It’s my week off from work, and while I’m not traveling anywhere, I’ve got a lot on the docket. Though I haven’t taken one of my customary writing trips since the pandemic began, I’m still using these regular breaks as a way to cozy up to my projects again, and see what new things I can make happen.
This week in particular I have a plan. You see, The Dark Age has been riding the back burner for a little while, as I’ve been working on a ghostwriting project. This week, however, while the ghost book breathes, I’m swinging back around to my personal project.
The problem with novels is that they’re long-term activities. When you park one awhile, coming back to it can be challenging. The battery might have died. The tires released some air. There’s a family of mice in the engine compartment. It can be difficult to resurrect the novel; you might spend the whole week just performing basic maintenance to resuscitate it. Then, when you’ve got it at the starting line, the week’s over, and you’re back to your other work. And what did you accomplish? By the time you come back to it again, the mice will have returned.
Next week, I’ve got to start revising the ghostwriting project. When I do, The Dark Age will move to the back burner again, or get put on a shelf. So what, in this precious week, can I do to move the novel forward?
Recently I read Matt Bell’s book on novel drafting Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts. That book’s sitting on my desk now, with fifty or sixty dog-eared pages. The book’s full of gold, but none so much as this piece:
If you ever find yourself unsure of what comes next, try what Charlie Smith calls “writing the islands”: instead of writing scene after scene in order (and then and then and then), write the big scenes you already know, no matter how far off they seem. Once those scenes exist on the page, the task then becomes writing between these known destinations, creating bridges to connect these islands.
Bell goes on to say that it’s even possible you’ll learn those islands are all you’ll actually need to write:
A secret possibility: your exploratory draft might turn out to be nothing but these islands, discovered one after another; so might the final book. Contemporary novels usually need a lot less connective tissue than writers tend to assume.
What’s more: This is certainly the kind of work a writer can do in a week, and it doesn’t require kicking the whole novel’s tires or changing the oil or replacing the starter.
I immediately knew what scenes were The Dark Age‘s islands. I started building my vacation plan with this one goal:
The former journalist Chip Scanlan writes a newsletter in which he offers writing tips. One such tip: Begin where it ends. Scanlan says:
If leads are like “flashlights that shine down into the story,” as The New Yorker’s John McPhee once put it, endings can be eternal flames that keep a story alive in a reader’s head and heart. David Finkel, the author and Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post writer and editor, needs to know his ending before he begins writing. “If I know my ending, and I mean the actual ending, down to the last sentence, even the last word,” he told me, “it also means I know the emotional tone of the piece and I can structure my material to get there as consistently and efficiently as possible.” As you begin your next story, don’t waste time trying to craft the perfect lead. Write the ending first. It will give you a destination, tell you what to foreshadow in your opening and leave your reader with a lasting impression.
With that, I had another small goal that could be accomplished in just a week of focused work.
With a few scenes written, perhaps I could start shuffling them around, and see what order suits them best. Which would lead me, I think, to some light, loose outlining. Maybe on index cards, so I can easily play around with the book’s form. How does this scene read when it occurs before that one? What if I reversed that order? Do the stakes change? The emotional weight?
I wrote about much of this in last week’s Dark Age newsletter, but it’s been on my mind in the week since. The worst feeling ever is when you finally have some downtime in which to do all the things you haven’t had time for…and you let yourself get overwhelmed with all of the things you could do, and as a result, do none of them. Hence the plan.
To help me along, I’m pulling cards from my Oblique Strategies box. I learned about this from an interview with Jenny Offill, and with a little digging, found out that the “Brian Eno cards” she referred to were these. This box contains a deck of cards, each one printed with a prompt to help you look at a project in a new way.
For my ending, I’d drawn this prompt:
Repetition is a form of change.
For today’s island—I don’t even know which island I’m going to write yet—I drew three fresh cards:
Cut a vital connection.
When is it for?
Allow an easement (an easement is the abandonment of a stricture).
When I first read the easement card, I misread ‘stricture’ as ‘structure’, which got me thinking about something I want to try.
Aren’t these prompts something? They aren’t overly prescriptive; they’re just enough to fire off a few neurons, regardless of what kind of project you’re working on.
On Sunday, I kicked the plan into gear. I wrote an ending for The Dark Age. Is it perfect? Of course not. Will it change? Many times. Is it too long? It’s a little over three thousand words, but I won’t know the answer to this until much later. But now I have a sense of who my protagonist will be by the final page, which tells me something about the work I need to do to get him there.
Today, Monday, I’ll write the first of several “islands”. Later this week I’ll shuffle the islands around, start shaping an outline. By next Monday, when I return to my ghostwriting project, The Dark Age will be in a better place than it is now, I hope. After all, I have a plan!
✏️Until next time,
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