Life is like …

… a box of chocolates.

I found myself saying that particularly memorable line at a dinner party the other day, when we were all deliberating which yummy choccy to pick from a rather tempting plate.

The following morning, rather hungover, the fiancé and I went for a fry up. We chatted about the night before. ‘I was ok, wasn’t I?’ I asked, ‘Not too embarrassing?’  (I always need to check. Sometimes, when overexcited in public, apparently I can say really silly things.)

‘Yeah, you were fine. Not nearly as bad as when you said that thing about The Crystal Maze in Italy.’

In Italy, staying with friends a month or so ago, we’d all got on to the subject of old television shows from our childhood. I said that I always used to think that when I grew up, life would be like The Crystal Maze. Everyone gave me a look. Nobody got it, no matter how hard I tried to explain. Someone charitably changed the subject and then that was that.

Life is like … well, there are hundreds of quotes, although perhaps none so memorable as that one from Forest Gump. Most of the ones littered around the internet are by people I’ve never heard of. But I do like this one from Einstein:

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.

And, I shall reassert my childhood dream:

Life is like The Crystal Maze. You only have a certain amount of time to meet the challenges it throws at you.

I suppose this belief harks back to my post about quests and children’s books (here). When I was young, I believed that I’d grow up into a life filed with adventures. This was almost entirely because of what I read in books.

In fact, needing a break from adult books, a couple of days ago I read Patrick Ness’s fantastic book The Knife of Never Letting Go, which won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize a couple of years ago.

Todd, the main character, is chased out of ‘Prentistown’ and finds himself on a terrifying adventure through New World, accompanied by his dog (who talks) and Viola, a newcomer to his world. They both have to run (a lot), escape several life-threatening situations, fight, hide … you get the picture. And it was even more compelling than Inception – I read the whole thing in twenty-four hours, unable to put it down.

The basic elements of the plot aren’t so different from that of many exciting children’s adventure books. The main characters have to pit all their wits against an enemy pursuing them and the terror of the unknown ahead. They are constantly on the run and so don’t have enough time for anything. And they are constantly striving onwards to reach their goal … before it’s too late.

Now that’s not all that different from being stuck in a room with a timer counting down to zero and having to work out how to get through various obstacles to find the crystal. Except, thankfully, Richard O’Brien isn’t shouting over their shoulders all the time.

And, as I pointed out in my quests post, when that’s what you read about, that’s what you imagine will happen. And, while the dreariness of everyday London life isn’t particularly crystalline, well perhaps there are elements of The Crystal Maze to be found.

Take writing a novel, for instance. How can one get past all the obstacles that are lying in wait – the crises in confidence; the flaws in the plot; the unexpected blips; a computer crash? How can one bring it all together? How can one solve the puzzle of what unfolds?

And, although it doesn’t seem like there’s a time limit – especially when one’s not actually writing to a publisher’s deadline – of course there is, it’s just less obvious. It’s like going into a room in The Crystal Maze and not knowing how long you have to solve the puzzle. There’s a timer ticking away and you don’t know when it’ll be too late and you’ll be locked in the room.

Because the thing is, one is almost always convinced that something can be improved, if one had more time. One always thinks, if I only had another couple of weeks, if I just had an extra five minutes, or – in The Crystal Maze – another ten seconds … And, in life, almost every project does have a time limit – a deadline at work, or some kind of pressure to get it done by a certain time.

What I’ve found with writing is that although there is no official time limit, there is an internal one. A moment by which if one hasn’t finished it, then one is so fed up with it that there’s no point in continuing. A moment at which the book becomes too stale to be kept alive.

I have certainly felt the counter heading down towards zero hour in my writing. This novel has taken me over two and a half years. Friends don’t really know what to say anymore. ‘How’s the novel? Still going?’

Unfortunately, writing a novel is one of those things that just does take a long time. For me, I suppose, a very long time. And, during that time, I’ve got incredibly fed up with it. To the point when having to explain the plot to a naïve new friend forces a sigh and a downcast look and I have to try to work out how to change the subject as quickly as possible.

But, just in the nick of, I think I’ve finished it. Well, nearly. The third draft is now all printed off and in a (rather thick) pile on our table. It’s waiting for me to read through it, make the occasional tweak, and then that will be that.

My internal time limit is September. All tweaking must be finished by then.

Nearly there. If I were in The Crystal Maze, at this moment I would be running towards the door, crystal clasped tight in my hand, hoping to be able to squeeze through in the final seconds before it’s slammed closed.

Life is, indeed, like The Crystal Maze. Now I’m beginning to dread what will happen once September arrives and I get into the enormous Crystal Dome, in which I’ll have to try and catch a publisher.

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