If you’d asked me twenty-six years ago where I thought I’d be today, working in my mechanic’s waiting room would not have been one of the answers.
Here I am anyway.
Turns out, flexibility of location is an enormous benefit of self-employment. You learn to work practically anywhere: in my office, a client’s office, the aforesaid mechanic’s waiting room. In libraries, airports, airplanes. In restaurants, hotel rooms, hotel lobbies, churches. On my porch, at my mother’s house, in the back of an airport limousine. Pretty much anyplace with a flat surface is a place where I can work. (I once took a stack of documents to a dance recital so I could keep reading while waiting for the curtain to rise.)
I really thought my online expedition would do the trick.
At least once or twice a day, I get an email from Road Scholar. This is a company that leads tour groups all over the world. One of the differences between Road Scholar and other tour companies is that Road Scholar is all about education. They don’t just show you the animals—they tell you what they are and lots of information about them. You may also learn about the history of the region where you’re traveling. For a certain species of geek (me), this is a ton of fun.
In late winter, I received an email for an online expedition to the Arctic. Four days, three hours per day, plus lists of reference materials and suggested reading.
By this point, I was painfully aware that despite my internet research, I knew practically nothing about the Arctic. When you’re writing a book set largely at the North Pole, this can be problematic. After all, it’s not realistic to assume that the characters will never go outside, so what will they see? What birds and animals will be around? Also, what will they eat? It’s not as though they’re going to be having chicken and pork since they don’t have pigs and chickens, so what will the menu look like?
I never had that dream where you show up for class and there’s a test and you forgot to study, but last night, I had the writer equivalent: I showed up at a book event, and I didn’t have a price sheet. (For those who have never done this kind of event, allow me to provide a smidgen of context. The price sheet is the sign that tells prospective buyers how much your books cost. Most people want to know this information, and not everyone is comfortable asking. If you don’t have a price sheet, you are left with two choices: either put price tags on every single copy of your book and hope the buyer doesn’t mind having to scrape off the adhesive, or spend the day repeating, “Nineteen dollars, including tax” like a mantra.)
In my dream, the person in charge—a writer I’ve met in real life who is actually very kind and supportive—frowned at my lack of preparedness. I left my spot (in the very back of the venue) and sought out various ways of making the sheet, from accessing the complicated computer setup of dear friends who looked thirty years younger than when I’d last seen them to availing myself of paper with decorative borders and trying unsuccessfully to write the necessary information with a gold Sharpie, except that I couldn’t spell “Books.” (This, at least, was familiar since I’ve dreamed many times that I was unable to punch in a phone number accurately.)
My dreams aren’t usually this vivid or specific. It’s rare that I remember them more than a few seconds after wakening. But this one has stuck with me. The strangest part is that when I woke, I wasn’t thinking about my dream-self’s failure to be prepared. Instead, I found myself shaken by another question that arose from seemingly nowhere: what if I have no more stories to tell? What if the reason I’ve struggled so much with this book is that I know it’s my last one and I don’t want it to be over? What if I have nothing else to say?
Turns out, I’m not very good at wallowing. I can only do it for so long before it starts to annoy me. Which meant it would only be a matter of time before I picked up Draft #2 to see what might be salvageable.
The first step was to figure out exactly what was there. I took the printed pages and a notebook, and I began to map out the sections. I assigned a number to each section, and in the notebook, I scribbled a brief description. Occasionally, I made a note in the manuscript itself, most often “nec?” to ask if the section was actually necessary. Turns out, there’s a fair bit of pointless rambling and redundancy in the book at the moment, but at least I know where it is.
Once before, I did it. This total rewriting, remaking of a story.
The story in question was the third segment of a trilogy. I knew how I wanted it to end, but somehow the ending always fell flat. I kept sending drafts to a very patient writer friend, asking if it worked because I hoped desperately that it actually did and I just wasn’t seeing it. Except she saw exactly what I saw, namely that it didn’t.
Finally, I took what I’d written and set it aside, and I began again. This time, instead of beginning with a quiet, dull scene where family members talked about their depressed family member, I went to the other extreme. I plunked him down in the middle of a bar fight, one he’d started. At once, the story was alive, with people doing instead of merely discussing.
Today, I read Draft #2. I can sum it up in one word:
There is so much wrong with this draft that I have no idea where to start fixing it. Isolated scenes are fine (some of them, anyway), but they don’t fit together because I was writing them as the spirit moved instead of trying to compose a coherent tale. It’s discovery writing at its worst: you end up with a pile of scenes that don’t fit, and then you have to figure out what to do with them.
Delighted to announce that Draft #2 is done! Many thanks to all the kind and lovely people who continue to support and encourage me in this endeavor. I adore you all!
February 18 was my modified deadline for Draft #2. As you may recall, my original deadline was February 1. When it became clear that wasn’t feasible, I moved it. Unlike deadlines in my day job, I didn’t have to seek permission or file a motion—I just reset it. The first date was up to me, and so was the second. I simply picked what I thought was reasonable and got back to work. (Note: in case you were wondering, it’s very freeing to be able to change a deadline without getting permission from a judge. Made me feel quite powerful.)
I set a deadline for completing the second draft of my novel: I would finish Draft #2 by January 31.
As of today, February 2, I have not finished it. Nor will I be able to do so this week, or probably next week.
In all fairness, I’ve had many things to do this week, primarily work. Still, when I set the deadline, I knew I’d be working, and it seemed reasonable anyway.
As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a huge fan of things like planning, scheduling, and setting deadlines. Having a deadline is what lights a fire under me. Otherwise, I’d meander along life’s path, talking about how I’m going to do this or that “someday”—which, of course, rarely comes.
So why didn’t the deadline work for me this time?
I could point to a number of causes, but probably the main one is the simplest: I failed to plan for delays.
Some people love to weed their gardens. From what I’ve read, they derive a deep satisfaction from getting their hands in the dirt and ousting the weeds that threaten their flowers and vegetables.
And then there are people like me, who will pull a few weeds if it occurs to us, but are otherwise inclined to live and let live. After all, what is a weed but volunteer plant that is simply misplaced? Besides, some volunteer plants are good. Every year, I end up with at least a couple foxgloves that I didn’t plant, the seeds dropped by some passing bird. The one time I tried to plant foxgloves, they died almost immediately, but the volunteers are hardier, their flowers lasting for days at a time.
If you’d asked earlier this week, I’d have told you it wasn’t going to happen. I was resigned to it. I figured I’d finish when I finished, and everyone would just have to be patient. In fact, I was ready to write a blog post about how it feels when you set a goal and you just don’t reach it.
Then came Saturday.
Mind you, I had plans. My house desperately needs to be vacuumed and dusted. I have stacks of papers, magazines, and documents on practically every flat surface. The clutter is embarrassing. The dust is probably unhealthy (especially for someone with asthma). So my plan for today was to vacuum, dust, and put things away. A noble plan, to be sure.