Sunday, 8 February 2009

Why you have to be two-faced to be a writer


A new year. A new start. Or so I told myself.
Last year, I finished my novel. I edited it to within an inch of its life. I scrutinised every page, every line for excess baggage. I ruthlessly strangled, shot or poisoned my ‘darlings’ – those dearly-beloved phrases or paragraphs that Just Won’t Do in the cold light of day, however much one may secretly admire them. I made sure the timescales worked, that there was enough ‘light and shade’ in the writing, that the plot made sense. I wrote, and re-wrote my synopsis, my hook paragraph, my covering letter to agents. I checked my margins, my headers, my page numbering. I began to send my submissions out.
Time, then, to get on with the new one. And when better than in January, with its whispers of new beginnings, fresh starts?
I stalled.
It’s Second Novel Syndrome, I told myself. It’ll pass as soon as you get into the writing.
But still I stalled.
And then I remembered Janus, the god after whom January is named. God of – among other things – beginnings and endings. A god with two faces: one looking forward into the future, the unknown; the other looking backward over what has been. I think that Janus must be the God of Writers. We need to be two-faced.
The two faces of Janus remind me – since I’m into astrology – of the faces of Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter – the forward-facing one – is expansive, optimistic, the Great Maximiser. The epitome of recklessness and courageousness, he’s an amalgam of Bob The Builder, Elvis and the NIKE advert:
‘Yes, We Can!’ he hollers. ‘More, More, Gimme More! Just Do It!’
Jupiter is the maker of first drafts.
Picture the severe figure sitting with its back to him. Here is Saturn, gazing sternly and pitilessly over What Has Been. Thin as a pin, he takes sips of water from a plain glass, dabbing at his lips with a fastidious handkerchief. He’s a mixture of Wise Man and Grim Reaper. He’s been there, done that, seen it all.
‘Watch Your Words,’ he whispers. ‘Gain Perspective. Be Objective.’
Saturn is the editor, the reviser, or as Belbin would have it, The Completer Finisher.
Jupiter begins things. Saturn completes them. Jupiter fires up the ideas while Saturn shoots the excess down. Jupiter is all energy and imagination and hope. Saturn is the reality check at the end of the game.
And whilst he doesn’t seem like a laugh a minute at first glance, Saturn is just as necessary as Jupiter, if we are to tread the stony road to publication.
‘Yo - this is the Big One, baby! Oh, yeah. It’s gonna be great –‘ croons Jupiter, as we begin our novel. With him, we grow a book. We express ourselves, pour forth a host of ideas, of what-ifs, of and-ands. Words accumulate into phrases, phrases into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes, scenes into chapters. For first-time writers, the completion of this first draft may appear to be the completion of the whole endeavour. High on this achievement, it’s all too tempting to believe that this is, indeed, it: that the book is complete, ready to boldly go out into the world.
It’s not.
It’s time, instead, to turn our face the other way.
Living with Jupiter is like attending a Bacchanalian party. Excess Rules OK. Growth is Good. Quantity is Quality. Then along comes Saturn with his cold, assessing eye, his objective pragmatism. Compared with Jupiter, Saturn seems miserly, nit-picky, a niggardly task-master who ruthlessly insists on getting value for his money. Every turn of the plot, every character, every word must work for its place in the novel, or die. Saturn is the challenger. Faced with a flight of Jupiterian fancy, Saturn takes aim and fires. Only the very strongest survive the glacial Saturnian process.
Yet Saturn has his own attractions. If Jupiter is the lord of celebration, of over-eating and drinking, of expanding waistlines, Saturn is the cool, exhilarating breath of the New Year resolution to cut down, to sharpen and slim, to pare away the excess and reveal the lithe, sleek body beneath the fat.
Saturn and Jupiter. Each has its time in a writer’s life.
The transitions between them, however, can be problematic, as I’m discovering. A fellow writer puts it beautifully: ‘I'm finding it really difficult to put my writer's cap back on. I find myself scrutinising every word as it goes down and changing it back and forth, unable to make a decision and move forward. It's like being bladder-shy - I just can't go when someone's watching!’
Someone, in this case, is Saturn.
And with spring approaching, I need to turn again: to Jupiter, and his delights. But first I must wave a very firm au revoir to Saturn. Even though his bony fingers are scrabbling at the door, it’s no longer his time. New energy is stirring. New ideas are calling – distantly, faintly – and another voice, a hopeful, passionate, expansive voice is whispering:
‘Yo, this is the Big One, baby…’

11 comments:

CarolineG said...

Interesting post, Suzy...we do have to be able to accommodate these two sides of ourselves somehow. Good luck on the current WIP!

Geraldine Ryan said...

Fascinating way of looking at the two faces of a writer, Suzy!

Samantha Tonge said...

Interesting post, Susie.

I think we have several faces or 'hats' as writers, don't we, and it's hard juggling them all sometimes and hard to choose the right one and keep it on...

Good luck with the wip.

x

emmadarwin said...

What a really interesting way of seeing it, and very true. I think much talk is of the forward-facing free-and-easy one being easier, but I think you're right, it can be just as hard to shed the realtively tidy-minded nit-picking of revising, and push off again into uncharted waters.

Derek Thompson said...

Susie, another great piece of writing! To use your astrological metaphor, we can either wait for a positive aspect and swim with the tide or work with a challenging one and swim against it. Ultimately, what matters is that we keep on swimming. If it helps any, just commit to 'x' hours of writing a day - does not include editing! When the brain knows it's here to write, come what may, the ideas will surely flow!

Gillian McDade said...

A very interesting post Susie - I enjoyed reading it! :)

Susie said...

Thanks, everyone!
I'm adding this comment from Jane Pollard(not for the nice thing she said, but because she describes the process so well):
'Every writer who reads it will punch the air yelling "Yes! Someone who REALLY understands" at exactly the same time as they cringe because someone else knows their secret - that it's sooooo much easier to research, plan, structure and talk about writing than to sit at one's desk sweating drops of blood and trying to get the story that exists fully formed in one's head out onto paper or via the keyboard to a hard drive. And for me after nearly 30 years it has never got any easier. Yet without it - and I have tried to take breaks, telling myself I need to let the well refill and all that stuff - I'm only half alive. So I sit there, and force myself to get something down on the screen, telling myself I can polish, rewrite, edit, scrap it and start again, later. And suddenly it starts to flow, it leaps to vibrant life in my head and I can't type fast enough to capture the conversations and describe the scene and action. I'm in the zone and it's the most wonderful feeling in the world. And when I stop my neck has seized solid, I'm dying for a pee, and I'm totally exhausted. But I feel a fantastic sense of satisfaction, and it will be hard to wait until tomorrow and go through it all over again. It's the masochism of creativity!

sarah fox said...

Ah, yes the masochism...and you've really captured that roller coaster of joy v despair, confidence v uncertainty, being constantly lured back to start again.

Great post.

Poppy said...

Glad you're turning
xxx

barjoker said...

Brilliant, Susie. I'm off to kick Saturn's ass so I can finally have a pee..

Laurie Paulsen said...

brilliant! fabulous! i actually kinda need saturn's help right now--may i borrow him? :D
i love your writing style. best of luck with your novels--the finished one, and the one still gestating. (and the many more to come!)