all entwined.  And if that didn’t make me want to read it, he informed me that the whole thing was about Gödel’s effort to prove the statement a = a and a <> a.  Oh, and the whole thing was told as a series of parables.

I can’t remember if I bought the book later or if he gave me a copy of it but somehow I ended up with this doorstop in one hand and a lot of time on the other and so I just began reading.

There is a lot to take away from Gödel, Escher, Bach – you should probably read it every year – but the thing that I took from it, the concept that changed my life, was that calculus and algebra and such things were just systems made up of rules.  These systems were like games.  If you played by the rules you would win a predictable prize, the correct answer, but if you violated the rules you would get a big mess.  It’s not how many apples you have left.  The system itself defines what the right answer is.

This simple concept that I didn’t need to see the justification for a system’s rules in order to use the system itself allowed me to get back into math and is directly responsible for a long career as a programmer.  I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it and after awhile it started to feel like a chore, especially as it got more and more into Theoretical Number Theory, but this may be the book that had biggest impact on my life.

Along with Treasure Island and Kidnapped.


Okay, so I caved.  I spent day after day walking in the greenbelt, thinking about the SciFi novel, laying out the plot, creating the characters and then one night I just pushed Pawn Takes Knight to one side and quietly started writing. 

Probably, this has to do with that lack of drama I talked about in the previous post.  Starting something new, going directly to the most pivotal scenes, beginning the character introductions, is so much more dramatic than the work of fleshing out the story. 

Technically, I am beholden to the readers out there waiting for the sequel to the Vengeance Season but I would be doing them a disservice if I were to force myself to plod along in an uninspired mood.  Besides, I’m pretty sure that this is just a minor diversion.  Once work on the SciFi novel loses its drama or I run into the intractable problems so common with a first draft, I’ll quietly slide right back to PTK and finish it.


Bolt From The Blue

I go through long periods of workman-like productivity, weeks and weeks when I simply sit down every day at the same time and turn out good work.  There’s very little drama involved during these periods which is why they are the most productive.

The drama comes before the productivity.  Days of pulling my hair out, long angry walks in the greenbelt, my mind constantly searching for some kind of inspiration while knowing full well that inspiration cannot be searched for, it has to search for you.  During this time, I wake in the middle of the night to jot down hurried descriptions of minor revelations.  I let my mind wander on those long greenbelt strolls because that’s when inspiration finds you: when you’re thinking about something else.

I have put the great big fantasy novel aside for now (as described previously, a book has to cool on the window sill for several months before I can make a true appraisal of a draft) and turned my attention to the sequel to The Vengeance Season, still called Pawn Takes Knight.  The previous draft of PTK did not turn out well.  I learned a lot about the story and the characters and what I wanted out of them but as far as pages, it was a total loss.  I had to start this draft, number five, from a blank sheet of virtual paper.

Blank paper, virtual or otherwise, always begins a new bout of raging drama for me.  I discovered a lot from the failed drafts, but mostly what I didn’t want to do.  It took a lot of distracted driving, long hikes, and lying in bed staring at the ceiling before the first realizations began to trickle in.  After a few weeks, I had jotted down all the answers to all of the problems I had encountered in previous drafts, and more importantly than that, I was once again in love with this story.

That’s how I know the period of solid work has begun: I am anxious to write every night.  During the difficult times, when I’m casting about for stray strands of brilliance, the approach of the hour for writing comes with a certain feeling of doom.  Not because I feel I’m being forced to write (that will always be a choice for me) but because I know that I will not accomplish much and what I do accomplish will be destined for digital dustbin.

But, like most people with at least a mild mental disorder, I have to admit that I miss the drama.  You can tell how little I have been thinking outside the lines by the sheer amount of time between posts on this blog.  I spend most of my time quietly writing away hoping for some missile of disruption to strike from the outside world.  Maybe in the form of an email (you know who you are) or a new movie or novel.  Something that gets the heart rate up and returns a little bit of that electricity that distinguishes craft from work.

That’s not to say that the work I’m doing now isn’t inspired.  It’s just that it’s filled with the minor surprises that are so important to keep prose lively rather than the thunderbolts of realization that knock you out of your chair.  It’s good.  It’s fine.  To keep myself from getting to antsy, I’m spending my walks thinking about the scifi novel that I will be working on after I finish this draft of PTK.

Wow, that’s a lot of work stretched out in front of me and it will be at least a year before I will have anything to send to agents.

Great.  Now I’m depressed.