Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The In-Betweener

I recently had a meme cross my desk that defined a book hangover as the feeling a reader gets when they finish one book but cannot yet start another because they’re still living in the last book’s world.

If readers think they’ve got it bad, they should try writing.

No book is ever finished until someone pries your fingers off the keyboard and forces you to type “The End”, and after you type that terminal sentence, it’s good to take a bit of time to catch your breath. I suppose if you’re writing series characters or a shared world, that’s not as necessary, but when your worlds vary as widely as the madcap flights of Howard Carter’s fancy and the always-grounded and very adult world of AJ MacLeod, it’s enough to give anyone whiplash.

These are the in-between times.

While I’m never writing only one thing at a time, I do tend to pause at the end of a piece and take some time to cleanse my palate, to clear my head of the rules and mores of that world to lay the groundwork for another. Sometimes this means finally taking the time to plunder any lingering ideas that didn’t fit into the completed work as short stories, burning the last stubs of the old candle until there’s nothing left, no dangling threads to call out to me. Sometimes it means a Big Crazy Project, throwing everything I have at teaching myself something like shoemaking.  Sometimes those projects snowball into a Whole Other Thing, and sometimes they’re just fodder for future stories or background for future characters, but mostly they just take my mind out of fantasy world mode and ground me back in the here and now.

Whatever I end up doing to pass the days, be it short stories or shoes, at the end of a writing jag is when I finally have the time to read something unrelated to whatever I’m writing. Sweet release! Research might be my favorite intoxicant, but even so, it is sheer heaven to give myself lease to devour every book I can get my hands on be they drawn from fact or fiction.

Book after book piles up and gets absorbed. News stories too, and conversations, and daily interactions all get thrown into the hopper to be pulped and blended and spat back out as lessons on What Not To Do or notes about roads not taken that give rise to new characters and ideas that will some day carve out stories of their own. Wherever it comes from, it’s all fair game and it’s all fuel for the next fire.

Some writers will tell you that all writing is rewriting, and that may be true for those writers, but for my money, all writing is pre-writing. Even if it’s what happens after you get the ideas down on paper that makes the writing good, it’s what comes before that makes the story good. Because while all the grammar lessons in the world cannot save a bad story, a good enough story is Teflon.

This is an unfortunate truth that we all try to deny, yet there’s no other way to explain the number of mediocre writers that ascend the bestseller lists without devolving into conspiracy theories. The idea that some stories are going to resonate even if they’re handled poorly isn’t a terrible thing because it means that when you do pair a great writer with a great story, it’s unstoppable: Hilary Mantel and Wolf Hall, John Green and The Fault In Our Stars, Carlos Ruiz Zafon and The Shadow of the Wind, JRR Tolkien and The Hobbit, JK Rowling and Harry Potter et al

Read the stories any of the aforementioned writers tell about how they arrived and those stories and you’ll hear tales of the Between Times, of pieces long held falling into place because of some quirk of fate that happened when they were open to it, whether it’s John Green meeting Esther Earl at a Harry Potter convention or Tolkien finding a blank page in a student thesis he was grading and jotting “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…” These are stories that were formed in the Between Times, moments when something coalesced that the author had long been thinking about, such as Green’s long-simmering novel about teens in a cancer ward, or Tolkien’s bedtime stories finding purchase in the languages he taught at Oxford and his rose-coloured memories of a more pastoral England.

This most recent in-between has been rather longer than I’d intended, but I think it’s about to end. 

I always think in stories, but there’s a qualitative difference between the stories I’ve been forming recently and the ones that have been coalescing recently around a single idea.   I’ve stopped getting distracted by the trees I’ve already climbed or others have tried to cut down and started seeing the forest.

It is time to come out of the in-betweens and start writing things down again.

Sorry I was gone so long and also that I’ve thrown so many writing metaphors at you in a single post. I had a few pent up, apparently.


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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).