Friday, June 19, 2009


Deep into sixth draft something unusual happened: the manuscript inhaled. Not in the Clintonian sense of doing something it shouldn't have, but filled its lungs and gave voice to how I should proceed. Some crucial details were missing in a scene I was working on and the manuscript told me what I should do to rectify the lack. At first hesitant to follow such advice, I overcame my reluctance and tried it out and you know what? it brought the scene together in a fresh way. Sounds weird, I know.

The earliest drafts were tough because they were a collection of disparate scenes without plot threads to connect them. Subsequent versions have brought new hurdles, the latest of which is making the text lift off the page and come to life. Plotting is done and scenes I've got by the truckload, but breathing life into the words and transforming the story into an enjoyable experience has been difficult.

Then this happens.

I had come home from work and as is typical lately, I was looking at some pages before cooking dinner. The pages did not look good. Something was missing. The section I was editing had basic features in place but... I couldn't put my finger on what the problem was. Then it happened: the page seemed to speak and describe what was needed to complete the scene. At once I sat down and started writing some rough descriptions and dialogue. Next thing I knew an hour had passed and I had a passel of notes that brought a significant new dimension to the book.

Soon after I found myself thinking of Philip K Dick.

A science fiction writer who has no equal in the 20th century, PK Dick has long been an inspiration to me. For many years I devoted myself to learning as much about the author as I could, collecting his entire catalog of 43 novels in paperback editions and bundling them away in a suitcase that I kept by my desk. He is fascinating both as artist and man. The suitcase has since then been donated to a Seattle bookseller, but his influence continues.

Phil, as he was known to friends, would routinely churn out novels quickly and efficiently. After typing out a manuscript over a benzedrine-fueled weekend, he would collapse with pneumonia. Some of these books are quite good, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for Blade Runner) and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said; others are not quite up to snuff.

The Simulacra suffers from the author making it up as he goes. Though Dick was known to do this, part of what makes his writing crackle is the headlong energy investing it with a sense that what is around the corner is a mystery to both author and reader. There is a weird sense of shared discovery that is totally unique to reading PK Dick. This sometimes gets out of control and ruins an otherwise good story. In The Simulacra there are so many twists and reversals they obviously exist for no reason than to keep things moving, and move they do -in all directions. Too much inspiration!

This came to mind the other day after I'd experienced a bout of inspiration. It is easy to be convinced that a burst of insight is sufficient cause for committing words to the page, but this conviction has risks. Though I wish an editor had seen fit to rein in PK Dick, what failed in some of his books is uncontestably great in others.

This reminds me of the musician PJ Harvey, who says that every successful song she's written has 9 bad ones preceding it. Mistakes are an unavoidable part of the process. When creating, the expedient feels no different from true substance, from the stuff that actually makes words come to life. Discovering which is which is out of creators' hands and must be determined by the audience, a hard truth to come by.

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