“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain.
I love Mark Twain and his pithy opinions. I saw this quote yesterday and knew immediately that it fit in with my thoughts this week, especially about my life as a writer. While Twain encourages to set sail to explore and discover, he doesn’t include that often the explorations lead to dead-ends and perhaps the journey challenges as well as delights.
This past week I’ve been working on two chores that involve cleaning: the actual cleaning of my living space, and the cleaning out of my files. The former is a straightforward physical exertion that involves scrubbing, scrubbing, and more scrubbing, dusting, vacuuming, and rearranging as well as throwing out old and useless items that clutter up the space and I happily toss out without another thought. The latter challenges me to let go. Do I save them or toss them? The files contained the representations of creative ideas, notes, explorations into character, and discoveries concerning story and plot. There was a time when I saved everything because I was convinced that someday I would find a use for it in some piece of writing or another. That has turned out to not be the case at all.
It pains me to write that many of the files for short stories whose ideas had grabbed me in some way I had completely forgotten, and I looked at them this week as if looking at someone else’s files. Those files were easy to discard, of course. But then there were the files of two novels I’d begun long before Evan Quinn informed me that his story involved five novels. Do I save them or toss them?
The first I’d called “my second novel” with a working title of When You See Her. As I read through the notes in the working file, I remembered what had sparked this endeavor originally. The first was a memory of driving in the Adirondack Mountains at night on pitch black roads because they did not have lighting, and those roads curving sharply and doing switchbacks. I remembered the tension in the car and how scary it was to feel that anything could happen and we wouldn’t be able to see it coming. The second spark flared from a comet hitting the planet Jupiter. Two disparate things that came together in a story about a young man learning about responsibility and redemption. At least, I’d thought along those lines according to my notes. I’d done some character creation and development work, but had only gotten to the end of the first act in the story outline. Apparently, I’d gotten stuck there, then something else had grabbed my attention, and I’d not made it back.
The second novel idea was actually the first novel in a mystery series grounded in Buddhism and starring a 20-something woman working for a private investigator. The title of this first novel in the series was going to be either The Laughing Buddha or Monkey Mind. I’d begun character work on the main character and her boss, and I thought I had the murder figured out, but for some unknown reason, it all went into a file, into a drawer, and stayed there untouched until this past week. I still like this idea, actually, although now I don’t recall how the Buddhism fit into the series and I don’t remember what the story was. I am a different person now, a different writer, than I was back then, and if I were to pursue this idea, I suspect it would be a new and different story.
As Twain encouraged, with these two ideas I had thrown off the bowlines and set sail into unknown territory in my imagination to see if it would be worth exploring further. I think this is true of any story idea. One of the most important things I learned from studying screenwriting is to test the viability of an idea before getting too far into the writing of it. Think of it as sailing a detour up a river to find out if anything worth attention is farther upstream. If not, turn around and return to the starting point to try a different river. What needed to be upriver was an act 2, i.e. conflicts and obstacles that the main character would need to overcome to achieve his or her goal. If there’s a fabulous act 1 but nothing more, the idea isn’t viable. When writing screenplays, I developed a habit of doing some rough outlining as well as asking other characters what they want and what they’d do to get it in order to ferret out the characters that would be in conflict with or obstacles to the main character. The files I found this week were from novels and stories that were tantalizing rivers that led nowhere. They found their rightful place in the garbage dumpster.