My post with the suggestions for recurring blog features elicited one (verbal) vote for movie reviews and one (electronic) vote for a webcomic, so I started focusing my attention on the disparate shreds of my novel, just to be perverse. This isn’t working out so well.
Some writers cannot be creative when their lives are stressful; some can’t write at all when they are the least bit uncomfortable. I have this pattern of becoming creative under duress, then losing interest in my projects when the pressure is off. My mostly unwritten novel is a prime example.
How It Started
I worked for the Wal-Mart Portrait Studio (managed at that time by Portrait Corporation of America, International, which has since gone bankrupt) for almost a year. I lasted longer than all of my co-workers and several of my superiors. I tolerated insane scheduling, inconsistent standards of conduct, squealing squirming brats and their children, the debris left in the wake of the single least competent human being I have ever known, pointless day-long excursions to the armpit of California, the holiday rush, unwanted attention from men older than my father, low wages, every strain of cold and flu that a drafty grungy public environment can foster, and Wal-Mart management. Then my new manager introduced herself by grabbing my shoulders and shaking me, calling me “Honey” and saying, “We’re going to be such good friends!” Time to go. I found greener pastures fairly easily (most common groundcover options are greener than straight manure) and informed my manager. PCA didn’t acknowledge my resignation until I’d been at my new job for two months, but they did make my final work week eight days long, including the weekend before the first Monday at my new job.
In the midst of all of this I, a lucid dreamer for most of my life, lost the ability to remember my dreams. I’d wake up with the idea that I’d imagined something strange and wonderful, and only the vaguest idea of what it might have been. Lying awake in the morning (work didn’t start until 10 AM and I was going to bed early and not sleeping well), I would try to reconstruct these forgotten ideas. And somehow this process generated a plot.
From my creative writing journal*
The main character is an undergraduate assisting a quantum physicist of dubious talent. The physicist has a time machine which he did not build (though everyone takes it for granted that he did, until later). As with any marvel of technology, after he’s worked out the kinks (mostly), secured the patents and considered all of the obvious possibilities (find out for certain what really killed the dinosaurs, assassinate Hitler, stop yourself from assassinating Hitler because the alternative is even worse, etc.), he uses it to pick up chicks. Mr. Undergraduate has the same idea, but because he’s young and clumsy and hopelessly infatuated with his matronly lesbian English professor, it doesn’t work for him. That, and he encounters something unfathomably scary lurking in the creamy center that bonds the two cookie-halves of Space and Time. His uncontrolled experiments have a devastating effect on the fabric of the universe, but centuries will pass before it becomes noticeable. Meantime, Undergrad is quietly disturbed and loudly frustrated, and seeks to drown his troubles in watery booze and pounding music. He encounters to women at the club. One is vaguely familiar, highly elusive and somewhat menacing. The other plays the damsel in distress and then the grateful young nymph in a way that could only convince someone in Undergrad’s state of mind. She lures him toward a whirlwind romance (he thinks) or a rendezvous with destiny (she thinks), but then Undergrad hits something (or someone) with his car. Barbie drops her facade and coldly, warningly tells him to just keep driving. Undergrad’s natural curiosity, kindness and recent reaffirmation of his ability as a fighter prompt him to go out and investigate. He finds only a dent in his front bumper and some gouges in the asphalt, and when he returns to the car, Barbie is gone. Nothing much happens for a while after that, except that uniform vacuous spherical anomalies– bubbles– begin to appear in walls, boulders, cattle, trucks, trees, people; and Undergrad can’t shake the feeling that he’s being followed. The shadow lady from the club keeps turning up in his peripheral vision, parked in the alley behind the cafe where he works, in the hallways between classes, in the bushes outside his bedroom window, interrogating him at knife-point in his dreams. One night she is really there, not threatening but frightened and demanding to know why he is being targeted. He’d like to ask her the same thing. Under questioning, he admits to using the time machine, just a little bit, once. Shadow is satisfied that this is the answer but disappointed by its implications. Barbie returns just about then, with a few friends and some diabolical machinery, to retrieve Undergrad by tearing apart the dorm or the Earth if necessary. Shadow comes to the rescue with a device that can freeze time for a couple of minutes (longer than that and the user overheats), enough time to get to Undergrad’s car. They start driving toward the lab as soon as the freeze ends. Shadow is from a future dominated by a malevolent five-dimensional creature that got its start in Undergrad’s time. Barbie and co. are minions of that creature, tasked with finding a person from Undergrad’s time who has access to a time machine and would not cause any earth-shattering reactions by vanishing, to act as a conduit allowing the creature to participate in the physical universe. Shadow intends to prevent all of this by stopping the invention of the time machine. To this ind, Shadow and Undergrad backtrack to just before Dubious Quantum Physicist’s historic first launch. They find, not a rough prototype, but a finished machine, ergo, DQP didn’t invent time travel so much as discover it, in the lab of a colleague who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Specifically, DQP sabotaged the machine to make Colleague disappear. Colleague was deposited, alive but not at all well, into the space between dimensions. Her attempts to re-assert herself in the physical realm have resulted in unexplained bubbles, disturbing apparitions to careless time-travelers, and religious devotion from the likes of Barbie. Undergrad pieces this together just as Colleague