Jumping Off the Cliff, Looking for Water on the Way Down

Saturday, June 13th, I began the process of writing the first draft of Endurance, the sequel to Green. The outline has been sitting on my hard drive for a couple of months, and is currently circulating among the powers that be for approval. Nonetheless, I have started now.

I’ve long been in the habit of writing books on sprints. Some of those sprints have been brutal—I had a 22,000 word writing day when drafting Madness of Flowers. That was pretty spectacular, but it definitely caused its own problems. What I finally realized is that like any runner, I need a steadier pace. So on Pinion (Tor Books, April 2010) I set myself to a goal of 2,500 words and/or two hours of writing time a day. I try to take a no-exceptions approach to that, preferring to write the novels straight through without a single break, but I think this time I’ll give myself the option of a floating day off per week.

The thing is, writing a first draft of a novel is a bit like jumping off a cliff. One sits down at the keyboard one day with an idea at least somewhat well-formed in one’s mind, and one types an opening line. In my case, it was this:

I sat among the autumn-blooming clover and picked at my memories as if they were old wounds.

That’s a lot to hang a hundred and fifty thousand words on. So’s the first step off a cliff, a lot to hang a long, long fall on. And there had damned well better be water at the bottom before I get there.

And here is where writing becomes an act of faith.

Because I don’t know I’m going to get to the other end of this book in good order. I don’t know that I’m going to be able to deploy all the threads of plot and character and theme and style and setting and weave them back together in a tapestry which is pleasing to both my eye and yours. I don’t know that I’m going to have the gumption to pound out two hours or more a day, day in and day out, no matter what, for the five, six or eight weeks it will take me to carve out this first draft.

I don’t know I can do that, but I believe I can do that.

Writers and critics and fans talk a lot about suspension of disbelief, but it seems to me that belief is far more important than disbelief. I have to believe I can write the story, you have to believe I can tell it, long before suspension of disbelief kicks in.

In my personal case, this faith in the writing process has been emperiled by a renewed journey into the land of cancer. My colon cancer of last year seems to have metastatized, though we do not have a confirmed tissue diagnosis yet. So I’ve had to take my faith in my writing and move forward into Endurance, no matter what. There’s a very solid chance I’ll be sidelined for weeks by surgery and surgical recovery, and slowed for months by chemotherapy. I delayed starting Endurance for a couple of weeks while I waited to better understand my treatment plan, but I’ve realized that was an error.

I needed to do what I’ve always done. I needed to jump off that cliff, and look for water on the way down. I might have to pause my freefall for a while to go work on kicking cancer’s ass, but I’ll still dive into the cool, clear waters of story before this is all over with.

And I’m taking all of you there with me.

P.S.  If you’re interested in more of the ongoing process, as has been my practice with the last several books, I post my daily word counts, hours worked, and brief excerpts from the daily text, at my blog at http://www.jlake.com/blog.

Jay Lake is the author of the author of Mainspring and Escapement, and winner of the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His latest novel Green is available now from Tor Books.


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