Friday, July 11, 2008

Turtle at Work

With the novel I'm currently working on, I seem to be more conscious than I usually am of my writing process. I suppose this is because I was away from the ms for a year and a half and can see clearly how it has been evolving since I began working on it a couple of weeks ago. The image of the turtle's shell seems to sum it up.

Unlike a snake, a turtle doesn't shed its skin (including the outer layer of its shell) all at once, but continuously sloughs off bits of it, which are replaced with new scales or scutes. Some of its dead skin hangs around for a long time, as plates and knobs that protect the parts of its body not covered by the shell. The skeletal structure of the turtle, of course, remains the same. But the shell itself, with all its plates and scales, keeps changing as new bits grow and an accumulation of dead bits get rubbed off.

And so it's been with my novel ms. About a year ago, I took note of a relevant piece of new science that had just been made public, and now I've incorporated it into the story-- altering a couple of scenes, adding a couple of new scenes-- in the process not solving my protagonist's problem but both sharpening it and inadvertently making the antagonist's ethical position blatantly clear where before it had been in the gray zone. And so already, as the ms has grown larger, it's subtly altered, making the conflict more focused. Which makes me feel optimistic about how the novel is going. Of course that won't last. There are always moments of clarity in the novel-writing process, moments that soon get swallowed up in the chaos of the story's growth. On the downside, I feel farther from the denouement than when I began. (Though that could be an illusion.)

Think of a turtle, sitting on a log, basking in the sun. It looks lazy, yes? But all the time, it's working on that shell. Remember that. It's what I'm doing when I'm staring at the wall.

This image has a breaking point, of course. The turtle, unlike the snail, can't simply walk away from its shell. The shell is the turtle, as much as our bodies are us. A writer's in big trouble when her novel becomes indistinguishable from her body. (I worried for a while that that might be true for me and the Marq'ssan Cycle.) It happens, of course. But not often.

No comments: