A couple days ago, I took a look at The Tourist, the novel I’ve been working on since last year—since July 2006, in fact!—which has been the toughest one of my career. This is only right, of course, because as we progress as writers the challenges should only increase. As I’ve said before, writing isn’t something that gets easier with time. If it is, then you’re probably doing something wrong.
However, this one’s been particularly hard, much harder than I expected. I wrote a novel’s length of story last year, decided it wasn’t good enough, and tossed it completely, leaving no traces (other than the main character’s name) in the next attempt. That attempt has been more promising, and I’ve worked hard on it, with many hesitations and restarts, since the end of last year, accumulating over 300 fresh pages (plus another 100 or more thrown away). Then, a few weeks ago (after the NY Edgar visit), I ran into another wall.
The “wall” was the realization that the central conspiracy, or crime, in the book was simply ludicrous. Loosely, it was about the CIA trying an inventive way to launder money. The “inventive way” was fun and action-packed, but utterly unbelievable.
It took me days to grapple with this fact, but slowly I saw a way out of it that allowed a more realistic story while keeping most of what I’d written. I breathed a sigh of relief, and got back to work.
But something still nagged at me. The story flowed, had some decent, fleshed-out characters, but still didn’t sit well with me. It turned out that the problem was with the sequence of events. Essentially, it started with some chapters set in 2001 telling one story, then jumped to 2007 to tell the story of the protagonist catching an international assassin, who then kills himself. Then, still in 2007, he returns home to find his boss wants him to go to Paris on a seemingly unrelated case. By page 100, the reader had been taken to three different places, told three different stories, and would have to wait another 70 or so pages to learn that any kind of connection existed between just two of these three stories.
That’s a lot to ask of your audience.
I can’t say I was devastated. I was down, for sure, but the only reason I’ve ever been able to fix problematic novels is to repeat the axiom “I’ll figure it out.” But all I could see ahead of me was the prospect of tossing everything once again—meaning, having to shelve, in total, around 800 pages. That’s just depressing.
Then, a mere three days ago, the solution appeared out of the blue. I’d already written a loose draft of a possible ending that I liked, and I liked it enough that it felt like an excellent beginning to a novel. So I decided to consider moving it to the beginning, and writing the rest of the story in flashback.
Why flashback? In movies, at least, it’s something to be avoided like the plague. Literature, though, is different, and the benefits of this structure immediately began to excite me. For instance, I’m no longer tied to the opening 100 pages of unconnected shorts, because by virtue of the new opening scene, we know everything will connect. The reader knows this. Also, I no longer have to present the storylines in chronological order. I can place them in an emotional order that carries the reader along with it, from realization to realization. I’m now freed from the tyranny of chronology, without having to resort to a (to some, annoying) nonlinear structure.
In essence, I get to keep the story I’ve been writing, which is a great relief. Things will have to be changed, because since the present-tense story encompasses a many-week interrogation of the protagonist, who carefully mixes lies with truth, I have to find a way to make the actual truth apparent to the reader when it’s called for. That will be a challenge. Also, I’m aware that the present-tense story cannot simply be an interrogation. The interrogation must have its own reason for being—its own beginning-middle-end storyline with its own surprises—which will hopefully provide the conclusion to the past-tense story you’ve been reading.
So there’s plenty more work to go, and I’m informing those I know that, though they’ve seen little of me over the past months, they’ll see even less of me in the coming months. I will endeavor to keep a semi-regular presence here, but things will run hot and cold as I work to make my self-imposed August deadline.
In the past, I’ve discussed the devil on my shoulder which sometimes urges me to stop trying so hard, to just get through a manuscript and collect the damned check. He’s a pain in the ass. But if I hadn’t gotten rid of him already, he got the boot after a chat in NY with my new agent, Stephanie. I brought up an idea I had for a sixth book of my Cold War series that I’d taken notes on; it looked good. She shook her head. “No, don’t go back.” I said okay, waited a moment, and she explained that the next stage of my career lay with The Tourist. For better and worse, this book would define the next years of my career, and it had to be something that would knock the ball out of the park. It had to take me to the next level, or (she suggested, but didn’t say) my career was in major trouble.
She was very serious when she said this, and so I’ve taken her very seriously.
Pressure? You bet. Was it wrong for her to remind me of the urgency with this book? Absolutely not. We all need a kick in the drawers now and then.
Does this sound familiar to anyone?
(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)