The Doldrums

It’s no secret I’ve struggled with the editing of this novel. The highs are stratospheric and the lows are Death Valley-esque.

But I’m in the midst of an issue that I am unsure of the cure for. I feel rather like I’ve set off on the Oregon Trail, but I didn’t pack nearly enough provisions and all I can do is watch my livestock and then my family wither and die in the wilderness. (You have died of dysentery.)

I had the “brilliant” idea a few weeks back to add a new character to the story. He’d bring balance to the force, I thought, and provide some growth for certain characters while getting in the way of others. He’d plug up plot holes and give me a path to a much cleaner resolution than the one I wrote the first time around. In short, he’d fix my problems.

Now, I’m about a week into trying to shoehorn him into this thing and… oh, man, I just don’t know. On the one hand, I feel he certainly has the potential to do all the things I wanted him to do, but in his current form he’s doing them about as well as a guy with no hands can read braille. Which is to say, all he can really do is lean into the story and mash his face against it. It’s torturous work trying to make him interface with the existing plot and characters in any meaningful way that doesn’t feel totally artificial and tacked-on. It’s mentally exhausting pondering the ways to make all the things that have to happen happen (untangle that, grammar checkers), and much like a hapless tracker in a driving snow, I keep retracing my steps. I’ve rewritten one series of two pages four times now, and it’s impossible for me to tell which version is any better than the others. You add to that the fact that every little change I make here means other dangly bits and loose ends elsewhere in the story have to be busted apart and rejiggered, and the whole mess has devolved into one great giant gumption trap, to borrow a term from Robert Pirsig (from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).

To nutshell and paraphrase, a gumption trap is a small problem that trips you up in a big way, then pretends to be bigger than it is to make itself seem unsolvable. The example I recall from the book was rounding off a screw on an engine compartment panel, thus effectively sealing the panel shut. Not only do you have the problem of unscrewing a screw with no head, but you can’t even begin to think about how to solve the problem that you were trying to get into the engine compartment for in the first place until you can deal with the tiny screw. It swells so large that it fills your vision, and you lose all sense not only of any possible solution to the problem itself, but also of your entire ability to achieve the thing that the problem got in the way of in the first place. You can spend hours staring at a gumption trap, pondering and scheming and hypothesizing, and end up no closer to solving it than the moment after it sprang itself. Yep, that pretty much encapsulates my feeling on the novel right now. A broken motorcycle whose engine I can’t even look at.

So the edit is a problem. But what’s doubly troubling is that I can’t even measure the progress I’m making. For every step forward, I have to take about three steps back. But then I can steal the good ideas I had for this other idea and divert them to this other other idea to make it work better, so I mentally copy and paste a little and gain back a step or two. But then that idea breaks down and I feel the urge to undo what I’ve done, and that brings me back to the original thing which I then also subsequently want to undo, so I write it again. On an internal level, I know that there’s “work” being done here, but it’s impossible to quantify it. Some days I add to the word count of the original. Some days I subtract. Today all I’ve been able to do is stare at the page while the characters swirl around my head and shout obscenities at me about how useless it is to have them swirling around my head all day. They want to fix their problems. I want to fix their problems. Problem is that for those problems to get fixed, ultimately the road leads through me, and I feel about as qualified to sort out any narrative snarls as a seal is to help you with your math homework, which is to say, not at all, unless that homework involves a bunch of fish and barking, which my story does not. GET OUT OF HERE, IMAGINARY SEAL. YOU’RE NOT HELPING.

Triply troubling is the fact that I can feel the morass of this thing sucking at my boots as I try to wade across it. With each step, I feel a bit more gunk collecting on my undersoles, a bit more narrative dead weight hanging like an albatross about my neck. Momentum matters, as I’ve pointed out before, and my momentum on this thing feels like it’s barely crawling forward, if it’s moving at all.

In short, I’m stuck in the doldrums with this thing, and there is not a breeze in sight to catch my drooping sails and propel my scurvy-ridden crew out of this mess any time soon. To complicate matters further, for some reason my running playlist keeps throwing at me the song that’s inspired the next novel I plan to write, which makes me want to think about that story instead of this one. I know that that way madness lies, because the moment I take my focus away from the current project, it’s going to start to sour in the sun and I might never return to rejuvenate it.

No, this is no time to abandon the Project, or turn my back on it even for a moment, no matter how much its quagmire is pulling me down. Solutions will present themselves. Once I can solve the project of this shoehorn character, I suspect that the rest of the edit will look like a field of candy corn by the end. Of course, that simile only works if you like candy corn. Anyway… I’m working on it. I’m blarging more about it. That always seems to help knock the ol’ cobwebs loose. And I’m trying not to think too hard about it, because like any gumption trap, the more you bang your head against the thing the less capable of fixing it you become, until all you want to do is throw the whole contraption in the fire, and that’s a thing I don’t want to feel compelled to do. Because if presented with the opportunity, the Id-Writer may just snap his chains, jump the fence, and do exactly that.

I have to remind myself to breathe and to keep writing. Eyes on the prize and all that tripe. It’s still first stages. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just keep writing. Keep working. I’m at home in the me that is on this adventure.