Life Sketching

How do you stay motivated on a long-haul project? I’m working on this a lot lately during the revision process on my third novel.

I’m one of those (maybe annoying) writers who usually does okay with motivation, at least when I’m caught up in a project. (Between projects is a totally different story. I get “mean” when I’m not working on something, but I’m no good at sitting down and tooling around and seeing what happens. I need a plan, an in.) When a project is in the works, I have trouble keeping some level of life balance, because I usually don’t want to do much of anything else.

This third book, Line Magic, was the first one I started without the benefit of months or years of brainstorming and world-building. The whole process was about seeing what shook out as I went. The writing process took longer than usual, and the end result was a lot rougher than I usually hope for in a working draft. Revision is raising a lot of questions. What were you doing here? What’s the point of this scene? How about this whole chapter? And sometimes, Why did you think any of this was a good idea?

The revision experience

At the same time, something is there. Writing the draft was a fantastic adventure. That excitement is still there, even as I argue with myself over paragraphs and sentences and individual words. (It’s fun when you change a word three or four times, and then put it back to how it was in the first place.) My main character might still be my favorite character of all the ones I’ve worked with. Hanging out with him is a delight, and I remember more about why I like him every time I sit down again and stare at these knotted-up pages.

Still, it’s often a challenge to sit down again. When I know I’m going to need that extra boost to look at another oh man, what’s this stuff?? section, I’ve started using one of my favorite tricks. It’s usually part of the brainstorming process, but this time it’s helping much farther down the line.

I call it Random Life Sketching. Novels are so much fun because you can learn everything there is to know about your characters. Your protagonist might be an adult on the page, but it never hurts to know about what they were like in childhood, what kind of family they grew up in, what significant moments might have shaped them growing up. Those moments may never show up in the finished story, but they inevitably make the characters richer to write. For me, they also remind me why I like these people so much. Creating sketches that aren’t part of the finished book means there’s no pressure to make them “perfect.” It’s all about play and experimentation.

I’m not a visual artist, but sometimes I experiment with color. This “watercolor therapy” hangs above my desk.

Nicky True, my protagonist in Line Magic, shaped himself as I wrote him. In the novel, he’s an adult in his mid-twenties, a visual artist with an extraordinary gift for drawing which ventures into the magical. If I had done my usual brainstorming for this book, I’d have already had a pile of sketches about what he was like as a boy, when his gifts turned up, who knew about them and when…etc. Now I’m going back and filling in those gaps in my imagination.

The novel is set (mostly) in 1945. For Random Life Sketching, I’m sending myself farther back in time. Nicky was born in the 1920s and grows up during the Great Depression. He comes from a working-class family; his father is an Irish immigrant who works in a textile factory dye house (a fun research rabbit hole). Eleven-year-old Nicky is old enough to be well aware of his parents’ worries about money, old enough to hunt for ways to help. He hasn’t reached his growth spurt yet but it’s already clear he’s going to be tall, a fact that makes his parents wonder how they’re going to keep him in decent clothes. He looks a lot like his dad, Desmond, who might have been an artist too, if he’d had other options. Nicky gets along fine with the other kids, does decently in school, doesn’t stand out in a crowd: except for his quick sensitivity to the world around him, and that remarkable gift when he sits down with pencil and paper. Sometimes he skips out of games at recess to sketch the pattern of light and shade on a sidewalk square, or the angles of rooflines across the street. It did cross my mind that the other kids might bother him about this, but Nicky is also tough and able to defend himself – so they don’t interfere, something that my once-bullied younger self much appreciates.

This kind of geometry would fascinate my young artist.

The sketches I’m coming up with might never end up on a published page, although one of them did turn into a full-length short story. The real gift of them is the return to experimentation and discovery. Nicky can show me what he was like as a boy, and I can take a break from wrestling with the latest what’s this stuff? part of the novel and simply appreciate this new information about a character who caught me from the beginning. I have about eighty more pages of revision to do, into the final quarter of the book. Given how long the rest of it has taken, it’s still going to be a while, but I have a feeling these sketches will help me power through.

If you’re a writer, what helps you stick with projects when they hit the long-haul, painstaking, remind-me-why-I-got-into-this stretches? Please leave a comment if you’d like.

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