I just finished A Prince of Mars and sent it off to the editor. The manor in which I finished it put me in mind of something Tam Mossman wrote about a number of years ago – The Slope of Curiosity. It is perhaps the single most important piece of thinking on the story-telling process I can recall reading, and the experience of finishing this manuscript drove it home with power.
First some background. I’ve read lots of books on writing over the last fifteen years. People trying to learn the craft of writing read books about it, in addition to doing a lot of other things, and just about every one I’ve read has had something useful to say. Three books remain my favorites, however, because all three of them are so packed with useful insights on almost every page that they are too much to absorb in one, or even a dozen, readings. These are the three books I always go back to whenever I hit a bare spot, whenever the words coming out seem lifeless, the scenes dead, the characters all of a type. These are the books with lots of turned down page corners and underlined passages. They are:
James Scott Bell, Plot and Structure
Donald Maass, Writing The Breakout Novel
Tam Mossman, Seven Strategies in Every Best-Seller
As I mentioned, Mossman writes of “the slope of curiosity,” by which he means using the reader’s curiosity to draw him through the story at an accelerating pace, like a skier on a downhill run. The slope may be steeper at some points, and more gentle at others, to vary the pace of the story, but it always has to draw the reader forward, it always has to slope downhill toward the end of the run. As the story draws near its conclusion, the slope must grow steeper, the pace accelerate, until the story rockets to the climax at a speed which takes your breath away. That’s the part of a good story where, as a reader, you just do not put the book down. You ignore the growling of your stomach. You take the book with you into the bathroom.
What I rediscovered about the slope of curiosity with A Prince of Mars is that it works on the author as well.
Although my publisher’s deadline for manuscript turnover was September 15, and my editor’s was a slightly less formal August 15, I set a personal deadline of August 1. That wasn’t me being a show-off; it was recognition that things can go badly wrong and it’s good to have some slack in the schedule. Also, the nature of this project and its timeline is such that what I’d be turning in was essentially a slightly polished first draft, and I wanted to leave as much time for an editor-directed rewrite as possible.
The project is a novella: 30,000 to 50,000 words. My synopsis was approved in late May and I began writing in June. Well, I began outlining and fleshing out the synopsis in June, but by the end of the month I had only 4,500 useable words, and July had a lot of travel booked. Although I end up doing a lot of thinking and outlining while I am on the road (or in the airport), I find I don’t get any actual writing -- as in word count -- done while traveling, so after subtracting the ten travel days from July, I had twenty-one actual writing days. Okay. Fifteen-hundred words per day and I’d end up with about 35,000 words. Lots of people write more per day than that, and I’ve certainly written more when I am in the groove. In this case, I couldn’t wait for the groove to come to me; I had to make the groove.
Easier said than done. The truth is, I had a hard time making 1500 words a day early on. Without a lot of time for a rewrite at the end, the words had to be reasonably good words coming out the front end. I also did a fair amount of rewriting as I went, but I only count “net words” for my daily tally: final manuscript word count at end of day, minus word count at start of day equals net words.
On July 7, when I left for my first major trip of the month, I had about 10,000 words. Not quite on schedule, but about one third through the month and one third through the manuscript, so still alive.
When I got back, my first day at the keyboard was not very productive (325 words) ,due to travel fatigue, but I had a lot of ideas bouncing around and trying to get out, so the word count picked up after that.
July 14: 1706
July 15: 2131
July 16: 1520
July 17: 287
July 18: 1235
July 19: 2834
July 20: 1783
July 21: 1625
That put me at 23,000 words when I left for my second trip and I felt good about being able to finish up when I got back. I did a lot of work outlining the climax of the story while waiting in airports for delayed connections, had a pretty good handle on the scene structure, and came up with a bigger climax than in the original synopsis. The sense that something bigger at the end was needed had been gnawing at me for a while, and finally having it was what I needed to make that last sprint.
Travel fatigue was a near-killer this time, because of bad weather, missed connections, running from gate to gate, then waiting seven hours for, literally, the last plane out of Atlanta – and with an airport full of desperate, haggard travelers, carry-ons clutched to their breasts as if they contained all their worldly belongings, it felt a little like the last chopper out of Saigon.
Well, no, not really.
But I wasn’t worth much the next day and I got exactly zero words written. The day after wasn’t a lot better (410 words), so after those two days I was, by my reckoning, down 2,000 words. I needed to write 2,500 words a day for the next two days to get me even and make my target word count of 30,000. I didn’t quite, but I came close. Then I exploded. Here are my word counts for those last six writing days:
July 27: 410
July 28: 2381
July 29: 2264
July 30: 3208
July 31: 3576
August 1: 6667, the last two of which were “the end.”
Final word count: 41,500.
The slope of curiosity.
At the end, I found myself on that wild down-hill run, drawn forward by the momentum of the story, racing toward that big climax up ahead.
What a ride!