Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Managing a Large Project

In the past two weeks, I've experienced two major works. By "experienced", I mean I read one (a book) and went to see another (a play). Both of these left me wondering about the amount of time and mental energy it takes to create a major project. But even more than this, a project that stretches the boundaries in some way. Obviously it takes time. It's hard to imagine writing a 150,000 word book in your spare time between work and family, let alone a huge book that involves time shifts, multiple characters, research and the invention of elements such as fabricated diaries and histories.

The Hour I First BelievedThe book I'm referring to is The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb. I bought this because I had loved his first two books - "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much is True". I bought the current title some time ago, and put it aside. It was huge - nearly three inches thick, and 734 pages. I didn't want to try and read it at a time when my brain wasn't up to it.

And I'd also read a couple of negative reviews that said Lamb had let the subject matter get away on him. Lost the plot, so to speak. But one day I picked the book off my reading pile and began. I agree - there are some parts that I skipped. They did seem off the track of the story, and I wondered why he'd included them in such detail (I'm referring to the fabricated diary mostly). But overall the book held me for the duration. I really wanted to keep reading, I wanted to find out what happened, and 734 pages went fairly quickly (unlike some 3 hour movies I won't name).

At the end, I started wondering. How does a writer "manage" such a huge book? This is not just a story about a couple who crash apart after the wife is almost murdered at Columbine High School. This is about history, family, obligation, and the links we make or refuse between generations. It requires an intelligent, believable narrator who involves us in his story, and a writer who can create rich threads and then gradually draw them together into a tapestry. And right at the end, we discover how and when the "hour of believing" happens.

My other experience was a play that went for more than two hours with no interval. This was Andrew Bovell's "When the Rain Stopped Falling". It began with rain falling on the stage and then a fish landing in front of us. I know it was real because we got splashed! What followed was a complex series of moves between eras from 2039 to 1959 and back again, and along the way we saw revealed the layers of catastrophe in a family, like the ripples from a rock tossed into the water. It wasn't until about 3/4 of the way through that we began to see the links, the layers and the meanings. Afterwards everyone in the audience was eager to talk about what they'd seen, what the links meant, how it all came together.

And I was back thinking again about the "major project" - the challenges for a writer who chooses to tell a multi-layered, multi-timeframe story. How do they plan such a story? How do they keep track of all the threads? How do they decide what is essential, what is superfluous? How, when the first draft is there in front of them in a huge lump, do they rework it without losing sight of the original intent? It's all very well to be picky after reading or watching something of this scale, but I've decided I can forgive the occasional sidetrack or perhaps unnecessary extra. I'd rather think about the book or play as a whole, and learn from what worked.

6 comments:

lynnpriestley said...

Hi Sherryl,

Well done getting through Wally's latest. I loved his first two books and have this book on my To Read pile and haven't been game to tackle it yet. Maybe now is the time. Great post. I am in awe of writers who turn out these enormous tomes and wonder how on earth they kept it all together.

lynnpriestley said...

Hi Sherryl,

Well done getting through Wally's latest. I loved his first two books and have this book on my To Read pile and haven't been game to tackle it yet. Maybe now is the time. Great post. I am in awe of writers who turn out these enormous tomes and wonder how on earth they kept it all together.

Cattyrox said...

I actually felt it could have done with a lot of tighter editing. What is it with editing these days? Was an editor too scared to say, hey, cut this out! Too many disaster victims might stretch your reader's credibility....Having said that, I thought the main story was great - it was the side paths that both bugged and bored me. Where is Gordon Lish when you need him?
"Don't have stories; have sentences." Gordon Lish

Sherryl said...

Lynn, be prepared to skip the bits you find to be too much of a sidetrack. I think some people would love the diary - I found it boring!

Cattyrox - I do agree that some parts could have been taken out, but overall it did keep me reading. I wonder if sometimes a book that big confounds even the writer. And that's where the editor needs to come in.

Sheryl Gwyther said...

I wonder how they keep track of all those multi-level bits and pieces? Do you have a particular method that works well for you, Sherryl? I resorted to coloured post-it notes once and ended up with a befuddled mess on the floor when the humidity got too high. Groan...

Sherryl said...

I've been thinking about writing a post about this - you've spurred me on!