Sunday, November 23, 2008

Loving the Process

A book I have been working on since 1998 (not every day, 9-5, but still...) started with the gruesome murder of two teenagers and their 20 year old “chaperone.” They had arranged for a to-your-door marijuana delivery, and after that delivery the dealers came back and murdered them. The boy’s girlfriend discovered the bodies when she came to pick him up the next morning.

What stuck in my mind was not so much the murder itself, but the comment a girl made about the murders on the evening news: “Something like this shouldn’t happen here.”

I thought, where, exactly, would it be appropriate for three young people to be brutally murdered in their own home?

I thought about this a lot. I also thought, nobody’s safe if everybody’s not safe. People are kidding themselves if they think moving up to the suburbs is going guarantee their safety and that of their children. Nobody’s safe if we’re not all safe.

Anyway. Teaching, I always say that your right brain, where stories come, from is like a slush machine: everything you’ve seen, felt, known, and imagined is sloshing around, along with everything you didn’t realize you’ve seen, felt, known, and imagined. Shift simile to a gumball machine: you put in the coins and some gumballs (or those nifty little prizes) come out. Who knows which ones you’ll get? Shift again: it’s like puzzle pieces. You have to put them together to make a picture. The hard thing is, you don’t know what the picture is going to be.

So. I had the girl’s statement about the murders. Here are some of the puzzle pieces my right brain gave me as I tried to find a story:

I saw a hot pink Volvo, with a decal of dancing bears and an expensive private school on the back. The driver and passenger were two pretty girls with streaked blond hair. I thought of that car in a funeral procession, how…wrong it would be.

I found out that one of the kids involved in the drug deal was the brother of a student of mine. The kid was good-looking, “clean-cut; my student looked like a druggie, but wasn’t. I imagined my student’s dad assuming he was the one in trouble when the police came to the door.

A memory of getting dumped by my best friend for someone cooler in junior high. It was awful. The truth is, I’ve never gotten over it!

What it would be like to be The Girl Who Found the Bodies.

Quote from a student’s journal: “Every time my dad comes to get us, the idiot dog goes berserk. He thinks Dad still lives here.”

There are more, many of which appeared in process. But you get the idea.

The next part of the process was asking, “What if?”

What if it was a boy and his girlfriend who were murdered by a drug dealer? What if the girl who found them was in the process of being dumped by the boy’s girlfriend who’d been adopted by the popular crowd? What if the girl had lied and said her friend was spending the night with her, then delivered her to the boy’s house? What if the conflict between her divorced parents complicated her guilt and grief? What if the preppy kid who arranged for the drugs had a malcontent brother—maybe a twin brother? What if the dumped girl and the malcontent brother got together somehow?

I tried writing the story from the girl’s point of view. (Maggie) finds the bodies and it goes from there. It didn’t work. I tried alternating points-of-view: Maggie and the malcontent boy (Will). It didn’t work. Now I’m trying to write it from Will’s point of view, and it’s sort of working.

Actually, I thought it was working—but was recently disabused of this idea by my wonderful agent, Andrea, who’s pretty much always right.

So I’m back to the drawing board and feeling really frustrated. Should I let the book sit and work on something else for a while? Should I motor on, hoping I’ll get a breakthrough? Of course, there’s the nasty little voice in my head whispering, “Give it up. Cut your losses, move on. It’s crap!”

Something else I tell my students: You have to love the ambiguity of process. I show them the picture of myself with all the failed drafts of Stranded in Harmony as proof that writing a novel is a whole lot about stick-to-it-iveness and drive.

But I certainly don’t love the ambiguity when I’m stuck in it. It makes me crazy. I feel like a fraud, stupid and incompetent. I think, how hard can this be? You just have to keep going, I tell them.

But I don’t want to.

I want to take a nap.


Lisa Chellman said...

It was good for me to read this today, Barb. After spending all fall trying to get a new project off the ground, I've just decided to give up on it, I mean, put it away. Not a fun decision to make. On the bright side, over the weekend I decided I was finally ready to try rewriting a previous manuscript I'd given up on, I mean, put away. We shall see...

I like the various slush/gumball machine analogies, even though currently I am drowning in slush.

Barbara Shoup said...

Exactly why writers need each other! Hope you get out of the slush soon.