This makes me insanely pleased and relieved, because now, whatever happens, “Arassa” (my book-in-progress) is a book. I could write The End tonight, and it would possess a minimum number of words, which I’ve been told is around 75,000.
When I first begin writing words on a blank page, I usually know only the beginning scene, a couple of events in the middle, and if I’m extraordinarily lucky, I know the ending. So there’s always a bit of nervousness until I pass that magic number, since I’m never entirely sure what I have. Is it an absurdly long short story? Is it a novella? Is it…dare I believe…is it a novel? I’m still awed by my ability to find all those words – even after writing four and half books.
For Arassa, I’m still writing blind. I know one major climatic point that will be happening soon, and I have a list of Things That Need To Happen, but I don’t yet know the ending itself. My way of writing feels like walking through a labyrinth beneath a mountain. There are many, many passages I could walk through, and many, many doors I could open. But someone has been there before me, and they’ve wound a spool of the most slender silk thread through all the passages and doors where the true story goes. Imagine that: alone in the darkness, surrounded by stone and echoes, and my only true guide is the barely-felt, hardly-believed in thread of silk between my fingers. I’m always afraid it will break, and leave me stranded and the story forever lost. First drafts are nerve-wracking.
As I walk forward, sometimes the thread slips from between my fingers without me noticing, and when I turn a corner I find myself facing a solid wall. Then I must creep backward, throwing away the wrong words not matter how much I love them, until I reach out and find the thread back within my touch. I have to trust the string; I have to trust that it took me under the mountain, and that it will lead out of again. I have to trust the string when I find myself writing scenes I don’t yet understand, and meeting characters I didn’t plan for. These are the best and most frightening times.
It feels supernatural, like the Story came before I created it, like it existed before it stumbled out of my hands. It feels like the characters have been flitting about, whispering into people’s heads, trying to make themselves heard. Most people shut them out. They’re too busy trying to make sense of their own lives, too busy thinking about Desperate Housewives, or what they’re going to do on the weekend. They’re too busy paying bills, pulling grey hairs, or worrying about the new sound their car is making. They’re thinking about their boss, or the fact that the cat might be gagging on the oriental rug (he was looking ill right before they left for work). They drown out all the voices but their own, and they never realize how lonely they are.
But now and then, the character whispers into the ear of a writer, and she manages to whisper louder than all the other whisperings of all the other whispering characters. She tells her story, and the writer takes dictation. A writer prays for the days when it feels like dictation, when the writing’s so good and so perfect as that. When it’s so much fun.
It’s not always like that, of course, sometimes the whispers get too faint, and the writer has to strain to hear; each word is a labor. Sometimes the writer doesn’t trust the character to know her own story, and starts muddling around with it, and ruins something pure.
But sometimes, all the writer has to do is be the pen.