Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Page Eighty Snuck Up on Me

Yesterday I had the darnedest trouble with my manuscript. I'm working on the sequel to The War That Saved My Life (available March, 2015, at bookstores near you!) and everything had been going swimmingly for quite some time, until yesterday, when I sat at my computer and the whole story went to mush. Leaden prose. Pouty characters. No clear action, no sense of direction, and a whole lot of [XXX], which are the marks I put in when I need to know a historical fact but don't.

I'll be honest, I know a LOT of historical facts about World War II on England's homefront these. Enough so that when reviewing a novel for Kirkus the other day, I found myself thinking, "Oh, for Pete's sake. Of course you couldn't rip the stamps out of your ration booklet. That's just inviting the black market, that is." But yesterday stumped me. When do you dig potatoes? I know when to dig them in east Tennessee, but in Kent? And if you have a whole field of them, do you use a tractor? Put them into bushel baskets, or burlap bags, or just heave 'em into a wagon? Also, how many Germans in a Messerschmidt? Which I should know, sheesh. It was that kind of day.

Anyway, try as I might--and I did--I couldn't write anything worthwhile. I doubt if a single word from yesterday ever makes it into the final book. It wasn't until I was cooking dinner that I suddenly understood the problem.

Page eighty. Yesterday I hit page eighty.

Now, first of all, this is not a Writer Thing. This is my own personal Thing. It is, however, inviolate: as I approach page eighty of any first draft, no matter how long the resulting manuscript will be (in other words, whether it's page 80 of 300 or page 80 of 100), the whole thing mires itself into a muck of mediocrity. Every word becomes a painful slog. Then, once page eighty has been achieved, is now part of the recent painful past, the story picks up again and everything is rosy.

I don't know why this is, but I've written enough novels to know it's true.

So now you're wondering why it took me until dinner to realize I was on page 80. (Or, you're not wondering. You're so bored by my navel-gazing and weird habits that you've gone off to see what's on eBay.) It's this: I'm not writing in Courier anymore.

It's a brave new world. I straddle the divide between new writing and old. I adapted easily and quickly to word processing, but wrote my first novel on a cheap electric typewriter. (In a borrowed apartment with no air-conditioning, during one of the hottest summers New England ever had. I couldn't aim a fan at myself because the paper would flap.) Typewriters mostly used Courier, a mono-spaced font.

It looks like this. All the letters take up the same space.  To me, Courier looks the way manuscripts are supposed to look.  I also love the double-space after the period.  Whap-whap.  My husband always said, back in the typewriter days (yes, I was married then. I married at twelve.), that he could tell how well things were going by how hard I beat the space bar with my thumb.  WHAP-WHAP.  That was really good.

Anyway, my editors are now younger than me, and they hate Courier. They also beg me to stop double-spacing, because, since the manuscripts are now sent electronically even to the typesetter, they have to remove every double-space themselves, by hand.

For the last few manuscripts, in which all corrections, even copy-editing, has been done back and forth via the magic internet, I've sent them the thing in Courier. They've immediately changed it all to Times New-Roman. Upon recieving it in Times New-Roman, I immediately switched it back. This time, however, I decided to boldly grasp the future. If I can blog in Times New-Roman I can probably write novels in Times New-Roman, too.

But you can see the difference, can't you? Because, above, I never changed the font size. Times New-Roman is a proportional font. It takes up less space. And therefore, page 80 happens at page 65. And that's exactly where I was yesterday.

So this morning I will approach my novel with a light heart. It's all dormie from here.