Got a case of 'em. I mean, in addition to the electrical threads running through my corpus.
Which is appropriate, because I've got the nerves about...tension
. (And if you're like me, the word "tension" is always but always
spoken by Tim Curry's Frank N. Furter. If you're not like me, you have no idea what I'm talking about, and will forget that you read these three sentences once you've done so. It's a hypnopixel thing.)
And not just any tension. No, I'm talking about that little red balloon of tension that, as an author, I'm supposed to keep in the air throughout the course of a longer narrative. It's what makes a novel go
, you see. Without that flow of tension, its rise and fall, the narrative is flat. Tension can be a lot of things--whether they'll get to the bomb in time, whether the guy gets the girl or the guy, whether they figure out that To Serve Man is a cookbook. In my case, tension is supposed to be primarily character driven--whether the guy gets the girl who used to be a guy, and whether the guy who's gotten the big Government Eyeball looking at everyone is a Really Bad Guy or not.
But what I've realized is that, for this first draft go 'round, I've got eighteen (and counting) vignettes, with little in the way of flow between them. That is, the events in one vignette (or chapter) aren't having as much impact on the characters in subsequent vignettes as they should have, so the whole thing has a muted, mushy feel to it.
Not a disaster. But it is my Unknown Thing, that area of writerly craft which lies in the uncharted waters beyond 25,000 words. See, I can write. I know that. But writing is not the same as writing a novel. So now I'm in just-finish-the-draft mode, knowing how much work will still be left to do on it once it's done. I have to go back and retrofit the tension into it because although I know what's going on with my characters' emotions, getting that across to the reader is a tricky business. You can tell the reader, of course. But then you've written crap, and no one wants that, least of all me.
No, it's all about significant glances and body posture and ordering a more aggressive drink than usual and--more than that!--it's about conveying those things in a way that flows naturally into the reader's eyeballs without waving a sign that says LOOK AT ME I AM TENSION. You want the reader to be compelled to keep reading without necessarily knowing why.
Dan Brown is a master at that. He's a terrible writer, yes, but there was a reason I couldn't stop reading that fucking book until 5:30 in the morning, and it wasn't because of his limpid prose. It was because he knows all the damn tricks, the pokes and prods and little buildups that keep you turning the page even as you cry out, saying, "Oh Lord, take from me this crap that I may sleep."
So what I've come to understand so far about the hard work of the novel birthing process is that there comes a point when you realize that yes, this is going to get finished, you will indeed get to type THE END or ## or FUCK OFF or whatever it is you want to use to indicate the doneness of the tale...but then, you're not done. Not at all. And the work that's left isn't just about putting commas in the right place, it's about ensuring character consistency, making sure that everyone's reacting the way they ought to and, above all else, lofting that little red balloon, keeping it in the air for as long as possible, even if it's backstage. Donald Maas
calls it microtension
, which makes me think of a micrometer, and that in turn makes me think of focused, precision work, and tiny adjustments.
This means that--for me, personally--the hard work is still ahead, which is a bit of a revelation. Here I was thinking that it was all about finishing the thing, but no! It's about finishing
the thing, in the sense of fine detail work, polishing, and making invisible repairs to tiny flaws.
I try not to think about it too much, because I've got to stay focused on getting to that final chapter. And I suspect--I don't know
, because I've never done this before--that the mere act of completing a first draft will propel me into this fine-tuning process. I also suspect that the next project will require somewhat less fine tuning, because I'll be more aware of that little red balloon at the beginning.
At least, I hope I will. But I also suspect that there will be some other thing of which I am now totally unaware that will pop up somewhere around chapter eighteen and demand that I pay attention to it.
So it goes.