Keeping Cool Under the Deadline

james-dean
The novel is done. The novella is done. Now I’m onto Novel #2, which is second in what my editor suggests should be a trilogy. This is great of course, but it also means I have to get a move on.

So this week, I’m hammering away on Book #2. Let me just say, it was really hard to start. Really hard. As in so hard that I lay down in the floor for a while, hoping that thing about how keeping your feet above your head increases blood flow to the brain and therefore increases brain function and thereby jumpstarts creativity is true.

I’m not saying it isn’t true, but the only thing it did for me was remind me that I needed to vacuum.

A deadline sometimes helps push the creative process along. But then, a deadline sometimes makes you lie awake at night staring at the ceiling and listening to the katydids taunt you like a Greek chorus, chanting, Finish-it, finish-it, finish-it.

My problem was that Novel #2 needed more conflict. Novel #1 was chock full, but a lot of it was resolved. There were some loose ends to work with, but I needed some new problems pronto. So I spent a long time thinking about how I could make my characters’ lives difficult. (I confess, a lot of that time was while I was at work, waiting on the next wave of visitor questions.) My friend Katie, who is my writing buddy and #1 beta reader, suggested that every novel boils down to two plots. “Don’t you know that old joke?” she said. “Plot #1 is ‘A stranger comes to town.’ Plot #2 is ‘Someone goes on a journey.’ But the joke is, they’re the same plot.” She has a point.

So I mapped out a web of drama for my characters, charting the ways they’re connected. Then I brought a stranger to town. Two, actually. Throw in a missing mother, an estranged father, a love triangle, and a holiday dinner, and now we’re cooking with gas. I ended up with a rough outline and lots of notes about ways I could make everyone in my small Southern town miserable. (My fictional town, that is. Not the real one I call home.)

IMG_2493I wrote the first 5 pages, and then the next 5. I groaned over many cups of coffee. And then I finished the first chapter and thought, “Okay, this is doable.” One scene at a time. One conflict leads to another. Good thing I drew a little road map to chart that all out.

Then I had to pause for a research break.

Today I had to do a little research for a scene that takes place in the Jazz museum down in New Orleans. I haven’t been to this National Historic Park, but wrote in a key character who works there. So I did a little virtual tour online to get a feel for the place. (Maybe I’ll take a trip down there in the winter and write it off as “research.”)

Last week, while finishing the novella (a companion to the upcoming Novel #1), I had to google “Can I take my plant on a domestic flight?” in order to finish a scene. Thankfully the answer is “yes”—not because I want to fly with a giant potted gardenia in my lap, but because it made for an interesting scene and thread of events, and that act of taking a gardenia on a plane led to the ending I needed.

Details are everything. And the research for details is one of my favorite parts of this whole process. Writing means constant learning. I take photos and write in a journal when I travel, and take note of things that catch my eye and make my ears perk up. I’m a shameless eavesdropper, so little snippets of conversations I’ve overheard also make it into books. So yes, when you talk to writers at parties, you might just be adding dimension to a character they have brewing in their minds. And the next time they lie on the floor with their feet in the air, creating a web of unfortunate events, they might find the perfect spot for that character, and the perfect way to complicate his life.

(Thanks to all of you who share your wild stories at parties. You make my job a little easier and a lot more interesting.)