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Stories keep secrets, to reveal them when they will.

When could you, should you, tip your reader that a momentous event is coming? How much clue is permissible? How much should you let a reader in on what’s about to happen? How much credit do you give your reader for seeing the breadcrumbs you’re dropping on the trail?

Don’t look for an answer here. I have no rules, only observations.

There is no one right way.

The hint-of-what’s-coming is a kind of literary foreplay. As that, it can be exquisitely executed or clumsily so. A breath on a receptive surface. A delicate touch. When the intention is suggested, it’s pretty clear: The writer is announcing a commitment to the main event ahead. Done well, the reader should be consumed with thoughts of what’s coming. The foreplay has the forecast of the conclusion built into it.

This is not to say that surprise not longer has its uses (I said there’s no one right way, didn’t I?). The surprise that comes out of left field will always be as much a delight to the writer as to the reader. It’s a wakeup jolt, in the nicest possible way. It’s the surprise that makes us keep reading.

Right now, I’m leaning toward the “watch this, it’s coming” approach. Is that the right one? Don’t know. Tomorrow I could change my mind. Or the day after tomorrow. Right now, I’m all about the foreplay. That little touch, the small, shy look. And off we go.

The wiggle in the hat where the rabbit is waiting, the hint of silk up the sleeve…the lifting of the lid to offer a peek into a future-in-the-works, the intention, the way the trick is done…there’s something magical about that. Tomorrow, who knows?

Is it fair? Is it right? Is it the refuge of a hack writer? Is it lazy? Or is it a legitimate crayon in the toolbox of a skilled fictionarian?

Giving the plot away.

You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen it. The device of starting a book with an intriguing snippet of the ending.

This is a device perhaps more evident in “popular” fiction than in its more literary cousin…to suggest the fire of the finish without burning the reader in the process. To raise an image, an emotion, a plot point on the novelistic flagpole to try to get folks to salute.

We’ve seen it done well. We’ve seen it clunk clumsily on the page. But should it be there at all?

Plots can—should—develop over the course of the 300-plus pages. By the first few of those pages, we need to have the reader hooked. In doing this, the seeds of the story should be evident early, to, as Salieri said so memorably in Amadeus, “let them know when to clap.”

But how much? And how soon?

I think of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and a line that caught me…after a fairly straightforward description of the mission of the characters we are about to know better, these four words stopped me magnificently: They meant no harm.

I had no reason at that point to believe that harm was going to be done by anybody. Despite the dire state of the main character, I had no idea that a world was going to go horribly wrong. But those four words picked me up and threw me into the book. An eye-opener for a writer.

Would I have read the work without it? Sure: It’s a wonderful thing. Did it add to the writer’s ability to turn the pages for me? Without question.

Given the fidgety attention span of today’s readers, it may not be too outlandish to hint at what’s coming, to let them know that this is a tale worth following. The things we must ask ourselves are: When? What? How much?

Executed well enough, even a cheap trick has its place.

It’s Thursday morning and I have not been washed downstream in the flood. The river is still big and brown, and it runs twice as fast as I do. We’ll see what tonight’s rain has in store for us, but so far so good. Put the Ark back in the garage; we don’t need it–at least for now.

Which leads me to the unrelated notion of sacrifice in fiction. Don’t ask why: I don’t have a clue.

In my personal unwalked path of fiction, friend Marc has coined a name for my genre: Spiritual Thrillers. Almost there but not quite, the coinage, but it will do for now. Among the headier thoughts that fascinate their way into my personal genre-space, several ideas keep popping up….

Love and its barriers. Acceptance. And sacrifice. I’m not sure why—it’s a subject for a shrink’s analysis, not mine.

There is tension in sacrifice. Drama. The crystalline revealings of emotion and motive. In sacrifice, the truths of ourselves are shown. Quite a beautiful thing, really.

The Spiritkeeper has all three of those ideas…hell, it IS all three…and among them, sacrifice is, well, key. In Everything, however, I am finding a different approach to sacrifice; here it is a tree hung with harsher ornaments. It can be flawed and misguided. It can be accompanied by questionable acts. And—here’s the tricky one—it can be telegraphic.

