Friday, July 27, 2012

The Maze

aMAZEme Book Maze In London
Imagine you wake up in the middle of one of those huge hedge garden mazes. The scary Shining kind. You start wandering around, looking for a way out. Time after time, you hit a dead end. Some paths hold promise only to come to nothing. You ultimately test each possible path, because you don’t know where you are. You know where you’re going – out – but how to get there? Eventually you find your way, but only after you have spent a lot of time, effort and frustration. Fear, even.



This is writing a novel for me.

There’s always been a debate between whether to outline your novel or wing it. I wouldn’t say I fly completely by the seat of my pants, but I never outline. Generally I know the structure of the book – the maze – only I exhaust every possible path. In the case of my current novel, I may have started making new ones. I began work in earnest on this novel a year ago, around the time I finished The Book of Elizabeth. The seed of the idea came three years ago, in 2009, during a trip to Chicago. I jotted down a page of notes on this novel, excited to bring it to life. The day I returned from Chicago, my uncle died. The idea got lost in the aftermath of his death, and the water torture that became Elizabeth’s route to publication. As I started to develop the book, which takes place in part on a planet where night only comes once a year, I started to fill in the architecture of this world with details from a long dormant series of books that I had started working on in 1995. I thought, here’s a chance to salvage some of these concepts and ideas that I still liked. And then, those ideas took over the book. The new novel suffered an identity crisis from the get go – is it the novel I’ve been wanting to write since 2009? Or 1995?

I’ve spent the last year trying to figure that out. There are four different versions of this book, all mostly from different POV’s. I got 200 pages into one version, completed a draft of another. A couple weeks ago, I finished this draft and thought I was done. And then I realized I wasn’t. This path led me nowhere. You do a lot of backtracking in the maze. At times I feel like the work regresses. You come on your own tracks, and your spirit sags. You’re never going to get out. No one is going to come and find you. What happens as you backtrack though is you avoid repeating the same mistake again. This is critical, metaphors aside; if you outline or wing it, if you are making the same mistakes over and over again, you will not escape the maze. You will not know if you are making these mistakes unless you see your tracks. The most important thing a writer can do is become a scout. A tracker. Learn the landscape. READ. Listen. Watch. If you’re content with being Garth Marengihi, your maze is your home.

This last draft wasn’t the way. My tracks told me where I’d been, where I’d gone wrong, and where I had yet to go. At this point I’ve exhausted the paths this novel can take, and either the one I’m on now is the way out, or there is no way out. That sounds fatalistic, but sometimes novels come to nothing. A smarter, better writer would avoid exhausting so much time and energy on this method of writing, but for me it’s not a method; it’s a way of being. There are cons, which I’ve mentioned. The pros are less obvious, and less easily found, but they exist. First among them is the joy of discovery. Believe me, when you see daylight, you will have discovered something. You will also find things along the way that you could not have if you knew the way out from the start. Miranda from The Book of Elizabeth is a prime example of this – I planned to kill her at the end, and she became the book for me.

Still, if you hear me screaming for help, feel free to shout “Over here!”