Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Break Throughs

Even the word makes you feel good. Scientists find a "break-through" on cancer. A salesman "breaks through" to the next level in his production. A golfer has a "break through" on his swing; now he no longer slices (imagine my relief!).

They're like epiphanies, great moments where the cosmos aligns and slips you the nugget of enlightenment. Break-throughs are the conquering of barriers (picture doors splintering as hulkish bodies clamor through). They are the light through clouds. They startle, but comfort. They test us, but renew enthusiasm. For the writer, they're essential to finishing.

Every novelist knows there are sticking points in a project: the 150 page block, the multifarious drafts of endings, the first chapter that becomes the second that becomes the third, the fount of ideas that has run dry.

I've been at a sticking point since my agent told me I don't have a marketable book. Do you recast or abandon? Commit to action or languish in inaction? Give in to your adolescent complaining ("Nobody understands me!") Where are you, Hamlet, Prufrock, Gregor Samsa, Poor Sophie?

As they say, you fake it till you make it, which I have attempted in an effort to be a "real writer" i.e. a writer who does not falter in the face of rejection. "No, I'm not quitting on this novel. I will keep re-working it." (Then return to staring out the window.) I repeat Kipling's mantra "Drift, Wait, Obey." I relive my story, trying to understand its faults. I ask the characters, "What are you doing? Why?" Just what the hell is "non-marketability" anyway?

Then the other morning over coffee, still staring out the window, I experienced the moment: the "break through", the light bulb flipping on, the stuffy nose clearing in an instant. What-if's swarmed like locusts. Ideas crystallized in high-def images. Characters spoke clearly. I saw the story map itself, scenes clipping by each other like that cool little CD flippy thing in iTunes. I changed the point of view. I changed and added a narrator. We would still go to Dallas. Danny would indeed win Addison by the end. I would write 1963. Got it all down before the words evaporated.

I'm sure this wasn't THE break-through. Many gooey sticking points lie like flypaper in wait. However, for today, the advice of a friend finally broke through: Tell a good story. Your characters will rise up like angels. The rest be damned.

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