One wants to be careful, being telegraphic in fiction. One wants to suggest the dire future of a character…yet without necessarily hanging a sign around his/her neck that says “Victim”. Having a clue to a character’s fate is a great way to keep the pages turning. It can also be cheap and clunky. The line between good and crappy is a very fine one.

When, then, is it okay to introduce a character who is clearly a sacrificial lamb?

I’m grappling with that question now. I have been trying to make a physical threat more present and more graphic; one that, until the rewrite, had been all talk, no action. Sometimes, the best way to illustrate the threat to a character is by example elsewhere. Which means that somebody’s gonna get it.

We’ve all seen films in which we know that a character is funeral-fodder—we know it from his first appearance. The “Victim” sign? This guy is wearing it. Is that okay or isn’t it? Is it too easy?

Let’s move the idea one square ahead…to the more exalted space of fated-ness: that sense of tragic inevitability that goes beyond the Victim sign. A sacrificial character—even if he is not as central to the work—lives a limited life; his future will be completed during the span of the story.

These sacrificial lambs carry a flaw or a weakness that will not let them exist for long in our world; if they are disposable, they are disposable with a purpose. Their sacrifice becomes something more than a simplistic plot device…we have, for a moment at least, given them their humanity before doing them in.

Does that excuse the device? You’ll have to ask me at the end of today, when the exercise is complete. Only then will I know whether the experiment is proved. Sacrifice as experiment: We are a cruel lot, writers.

“Puzzle pieces fit,” my character Byrne reflects. “Fitting was what they were made to do. Didn’t need to force them; when they were right, they fell together on their own. When they didn’t fit, either the pieces you’d gathered were the wrong pieces, or the puzzle was bigger than you’d expected.”

Without meaning to, I have described exactly what I’ve been going through in the book.

Plots are puzzle pieces. Made of liquid. The writer spends an extraordinary amount of time gathering them—and often, this is an activity that’s like trying to give shape to a handful of ocean. One must work to fit the odd-cut bits one to the other; to coax from them a sense of order from which the pace appears. By the time one is finished, an image should have emerged from the random shapes.

But sometimes the puzzle itself is a trickster.

Sometimes, a piece will offer possibility in more than one spot in the overall picture. Place a nose puzzle-piece in the expected spot, and you have a perfectly acceptable face. Place it in another, and you have a Picasso. Suddenly, what seemed so perfect front and center seems much more impactful somewhere else. Then what?

That’s exactly what I’m going through now. The revelation of a main character fit perfectly well where I’d originally placed it—it will work quite nicely there; but placed somewhere else, it brings a drama, a reasoning, that didn’t exist before.

Which place is better for the puzzle piece, the story, and my emotional wellbeing? That, friends, is the task at hand, these days…finding a logic that is neither here nor there—but which might per perfect for either.

Yesterday, we got caught up in a widespread data outage, so no post got through. Yesterday, I had a whole other post prepared. Then last night wrote this one for me.

Last night, an idea happened. In plot terms, it was an idea big enough to change the course of a river. That the idea arrived to close an exhausting day: That was wonderful.

But deciding what to do with it—or whether to do anything at all: something else altogether.

In the ahahhh moment that was the ending of The Spiritkeeper, the idea was so eye-opening, so immediately right, I knew instantly that the ending of the book had spoken to me.

This idea, not so much.

To take up the challenge of this idea would mean changing what we have spent the book believing about one of the main characters. It would mean rejiggering hunks of the plot. It is idea that tickles with thorns. It is a Tinkerbelle for whom your applause might save not a fairy but a monster.

Prove yourself, you tell the idea. Make me believe.

Good news, bad news. The bad news is that this idea does not give me the end of the book, as the idea that powered the end of The Spiritkeeper did. The good news is that interesting ideas are like gold nuggets: Find one, and there may be others may be close by.

This is one of those moments in which one wishes for the return of the absolute, arrogant, doubt-free confidence that attends a writer’s choices, sometimes…the ability to know (to revisit the analogy above) which ideas are gold and which are lumps for fools to gather.

Is our caution-of-the-moment a message from indecision? Or is it a more highly honed instinct trying to tell us to stop digging and look elsewhere?

The answer of the moment: I have no idea.

What I do know… The state of not-knowing leaves us three options: 1) Fugeddabouddit. Put the idea down and walk away. 2) Let our story be dragged kicking and screaming toward the idea and see what happens. 3) Let it simmer, and discover what other treasures the head finds in the vicinity.

