There are few things more unnerving for a writer than that familiar doubt that erupts in the middle of a project, “Is this total bullshit?” I know you’re supposed to ignore the “shitbird,” as I’ve heard it called, the bird who sits on a writer’s shoulder and whispers in his or her ear: “This IS bullshit, and you have no talent and you will never write anything good.”
I thought I’d left the old shitbird behind. Not because I discovered I write deathless art, but because I realized that he, the shitbird, is the bullshit. There is no standard for “good” writing. Writing is writing and there are a million ways to do it. There is no such thing as talent, only competence and hard work. And finally, I write the best I can write. I can’t write better than myself.
But, my doubt arose after finishing the first draft of Chapter 9 of my new novel today. Each time I start a new chapter, I think, “What in the world am I going to do? I got nothing!” Each time I finish a chapter, I think, “That’s the end of it, for sure. My brain is absolutely dry.” In between, somehow, the magic happens, I really don’t know how. Reliable though that magic has been so far, I can’t count on it. You can’t bet on magic. You just follow the procedures and hope it kicks in.
Disturbingly however, what I’m writing lately are plot-driven, action-oriented scenes, like I used to do when I wrote mysteries in the old days. I like action; I love a strong plot. But what I want to write are great characters who just happen to confront plotty obstacles. Rabbit Angstrom was a great character, and he faced some difficult situations in the world and more inside himself. Olive Kitteridge was a great character. Humbert Humbert was unforgettable. That’s what I want, really good characters.
I’ve got some pretty good characters in my two androids (technically, an android and a gyndroid), and their creators, two engineers in Honolulu. But my chapters seem to be either interminable talking heads, or knock-down fistfights, shotgun-toting posses, and narrow escapes from burning buildings. I worry about that. Whither my Olive Kitteridge with her single arched eyebrow?
It was in that moment of worry the shitbird got me. I’ll probably be all right tomorrow, back in the groove. Nothing a couple of shots of tequila won’t fix. I have a writing conference coming up in two weeks and that will cut my productivity to almost zero for a while and erase my dynamic RAM. The re-entry will be tough. So I’ve been tacking hard while the sailing has been good.
I’m at twenty thousand words, and I thank the muse for that, because I truly do not know where they came from. That puts me at about 28%, well past time to move on to Part II. Except I first have to wrap up a ridiculous action-plot predicament I’ve put the characters into, involving an arsonist motorcycle club. Seriously. Who let that bird in here?