Why so many drafts? Why so much work?
It’s because you have to get everything into the piece. You can’t pick or choose, not in the beginning. Everything has to go in. All the characters, the landscapes, the details, the dialogue, the mysterious stuff that bubbles up from inside that you can’t control, the mystery, the entire story arc—you can’t leave any out.
Early on, it seemed like it was imperative to only write what I thought needed to be there. I attempted too much cutting and paring from the start. It took me maybe ten years to learn that I had to include it all. And it took another five years to discover that I have to take most of it back out. I have to put it all in at the beginning but then I have to take most of it out by the end. That’s why it takes so long. How many times did I get stuck somewhere in a story and decide that the only way forward was by “figuring something out?” How many times did I let that stalled motion kill the story, while I slogged through the muck of “figuring”? There’s no figuring involved. I simply had to learn to put it all in and then be patient. The stuff that needs to be cut loose will rise up all by itself.
It’s like moving into a house. You have all this stuff that you bring in. You might have thrown away a few things before you moved, but still there’s boxes and bags everywhere. You brought everything that you thought was important. All the boxes sit around and you maybe set up the bed and hook up the cable that first night, but you’re exhausted from loading and hefting your stuff. And then you probably have to go to work the next day so you let the boxes sit for a while, pick through them after you get home, or on the weekends. After a few weeks, you’ve been living with all the stuff out and about and you can see things a little more clearly. You have the spices in the cabinet and the DVD’s in the rack and the sheets and towels in the closet. You’re really starting to see the place—really starting to make it feel like yours. Some pictures go up on the wall and then you decide you need a new lamp and maybe some new curtains. The pile of stuff is no longer that big. You get the place decorated the way you want it, adjust the angle of the television, bring in some plants to brighten up the study. Finally, you decide that you really love the place and you’re about to settle in and relax for a while. It’s then that you notice all the leftover boxes. A lot of that stuff that you brought with you is now superfluous. So you begin to throw stuff away. Some of the stuff you store in the attic, just in case, but mostly you can clear out everything you don’t need. Only once all that stuff is gone can the place be really finished.
It’s the same way with drafts. Everything goes in the first draft, even the stuff you don’t think you’ll need in your new place. Everyone works differently, of course, and you may start throwing stuff out early, but I’ve found that I can’t go throwing stuff away until I find out what I need. That’s what’s happened with my novel manuscript Apocalypse Nation. I thought I was done drafting. It felt “finished.” But I was still at that stage of home decorating where I was blind to all the boxes in the corners, filled with unnecessary belongings. With a little editing help from a fantastic new friend, I found that I had a lot of things I could cut, throw away, reshape, or store in the attic. Now Apocalypse Nation is bright. It is a literary thriller—as much about people and sacrifice as it is about things that go bump in the night. I have hope that it might find a home. You are going to want to read it. Stay tuned for further developments.
I need other writers.
I met Vincent Carrella in line to register for the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference late summer 2001. We had an immediate kinship and although we’ve not been able to see each other too frequently, we maintain that closeness. We share a great deal in terms of experience and sensibilities but our most basic connection is simply a shared desire to write–including the doubt that balances desire.
Vinny and I stay in contact through letters and social media. We follow each other’s blogs. We don’t talk as much as either of us would like. Wrapped (warped?) in our busy lives, we crave the transmission line of the creative space.
A few days ago, we spoke on the phone for the first time in perhaps five years. Why so long a break? I don’t know. Life. But when I heard his voice, it was not simply a friend I was talking with, but someone walking the same narrow path between creative expression and creative despair. There is no need to explain doubt to a writer.
On this blog, I write about my doubt and my non-writer friends and family react to the despondency with alarm, concern, or uplifting “go-get-em” inspirational quotes. They often tell me not to take myself so seriously. I need writers like Vinny for the simple reason that they understand. Vinny and I spoke for about 45 minutes. Toward the close of our conversation, he said, “If you ever need reminding, just call me and I’ll remind you that you’re a great writer.”
Do I think of myself as a great writer? Of course not. I think of myself as a competent writer or, on my better days, a good writer (it’s amazing how brilliant the average person deems a merely competent writer), but it’s nice to know that if I’m in the midst of doubt, struggling with the fear of the blank page, there’s a writer in California willing to tell me that I’m great at my craft.
Writers need writers for that type of fleeting elevation that allows us to return to our work, to the lonely job of trying to get the words on the page to match the images in our head.
Thanks Vinny, for being one of those writers who elevates, for continuing to attempt each act of creation, for putting pen to paper despite the enormous odds against it all, and for being a part of my writing life. Here is a link to Vincent Carrella’s wonderful blog: Serpent Box.
Here are some things in the novel I’ve been working on all summer, in no particular order:
The afterlife, foot races, secret doors, Napoleon Bonaparte, Hokkaido Japan, small town Ohio, the Battle of the Nile, swimming pools, time, space, helixes of light, births, deaths, willow trees, executions, endless hallways, and the pyramids, true love.
I wish I could write a normal story. A page turner. A mystery. A domestic drama. But when I sit down to write, this is what happens.
I’ve been thinking of this as my “last chance” novel. I’m not sure if I’m setting myself up for success with such a strange story. This, for better or worse, is how I roll.
So I’m at the stage of drafting that requires a great deal of focus and trust. Without laser-like attention, I feel this project could run off the rails at any moment. If I lose trust in the process, the whole thing could come to a screaming halt. If I allow doubt to weasel into my head and linger, I could easily doubt the draft into a drawer somewhere where it would never see the light of day and never be finished. I felt some of this today after a few awkward sentences. I felt it last night as I compared my messy handwritten draft to a polished and exceptionally written new novel. It is, for me, the most precarious moment in my writing life. This is me insisting to myself that I should continue writing, even when my own imagination isn’t living up to its harsh demands.
I didn’t expect to fall so quickly into a new novel. I really wanted to write some short stories. But that has not happened. I wanted to spend a lot of energy trying to interest someone in Apocalypse Nation, but I haven’t been able to drum up the enthusiasm. Today, I plotted out in an incredibly loose fashion, the large storyline to the new book. It took maybe fifteen minutes. And after I plotted, I started writing. Today was one of those rare days when the writing flowed. I hated that I had to stop writing. That’s the opposite of most of my writing days. Onward and outward, indeed.