Thursday, March 22, 2012

Guitar Building

By Jay Stringer

Last week I started writing the third book in my contract. It's triggered a week of lots of rambling thoughts about writing. Here's some of them.

This being the third book in a series, and the fourth book I've written, I think I've got only one thing that I can say with any certainty is true of writing; Each one is a new thing. I once had the thought that writing one book made it easier to write the next one. That each successful tilt at the windmill would make the next one look a little smaller.

Not so. Each book is a different breed, with it's own quirks and challenges. That's not to say craft doesn't carry over from project to project. Over time you pick up new skills and a deeper understanding of the craft. But having a great understanding of the human form, and a better set of tools than before, doesn't mean you'll find it any easier to produce your next painting. I'm going to learn how to write this book as I write it. And it'll be fun, but already I can see it wants to throw me.

Something else that I can say is true, but only of me, is that I ease into it. OLD GOLD is an exception, because I didn't know I was writing a book at first. But with the three since, I've learned I start off slow. A thousand words here, a thousand there. It's not until a few weeks in, when I've made a few failed attempts at finding the books voice before I start to grasp it, that I really get up and running. I've figured out that this is because of that first point again. As I start book 3 in my Eoin Miller trilogy, I find that I keep hesitating, because it's not going the way that books 1 and 2 did. At this point, around 5 chapters in, I keep doubting myself, and thinking I'm clearly getting it wrong because it doesn't feel the way it did the last time.

But that's a trap. Firstly, I'm not remembering the tentative steps I took when I started the first draft of book two. What I'm remembering is how it felt as I worked on the second or third draft. How it felt once I knew what the books voice was, and how the pieces needed to fit together. Secondly, the book should feel different to the first two. that feeling of fake nostalgia is really a guide to what the book shouldn't be, but it feels warm and compelling because it comes before I've figured out what the book should be. If I was Chuck Wendig, I'd probably have 25 tips for how to skewer that nostalgia, and what sauces to cook it with. Really the thing that slows me down at this stage of the book is a key part of the writing process.

One of the main things that's unique to this book for me is that it's the third act. I've always been a seat-of-the-pants writer when it comes to plotting, but coming to a book that's closing out a story cycle means I already know where the characters need to find themselves in the closing stages of the book, give or take one of them surprising me. In fact, by this point, I have a large cast of characters who each want a speaking part, and each can make a compelling argument for me showing the end of their arcs. With all of this comes a different skill set. I'm having to craft a stand-alone story from the ground up, but I'm balancing that with whittling a pre-exisiting story down to it's most important parts. Who's going to get shorted? Who gets more scenes to chew? At which point do I let some fucking teddy bears with sticks run in and attack people?

The final thing I'm noticing so far is something Joelle has mentioned before; The difference of writing under a contract. Oh, I know, woe is us, right? No. This is a wonderful pressure to have. But it is an interesting change. Book one was written by accident then rewritten with research, feedback and hard work. But it was simply me setting the pace. That book then secured me an agent, so as we discussed, edited and shopped it, I started writing book 2. Still, really, the only thing setting the pace was my own drive with an added sense of obligation that, hey, this other person is showing some faith in you, so you really should produce more work. But then I sign a three book deal, and as I'm writing this one I can feel -rather than see- a ticking clock.

When I was in bands, I could never stand to use a metronome for recording. I hated click tracks. It simply wasn't the way my brain worked, and I never adapted. Now, as a writer, I find that I have one, deep down somewhere. It's not one that's worrying me, I'm well in advance on this project, but still it's there keeping time. It's a reassuring feeling.

And I'll leave you with a strange habit of mine. At the beginning of big projects like this, my mind and hands both seem to want to be busy with something else. Before the draft of book 2, I stripped my esquire guitar down, rebuilt it, touched up the laquer and experimented with the wiring. I followed that by building a couple of other telecaster guitars that I sold on ebay. Recently I was working on another project, an adventure novel, and before that I spent time trying to learn to draw, and learning how to make my own book covers as well as drawing the character from the book. As I sit here starting another book, I find my eyes drifting to ebay looking at guitar parts, and also find myself picking up my esquire and thinking, would I like a better neck? Would I like a Texas special bridge pickup? How about an S1 wiring harness?

So It seems my brain needs to kick out something physically productive as a starting process for me working on something mentally productive. I need to get my hands messy.

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