Roller Coasters

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First comes the idea. That electrifying, spark-you-wide-awake-no-matter-how-tired-you-are nugget of a concept that tells you you’ve hit the jackpot.

It seems so crystal-clear, so obvious, like you could start writing this very moment. But then you realize you don’t have the foggiest idea what the details surrounding that concept are. So you start brainstorming. And you make it all far too complicated. And then, after weeks of thinking and pondering and thinking and pondering, you figure out it’s far too complicated. You pull back, and things begin to crystallize. Characters begin to form. You see where they came from, how they all know each other, the things that tie them together. You do a bunch of online research. You ponder motivations. You say a lot of “Please God help me figure out…” prayers.

But at some point, all that becomes a clever little ruse inside your head, because the truth is, now you’re getting close, and you’re starting to panic.

Because now it’s time to Get Started. And Getting Started is, hands down, the worst part. Because no matter how much time you spend figuring out what makes this character tick, you don’t really know her voice. And that voice is really critical, because it makes people fall instantly into lock-step in her corner…or it makes her sound whiny and bitchy and wishy-washy.

So you grit your teeth and you start putting words “on paper,” knowing very well that the first opening you write is guaranteed to be crap anyway. You just write, and you refuse to look back, because now that you’re inching out onto the tight-rope wire, you know the sensation of vertigo will plunge you into the abyss if you give it the slightest encouragement. So you write. And you write more. And you write more.

And then one day, a miracle happens. You emerge from thirty or forty or fifty pages and you realize, now, at last, you know this character. You no longer feel like you’re on a tight-rope wire, but a well-supported suspension bridge. A few more chapters, and suddenly you’re terrified again, but for a wholly different reason: because now you know these characters have something really important to say, and you’re afraid you’re not good enough to give them their voice. Instead of praying, “Please help me figure out…” you start praying, “Please help me live up to these characters.”

And then you reach the end, and you go back to the first scene. And you wrestle and wail and moan and lie awake at night, but now instead of wrestling an unknown monster, you’re wrestling your best friend. You sharpen character motivations. You change character motivations. You discover things they knew all along, but which you had missed. And slowly, oh so slowly, with the help of objective eyes and a lot more anguish, something beautiful emerges. You shift your focus; you start obsessing over pitches and Twitter pitches and loglines and queries and synopses. You send out your baby…

And then it’s time to start from scratch again.

I wrote the first scene of a new novel this week. And it was so paralyzingly scary that I felt the need for some blog therapy about it. Just to remind myself that I have, indeed, done this before, and that although it feels overwhelming, it felt that way the last time, too. To remind myself that nothing worthwhile just spills out of a person in the inSpiration of a blissful creative moment. The Spirit works, but then I have to work, too.

Nose to the grindstone.

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