Monday, July 14, 2008

Steps in the dark

I get up early to run before work two days a week. In the summer months it's usually just breaking dawn, though the sky is still dark blue enough for bats to flit over meadows. Bats at dawn; who knew?

Getting up early to write is tough, but at least I have the consolation of coffee. Getting up early to run is nearly impossible some days. Especially in the winter, when it's pitch black outside. Full-on, middle-of-the-night darkness. If I'm lucky it's clear enough for starlight; once or twice a year the moon is just right. But for the most part it means waking up in the middle of the night, leaving a warm bed, dressing, and stepping outside for that first shock of cold. Walk down the driveway swinging my arms to warm up, hating every minute of it. Every step. It is so dark and so cold and it is just. pure. misery.

Then I take a few steps and all of the resistance melts away and I'm just running. I'm still sleepy, still cold, still groggy ... but I'm running. Steps in the dark.

Road races are the same way: a few weeks or a few days of anticipation, the trembling adrenaline feeling making my fingertips throb I'm so nervous, shaking my hands, standing in the crowd at the start, nerves jangling into a crescendo. And then the gun goes off and it all melts away and I'm in the race, just running.

See, I realized it's all the stuff before the effort that's most difficult. The effort itself is no picnic, don't get me wrong -- the pounding gasping merciless last miles of a race can be almost transcendentally painful. But all the badness, all the getting-ready, all the self-doubts and uncertainty and wishing I was somewhere else ... just melts away once I begin. Once I commit.

This is where I am with writing. The starting is hard. Don't get me wrong: enduring through the shifty flaccid mealy-feeling mediocrity that plagues all first drafts is not easy. But something clicks into place when I start and I think: Okay. Now you just write.

And so I find myself coming up with reasons not to start the next book. "More research!" I tell myself. "How cold is the Baltic Sea in March? How do guns work? Why don't birds have four wings like dragonflies? Why don't dragonflies have tiny feathers? What if they did? Quick! Off to the Internet!"


I think one of the tricky things about writing fantasy is that the "fantasy" aspects of the story can distract us from the human issues at its core. Certainly I can feel that pull to always add more details, always pursue other ideas, always to do anything but sit down and write the dang first draft already.

Because a first draft is not a road race, with mile markers and a certain protocol and things you can expect at certain points. Heck, a first draft isn't even linear, much to my frustration. It's a great swirling jumble, a mess of false starts and dead ends and meanderings. Laini Taylor has a great metaphor for this: the exploratory draft.

Thinking of it that way -- as an exploration -- is a great way for me to lighten that crushing pressure of having to forge the absolutely right path, the right story, the first time. How could anyone do that?

And so I know that the first draft is an exploration. And I know that all the uncertainty and doubt and need to do just-one-more-bit-of-research will, to some extent, melt away when I begin to write. And I know that writing is work, it's just hard hard work, like building a stone wall or hoeing iron-hard ground or training for a marathon.

I know all this and still I delay. Surely there's some more plotting I can do, right? Or research. Or map-sketching. That it, I have to figure out ocean currents!

But then comes the whispering, as it always does. The flicker of an image or a snatch of music, a twinging emotion and I know: there is a boy fleeing over the mountains. I can see him. I will tell his story. And it will be hard.

But not as hard as starting in the first place.

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