Which of the choices is the right one? Your guess is as good as mine.

One of those days.

Sky wants to rain, but hasn’t made up its mind. Air is heavy with unfamiliar perfumes. Room needs a lamp against the gloom. No one who is going to be here today—to fix, finish, repair, measure—has arrived.

It’s one of those days of being where I will be rather than where I am. The tasks ask. Waiting is all.

The chapter raps at the inside of my head. Such jeopardy there, in the desperate realization this section represents for the main character…such jeopardy for me, in the need for a tour de force that hasn’t yet found its way into the page.

At ten o’clock last night, I was still poking at it, reluctant to let the workday go; still tweaking, adding, toggling, surprised by the quality of what I’d managed to come up with despite the distractions of the day, wanting to keep at it, knowing how far I still have to go.

I want it over—the move, not the book. Finishing the book will be the painful tearing-away that it always is. No, it is life that I want to be ordered and right. So I can disappear into the story again.

The daily challenges of the page are surprisingly similar to the challenges of the move. The overwhelming jumble of it. The sheer unknown of it. The many-layered tasks. The hidden problems. Yet, the solutions are similar, too. Doing a bit at a time. Standing back and looking at the bigger issue. Patience. Self-forgiveness. A belief that all will be well, eventually.

Getting nowhere and getting there fast. Wanting versus being. Dealing rather than worrying. Days like this are akin to treading air.

 

 

Oh, and while I’m at it, since we have so many new visitors:

This was what we were up to before we were up to what we’re up to…

That’s me. Where I live. Who I am. A State of Mind—or the lack of it. After such an intense weekend at the page, it’s also a description of exhaustion. Spent the weekend at a very tough technical passage that feels right, but is far from being finished.

Being at once so close and so far from the end of the book (and a very challenging conclusion, at that), I thought that this would be the perfect moment to step back from discussing the actual work, to consider the stages of the writer’s thinking from which the thoughts come. To let a little air into the closed room, so to speak.

Stage One: Preparation. This is cloud surfing. The taking of notes from the high inner place. The realm where formless thinking happens. Playground brain.

It’s fun. No jeopardy, here. No stern critical voices of better judgment are allowed to intrude. We get to know the characters. We learn to love them. We play in the green garden of language. We fly.

Stage Two: Chapters. Sooner or later, as the notes reach critical mass, the book says “Time to write me.” It says this without my permission. The characters insist. I may not know where the work is heading, except in a very general way. This is a time for faith; the knowing that all will be clear…sooner or later. Outlines for chapters happen here. Arcs for characters start to be apparent. This is, to borrow a construct from the current work-in-progress, cresting the hump of the big-boy roller coaster. Nothing needs to be perfect; nothing needs to make sense. Yet.

Stage Three: Begging & Pleading. A lot of wandering in the wilderness, as the book decides where it wants to go. One lives in moments of stark terror, standing back from what made lovely sense yesterday, finding that it’s utter dreck today. This is the bargaining stage: “Dear brain,” one tells one’s self, “give me just a little something, and I’ll promise to be good. I’ll try to make it work.”

Stage Four: Backtracking. The work moves in multiple directions—backwards as much as forward. This is the world of “Why didn’t I think of that before?”…the development of richer turnings of plot and character that require living in multiple dimensions simultaneously. By now, there are moments in which I am sick to death of my words, myself and everything around me. A lot of knee-jerk faux-technique gets used, with the understanding that I’ll work it out later. I feel as if I’m using the same 15 words over and over again. Critical judgment is out the window. This is the state of every woman for herself. Lots of stuff to work through. Later.

Stage Five: Terror. The book is nearly finished. I hate it. I love it. It’s stupid. It’s wonderful. People will love it. They’ll hate it. I’ll never find an agent or a publisher. No one understands me or what I’m trying to accomplish. All these feelings, all at the same time. And how—HOW—the hell am I gonna pull off what the ending will ask of me?

Stage Six: Mourning. Finished. Done. The lover has walked out the door. I could call him back. But I am half relieved to see him go. The book is complete. There’s nothing more to be done.  I could spend another year of my life trying to polish the thing until it’s smooth like a river stone…but I’ve done that already, haven’t I? This is where I sleep a lot. Cry a lot. And go straight back to Stage One for the next work.

