How Long is a Piece of String?

I finished a short story this evening, just barely making the deadline.

Looked at one way, I started writing it three days ago.

Looked at another way, I’ve been working on it for six months.

It took me most of that time to look at and discard all the possible stories I wasn’t going to write, and to find the right idea and the right angle of approach for the one that I was.  And it took me the better part of a month to find the voice that I wanted to tell it in.

Once I had all of that sorted out, putting the words together was the quick and easy part.

So — how long is a piece of string?

And the answer is:  As long as it needs to be.

Five More Days

Until applications close for this year’s Viable Paradise.  The ferry to the island pulls away from the dock at midnight on June 15 — if you’re thinking of applying and don’t have your application in by then, you’ll have to wait until next year.

(You can submit your application by e-mail in .RTF format, with hardcopy to follow, so you can’t get away with telling yourself that there isn’t time for the envelope to get there.)


The novel, that is.  At 4:45 on Friday morning.

Now it’s Saturday, and I’m at Boskone, enjoying the rewards of virtue, which include sleeping last night for eleven hours straight.

I won’t be sending in the novel until around Wednesday, because I have to clean up the formatting first.  By the time I finished it in the wee hours of Friday morning, an entire chapter could have been replaced by the Declaration of Independence and typeset in WingDings, and I wouldn’t have been able to spot it.


I’ve either got a slight but wearying cold or a bad case of three-scenes-left-in-the-novel — whichever one it is, it’s got me feeling cranky and distracted. (For example, I lay in bed for about five minutes this morning, on the cusp between sleep and waking, while my mind tried to settle on whether today was Thursday or Friday. Eventually I woke up enough to tell myself, “It’s Wednesday, stupid,” but yeah. Distracted.)

The problem with the three scenes left in the novel is that in order to make one of them work, I’m going have to go back and tweak about four or five other scenes, because in order for the character in question to do the thing he’s about to do, it turns out that he needs to know something that he currently doesn’t. I could just tell myself, “Assume the knowledge and fix it in the revisions”, but my mind doesn’t work that way. If I don’t go back and fix those bits, the scene will stubbornly refuse to gel.

At this final stage of the game, my distractability level is always high, because so much of my mind is somewhere else altogether. At times, this can bring on a blessed kind of tunnel vision, where all worries that aren’t the book fall away for a while; at other times, all it does is make me more likely to walk into both literal and metaphorical walls.

Caffeine: A True Story

Once upon a time there was a writer (who bore an uncanny resemblance to the owner of this blog) who was pulling an all-nighter in an effort to finish a book.

She started out in the morning of the day before, drinking hot tea with milk and sugar — a soothing and respectable brew, one that stiffens the sinews for the work ahead.  I can’t be certain, but I think the tea was English Breakfast.                                     .

She worked through the morning and into the afternoon, and at some point in the process she switched to coffee — no sugar, but plenty of cream — and kept on going.  I don’t know what she made for dinner that night, but it was probably something simple and mindless, because her brain was deep into that writing space where the internal world has at least as much reality as the external one, and things like complex recipes are beyond it at such times.

And she kept on writing, throughout the afternoon and on into the evening.

At some time around midnight she switched to instant hot chocolate made up using strong black coffee as the liquid — a truly deadly brew, but a potent one.  Fueled by several cups of the coffee-and-chocolate mix, she finished the first draft of the novel, then collapsed into bed at 4AM, weeping with exhaustion and the conviction that the book in question was utterly hopeless.

(It wasn’t.  But it would take a cast-iron ego to believe that, at 4AM on a caffeine jag.)

I’m not sure that there’s a moral to this story, other than “Caffeine necessary; too much caffeine bad,” or maybe “Writers on a deadline have been known to do silly things.”

Snow, Still.

But at least I’m no longer quite so peevish.  Snow that looks like it’ll stick around instead of melting and then refreezing into sheets of ice is good.  A large part of what passes for the local economy up here runs on winter tourism, especially snowmobilers, and last year’s lack of heavy snowfall was devastating.

Meanwhile, I chase the words “THE END” on the current deadline like Achilles trying to catch that blasted tortoise.

Peeves of the Day

Because deadlines make me peevish.

One:  The past tense of tread is trod.  Not treadedtrod.

Two:  Even in its extended sense of “to inflict great damage,” decimate applies to countable things, like people, not to solid and singular things, like buildings.  (In the strict sense, decimate refers to the old Roman punishment meted out when an entire military unit had done something disgraceful, like mutiny — lots were drawn, and one man in every ten was clubbed or stoned to death by his fellow-soldiers.)

Three:  And the past tense of shine is shone.

So there.

Looking Forward

Soon — a matter of days, now — I will have the novel finished.  And then I can begin the fun part:  revision.

No, I’m not being ironic.  I’m just one of those writers for whom generating the first-draft text is the tough part.  Revision, on the other hand, is a pleasure, because that’s when I can take the rough lump of undistinguished prose and work on it until it sings.  (Or shrieks, if that’s what I want it to do.)  At times like that, I’m convinced that the proof of God’s love for writers is that he gave us the opportunity to make a second draft.

Other writers don’t see it that way, of course.  They’re the ones for whom writing the first draft is the pure joy of creation, like God on the first day, and revision is hard, brain-breaking work.

If you’re reading this, you probably know already which kind of writer you are.  But a couple of diagnostics, just in case:

Do you keep on tinkering with your finished story or novel, rather than biting the bullet and sending it out?  Do you tell yourself, “I have to follow up one more bit of research” or “I need to tweak the last paragraph just a little bit to make it perfect”?

You’re a reviser.  Because that’s the reviser’s way of shooting him-or-herself in the foot.  Perfection is always one more iteration away, and until the work is perfect, it can’t be turned loose into the world.

Do you finish your story in a blaze of energy, then put it aside “just for a little while, to get some perspective” — only to have your attention caught by the idea for a new story instead?  Is your desk drawer or your hard drive full of completed one-draft stories, languishing untouched while you pursue the latest and brightest butterfly?

You’re a first-draft wizard.  Your problem isn’t with getting ideas and giving them form, it’s with neglecting them afterwards instead of making them wash behind their ears and put on clean clothes and show prospective readers their company manners.

Either way, there’s only one cure:  You have to learn how to do the part of the job you think is hard work, in order to do the part of the job you think is fun.