I like to think I’m more than halfway through a first draft of the next novel, and I have to say: the process and brain-space required are completely different than revising a story that’s already made it onto the page. That’s hardly news—I’ve written before about story-parenting and the different hats required of writers to complete a story anyone else will want to read. But I’ve just noticed a strange personal quirk of my own first-draft phase: when I get to the end of a scene and the next part of the story won’t happen until later that evening… without conscious thought, I stop writing until the next day.
You might be tempted to label this habit procrastination or writer’s block, but it feels completely different. I know what’s going to happen next, and I’m even excited to write about it; but somehow, before the characters can take their next fictional steps, I need to live through some time off-screen as well.
(Cue that Jeopardy thinking-time sound track.)
Here’s the scene that forced me to acknowledge this time-quirk: a man and a woman working through a business deal feel an unexpected romantic spark. On impulse, the woman decides to stay in the area overnight; her excuse is that the man needs time to read the paperwork she’s presented. (Spoiler alert: he’s dyslexic and won’t read it, no matter how much time she gives him.) When she shares this plan he asks her to dinner, and she accepts. The scene ends with expectant smiles (for all three of us).
And yet, instead of carrying those smiles forward to their evening meal, I close the project—that’s all for today. I can’t/won’t/shouldn’t write that next scene until tomorrow.
This makes no sense, of course. If author-time and novel-time moved in lockstep, it wouldn’t have taken me so many years to write Ferry to Cooperation Island, a story that starts in May and ends the following September. And the momentum of knowing what will happen next should NEVER be wasted when writing a first draft, just in case the idea flits off before it can be captured in words.
But no matter how irrational this behavior is, I couldn’t force myself to write that dinner scene. Somehow, my imagination needed to drum fingers through that long afternoon—in author-time, not just on the page.
(So instead, I’m writing this blog post.)
As I go through the rest of my day, my subconscious will be enjoying the anticipation of an evening date between two unexpected lovebirds; the pure potential of what they might say to each other (about those unsigned papers, as well as more important things). And tomorrow, I’ll rewind a mental playback button and “transcribe” what was said the night before, across a white tablecloth, by two characters that exist only within my head.
Drafting novels requires a removal of the self-editor we all carry within. Apparently, it also requires removing expectations about my imagination’s own time frame. I need to allow it the freedom to choose its own pace—even when I can’t wait to learn exactly what will happen next.