It’s an impossible, ridiculous way to live. And did I mention that I wouldn’t have it any other way?

It is a known scientific fact: the combination of pavement and white lines have a proven psychotropic effect on the writerly head. The chemistry of open road and automobile is a thought generator. Characters come to sit beside you in the passenger seat. Plot points ride shotgun.

I look forward to the drive down to the house every Friday evening with a calm but crazy joy. I can think while driving in a way I never could while riding the subway. Having that breathing asphalt stretching out in front of me is a meditation. The Ohm of rolling wheels. The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance of steering wheel and curve. The white line ticks like the ticking brain.

On those weekly drives to the house, on those near-empty roads, my head speaks to me as it does almost nowhere else. The road disappears.

You know you’ve driven carefully on those lightly-traveled two-lane highways (you’d wind up skiing down a mountain if you hadn’t been), but you don’t remember the ride. You may ask yourself “well, how did I get here?”…and the only answer is the tape recorder in your lap, warm with minutes and minutes of thoughts; thoughts that demand to be transcribed the minute the garage door to the river house is closed.

This is the entry into the parallel existence of created world; the best way to live on both planes at once. Meditations on Asphalt. Buddha horsepower. Driving among the stars inside.

As I face the end of the current book—as I look down the barrel of the last five or six chapters—I find myself looking with a kind of quizzical, unafraid awareness of what’s ahead…and what it will ask of me.

A complicated tangle of plot lay ahead…that will be neither tangled nor complicated if I handle it right. Five chapters, each loaded to the gills with drama and denouement; journeys to the inner realms of the heart and the ends of the universe (no kidding—not too ambitious, huh?)

I am entering tour de force country. The jeopardy here is tremendous. This is the downhill slope with lots of twists and turns. No guardrails, here—and no brakes. No place to turn things around if these chapters don’t work.

Every word has added meaning from here on in. Every mote of punctuation. Every rhythm, every stroke, every nuance. I will need to make sense of the impossible. I will need to make each thing that has been leading to this place undeniably compelling.

That I don’t yet know what the ending is? Not worried about it. That the finale for one of the characters suddenly has just thrown a monkeywrench into itself by doing something I never intended it to do. That will work itself out. That the next few places I will go will be among the most creatively challenging of my life. For now, I can deal.  I live in the patience of the moment, in a place filled with possibility.

Can’t say that the feeling will last. It may not last the day. It may not have the conviction to fuel the drive to the end. But I will take the day. And make it mine.

By now, I’m used to ideas coming to me in the middle of the night. In fact, I’m a little disappointed if they don’t. That’s what the tape recorder is for, the one in which I’m taping this reminder of the post for the morning.

As a playing field for ideas, the car is something else. In every Friday’s drive down to my quiet house, nuances of character happen; colors come to the palette. Fragments, sentences make themselves known. The complexities of thought are usually reserved for times in which I don’t need to worry about sailing off a curb into a ditch. As the saying goes, Arrive Alive is the order of the day on Fridays.

The drive back on Sunday afternoon is usually complicated by weariness from the weekend’s work; the need to ask a tired mind to pay closer attention to the safety behind the wheel.

Not this Sunday.

Who’d have thought that I could get pretty much the end of the book, whole? Not every what, but most of the whys. All in the first half of the drive.

I don’t remember much of that first 70 miles. I was careful, I do know that, but I was elsewhere. In two places at once. Time shifting. Watching the wonderful spirals of reason that spun like galaxies in the head. I drove dazzled by richness and logic; drove in an open-eyed joy that made sudden sense of tragedy. A better reason for a character to die.

Suddenly, I have found patience. For a time, at least. The cosmic seeds that still need planting throughout the plot still need careful tending. I am not yet where I need to be. But that hard-won flash in the head is still there. The forced march through previous work to see where new stuff might go has confirmed every good thing I’ve hoped for. That brain-sweat equity of the long long hours of struggling with myself has paid me back.

I’m a writer again.

[The P.S.: I’m going to post the link to Spiritkeeper again, with a few expanded tags that might help direct new attention to it. If you’ve already been there, thank you. If not, you might want to take a look at one of the works that animates this space.]

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