Yesterday morning, my cat climbed a tree. He’s an indoor cat who has regular guided outdoor adventures, and he’s developed a deep love of tree-climbing.
This tree, however, was one he had never climbed before so, of course, he got stuck.
There I stood, in my pyjama bottoms and rubber boots, holding my mug of coffee, calling encouragement up to him.
You got this, Merlin!
C’mon! Focus! (Turns out cats are easily distracted by the screeching of nearby red squirrels).
What sprang to mind as I waited for him to find his way down was that quote which has been attributed to everyone from Nabakov to Spielberg about how creating a three-act plot comes down to getting your character up a tree in the first act, throwing rocks at them in the second, and helping them out of the tree in the last act.
So, there we were, Merlin and I, creating our own little melodrama (spoiler alert: he did eventually get down).
This metaphor feels especially apt for me right now because I’m revising the third act of my new novel: a tightly plotted tale that I began writing to have some fun and which has of course matured into a coming-of-age story that plumbs the depths of trauma (whatelseisnew?) and how we are all more-or-less victims of uncontrollable forces.
(It’s still fun, though).
The third act, this time around, has been the toughest for me to negotiate through the revision process. I’ve rewritten it quite a lot, partly because some of the rocks I threw at Ashley Hayes, my protagonist, were doozies. (Like I said: fun).
But every story needs an ending – and one that feels surprising, yet inevitable, as Aristotle first wrote in Poetics, circa 335 B.C.
And, of course, these perfect endings don’t just arrive (unless they do: lucky you); in my experience, the perfect ‘surprising, yet inevitable’ ending grows gradually out of the fertile ground of the revision process.
Which is exactly why revision is so important: to that scratched out first draft we bring intentionality and thoughtfulness, consideration, and planning. It is an exciting endeavour: as exciting as climbing the tree in the first place.
More, actually, for me. I love the strategy and arithmetic of getting out of the tree much more than the thrill of belting up that trunk – if you’ll permit me to stretch this metaphor out a little bit more.
One of my favourite quotes about novel writing is from Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. She writes: “You can’t pick the ideal point of view, the right protagonist, the ideal plot, or the perfect setting; you can only pick ones that offer some benefits and some deficits. And the ones you have picked and committed yourself to are constrained by qualities you’ve given them while not knowing what you are doing.”
She’s not writing about beginning writers. She’s talking about all writers approaching a story that hasn’t yet been written.
Whether you outline or don’t outline, whether you consciously fill out one of those vast character questionnaires about your protagonist or don’t (honestly, don’t, there are better ways), whether you map out the whole adventure on cue cards and then dive in, new stuff is going to arise. The rocks pummelling into the branches might be stones at the core of snowballs or surprising chunks of glittering amethyst. Your subconscious will find a way. You will be surprised.
Thus, the only job is to work within those constraints. Because the only other choice is to chuck it and start again – and that impulse is driven by a hunger for perfectionism that will never go away no matter how many times you start over.
We must always work within the constraints that we set out for herself, even if they shock, surprise, startle us, even if we find that we would much rather be writing another book.
A better book, that book that we just know will be a New York Times bestseller, that we had intended to write, before we got sucked into this stuck-up-a-tree nonsense.
Newsflash: there’s only the book that you’re working on right now.
There’s only the tree you have to get out of right now.
So, come on.