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Writing is inherently about waiting. You wait before you have written a single word – for ideas to materialize, for characters to present themselves, for the look and feel of a setting. You think about your story in boring government meetings, sitting in traffic, waiting for sleep. You eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers, you keep an eye out for folks behaving strangely. Faces catch your attention and you scribble down a description. For me, the “what if?” question comes early, like a child’s stick drawing on a white piece of paper. There it is, an outline, alone in all that white. Now I must fill in background, foreground, colours. I must create the drama that animates the drawing.
Then you wait to figure out what the point of the story is. You wait for an ending. Sometimes I find the beginning and the end of a story right away; it’s the middle that eludes. I think of it as creating brackets – sometimes I want to send out the brackets and say to readers, oh do some work. You figure out the middle. I can’t do everything.
The middle is the plot – how to get from start to finish. You wait to discover how to get your characters out of the jam you’ve created for them – there they are, up a tree, a slavering monster beneath them, all avenues of retreat cut off. You wait for the solution.
As you write your first words, you’re already waiting for the climax. You are as anxious as your future readers to find out what happens. For a novel, this takes a long time, and those first weeks of getting a pathetic number of words down on paper convince you that you will wait forever, because you will never finish what you have so recklessly started.
You have a first draft. You know you should let it sit for days/weeks/months, but you can’t wait, you’re desperate for someone else to read it, to tell you what you are waiting to hear, that what you have written will transform all of literature. So you send it out far too soon to your small group of writing/reading friends/editors. You wait for their response – what are they doing? How quickly can you remind them that you’re waiting?
Your first readers respond – gently or not so gently. Inevitably, they point out a giant plot hole – seems you killed off Paulette on page 83 but there she is, reaping callaloo on page 195. Frank, the film scout, would never behave like that. The sun does not set behind the Goat Islands.
You’re sick of waiting. You want your work to be out there. But revise you must, and so you write some more, think some more and wait some more.
And if you keep going, there does come a day when you have finished the blessed thing. There’s no point reading it again – you can no longer comprehend a single word. Family members have been tortured with the dilemmas of your characters. Literary friends are no longer responding to your e-mails. Then you find someone – publisher or agent – who agrees to read it and you send it off. An assistant acknowledges it (maybe) and, if you’re lucky, mentions a time frame in which an answer will be given. You save it on multiple computers and various drives and then there is nothing more to do but wait.
You wait your way through the rejections and resubmissions, this editor saying the characters are great but the plot is unconvincing, the next one saying the characters are flat but what a great story, and then finally someone says (on a day you never forget), yes, I will publish this. Then you wait for a contract. A publication date, which is always far in the future. Cover design or artwork. Galleys. You wait for the day you finally hold your book in your hands, or see your story in print. If you are entered for a prize, you wait for the shortlist date. The longlist date. The announcement of the winner.
And then you wait for responses from readers.
Creative writing demands this confusing mixture of patience and urgency – the story churns inside you, wanting to get out, and you cannot rush it. There are no shortcuts for a fiction writer.
I am not a patient person. Writing has taught me many things, but one of the most valuable is this: Begin. Keep going. A story does grow from one single word and the next and the next. What you must do is write. And wait.
'Writing is Waiting', Diana McCaulay
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