Pushing a Rope

[June 2007] Ever try to push a rope? Much more difficult than pulling one, isn’t it?

Several years ago, Stephen King conducted an experiment. He picked up a long-dormant story and started posting it in installments on his web site. The hype around the story of The Plant focused on the marketing aspect: King sold it on the honor system, $1 per installment. If a high enough percentage of downloaders didn’t pony up, he would stop publishing the story, which he figured was sufficient incentive. The message for those who took the story without paying: oooh, you stole a dollar. Big time thieves.

Publishing a story while he was writing it wasn’t new to King. He’d done the same thing a few years earlier with The Green Mile. The first installment appeared in print before he had finished writing the final installments. He was on a high wire, and everyone was watching to see if he’d fall.

He didn’t. Not with The Green Mile. But The Plant was a different story. In that case, he simply ran out of inspiration. In an interview he later said that instead of the story pulling him along, he felt like he was pushing the story.

Last weekend I started a new short story. It was for a loosely themed anthology with an impending deadline. I’d had the guidelines on my desk for weeks and had already gathered research material for what I thought the story was going to be about. Discovering how close the deadline was, I decided it was time to get my rear in gear and write something.

On Saturday morning, I sat at my desk and did the usual tomfoolery before starting to write (including playing backgammon against a fiendish program that snickers at me when it gets a good roll—it cheats, I swear). Then I launched Word.

I had a vision of the opening scene, nothing more. That didn’t bother me. I often start stories with nothing more—and I have the detritus of dozens of failed attempts on my hard drive to prove it.

I wrote about 250 words, then allowed myself to get distracted. I read e-mail, and browsed the news online. Played more backgammon. Went back to the document, read what I’d written, tweaked it a little, and added another hundred words or so. Moved a few sentences around. Got distracted again. And so on.

By the end of the afternoon, I had maybe two pages. All bad. I couldn’t figure out where the story was going or what the characters were doing. I felt like I was trying to goad a reluctant teenager into doing yard work when he wanted to go out with his friends. If it had been homework, I might have awarded myself a D for effort, though it would have deserved nothing better than an F.

After I went to bed that night, I had a flash, inspired by something I’d just read. I saw a new way to approach the story. I crawled out of bed, fumbled in the darkness for my ledger and went to another room to jot down a few notes. However, instead of simply writing notes, I ended up composing the first two pages of the story. I went back to bed and immediately envisioned the next few paragraphs. Afraid they would vaporize in my dreams, I got up again and jotted them down as well. The story got me up four times that night before it allowed me to go to sleep.

The next morning, I transcribed my scrawled prose and liked what I saw. I made some revisions, and then I was off. No procrastination. No backgammon. By the end of the day I had 1500 words and, after another round of revisions, a total of 2500 words within 24 hours.

Monday night I experienced another bout of pre-sleep inspiration and got up at least six times to jot notes on the ending of the story, as well as writing specific sentences and paragraphs. By Tuesday, I had a 3500-word first draft.

I realize now I’d been trying to push the rope instead of pulling it. Trying to force a story I didn’t particularly care about. Said another way, on Saturday morning I was on the outside of a story trying to look in to discover what was going on, whereas from Saturday evening on, I was inside the story, occupying the main character, and looking out at the fictional world with his eyes. In one case I was voyeur; in the other, participant. Saturday was pure frustration; Sunday was bliss.

That I was still constructing my fictional world on the fly didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was letting the story tell itself to me—an act of discovery instead of an act of conscious creation.

When I find myself wrestling with a story, I step away from the computer to figure out what’s going wrong. More often than not, the answer is that I’m trying too hard to tell a story rather than getting inside the characters and letting events unfold around them. The process works much better when the reluctant teenager wants to help instead of being forced to do something he hates.

When I understand the situation and the character dilemma, it’s easier to decide what’s going to happen and how the characters will react. They have a firm grip on the rope and drag me along with them. I simply take notes and chronicle their journey, which is much more fun than trying to push that rope—and far more satisfying, too.

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