reaches out, gets a grip on reality, and flips Undergrad, Shadow, DQP and Barbie into the unknown, a dimension of time and space, but also of mind. The surreal landscape is Barbie’s heaven, Shadow’s hell, Undergrad’s purgatory and DQP’s undoing. Undergrad finds and exit and drags Shadow through it. They land some distance apart. Undergrad is near a familiar road and tries to flag down a car– his car– but in the moments before the crash, he can’t see himself in the driver’s seat and the driver can’t see him. Shadow grapples with Barbie and comes out on top, but can’t stop Undergrad from making contact with his own dying self. To her surprise this does not result in a universe-shattering paradox, but Undergrad-1 absorbs Undergrad-2, including some of his memories. Shadow can’t explain this, but it gives her an idea as to how to defeat Colleague. They head back to the lab and, after a final multi-sided confrontation with Barbie and DQP in which some loose ends are tied, extraneous characters slaughtered and hidden motives revealed, Shadow and Undergrad travel a rough road to the time just before Colleague’s fateful journey. Their appearance only serves to convince Colleague that the time machine is a success, but then human-Colleague locks eyes with monster-Colleague. They come together in a way that demands a roaring subliminal light show in the film adaptation, and then Undergrad and Shadow are catapulted into Undergrad’s proper time. Only Shadow and Colleague can remember any of it. Knowing what she does, Colleague has kept the time machine a total secret and worked on it with extreme caution. As a result, DQP is just an obscure state university professor considering a career change, and Undergrad is an ordinary student. Shadow is apparently stuck in this time period because she had more of an impact here than in her own time. She is uneasy about the prospect of spending the rest of her life in this uncharted territory, but then she bumps into Undergrad and they get along famously. The end. Yeah.
I scrawled that out over the course of two nights in June, and thought, “Hey, NaNoWriMo is just a few months away– this would be perfect.” I started writing character bios, mulling over the finer points of the plot and setting, and thinking of what kind of research I would need to do to make the central conceit seem anything but ridiculous. And I had every intention of doing that research, but…
Life Refuses To Get In the Way
But then I started settling into this new job with reasonable hours, good pay and a relaxed environment, and I made a friend with whom I could talk for hours at a time, and suddenly my knitting and my new guitar seemed infinitely more interesting than the curious adventures of Undergrad and his motley crew. By the time the reminder e-mail from the NaNoWriMo team arrived (mid-October), I had all but forgotten my rough plans. At the reminder, I sidled on up to the NaNoWriMo forums and casually asked a few basic research questions. And the veteran Wrimos, with the utmost tact and clarity, explained why parts of the story having nothing to do with time travel/new-agey claptrap, would not work the way I imagined them. And with a week to spare, I couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm for the old plot to even try to save it; instead I tried to make up a new plot.
In Misery, Stephen King includes a discussion of the difference between having an idea and getting an idea– one is practically effortless, a gift from the writer’s subconscious; the other is a long hard slog through the mud in pursuit of a dubious prize. I had ideas for the old plot; I had got ideas for the new plot. I came up with a young adult crime story, with a few characters reminiscent of those from the old plot, and a riff on the hero’s journey motif (a la Bless the Beasts and Children) thrown in for good measure. I did my preparation by the numbers: standardized character sheets, plot divided into thirty neat points so that I’d have something to write about each day. Despite multiple admonitions, I figured I wouldn’t need to plan my setting extensively, since the story concerned modern people in a place similar to my own home. And so November arrived.
Pressure! Panic! What have I done?
Here is a sampling of what I did that month. I tried to write what I had set out to write; really I did. Unfortunately I was bored with these consciously manufactured ideas before I even started writing about them. Only when I wrote outside the parameters I had set for my novel– a short story about my battle with my personified internal editor, several scenes which I had not originally put into my plot outline, elucidations on a new and completely unrelated plot– did I feel inspired by my writing. I wrote 50,000 words that November. In mid-December, I made a copy of the document and edited out everything that was not related to my main plot. That left 13,000 words. I haven’t added to it. I have tucked those surplus ideas away for future use.
And So On
Weeks passed, and with them the exhilaration and exhaustion of November. Life was decent and I didn’t feel like writing.
On December 29th, my best friend sent me an e-mail to say that we shouldn’t hang out anymore. A week after that, Uncle Mike (my first cousin once removed, whose first name was David) was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. He died while I was house-sitting in a blizzard. My great aunt died a week after his funeral, and my least offensive uncle’s mother passed the week after that. Old family wounds re-opened. My company almost went under. I dreaded coming home. I lost sleep.
I came up with several more plots.
It’s true spring now. The sun is out and life is level. I made new friends and I’ll be vacationing in Jamaica next month– which happens to be the month before Script Frenzy. I have half a dozen plots waiting in the wings. I hope I don’t spontaneously come up with any new ones for a while yet.
* I have a diary for intense personal stuff that I need to hash out but don’t want to share, a creative writing journal for hastily written plot summaries and poetry, a dream journal for assistance with the occasional aforementioned memory lapses, and this blog for stuff that I want to share but can’t really work into casual conversation. They all get updated at about the same rate.
Out-of-context quote of the moment:
“I wonder why they call it ‘popcorn.'” – – my brother