Fourth Draft Jitters


I’m as jittery as a three-wheeled caboose. I am about to face my novel again, the fourth draft to be exact. I don’t know what I’m going to find.

I’ve been working on a novel for the past few years.  In the last 10 months, I’ve given it more serious commitment. It’s become the most important part of my day. Three drafts done, the words finally sculpting a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

I worked through the drafts without much break in between. I didn’t want to lose the thread of whatever was there. I printed out the completed third draft, put it in a manila envelope, and buried it under a pile of bills by the window in the corner of my workspace. The morning street noises unconcernedly wafted over it.

One month. That’s the timeline I was giving myself. I was on forced vacation from the characters I liked and loved. The plan was to get some distance and come back for one final draft before letting a few others give their feedback.

I kept myself busy during the month (this blog, an outline for another novel) but now the time is up. Tomorrow I dig up the manila folder and start reading the pages again. It’s like meeting an old college friend. I hope we still like each other.

When my son was born I kept thinking how lucky I was to have such an absurdly beautiful baby.  Maybe Nature makes that happen for all parents. The parents look at their newborn and think no baby could possibly be more perfect. When I look back at the earliest pictures of my son, the truth is he looks pretty much like every other newborn baby. Even down to the identical funny little hats they are all issued at the hospital. It’s a wonderful protective mechanism we’re given (the parental pride, not the funny little hats).

But novels? I’m not so sure we get that kind of creator’s protection. We have to face the consequences of our lexical mistakes and bear the shock of whatever is really there. What if there’s nothing worth saving?

How bold will I be? Will I wimp out if it’s clear that the whole structure is rotten and needs re-modeling? Will I ruthlessly cut out characters who don’t add to the story line? Will I, as the advice famously goes, kill my darlings?

Not so fast. In previous drafts, my editorial self was tempted to take out whole characters and subplots. But I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t kill my darlings. And that mercy, I think, for now at least, was the better choice. As I found out more about my characters and my story I found a way to more fully integrate them into the plot of the novel. I think the novel is stronger for that decision.

The one thing I am happy about is that with every draft so far,  I’ve surprised myself with new content. It’s not just been about changing words here or there, but still working with something alive and pliable. Each round I’ve written something that surprises me, surprises my characters. I am grateful for that.

She steps off the platform with suitcases, the blue suitcase I remember. The turn of her shoulder. What coat is that? What hair? We walk towards each other with half a smile on our lips. I stumble on a rock.

I’ll let you know how it all went in the coming week.

Daily Rituals: What are Yours?


Writers, painters, and other artists often live outside the 9-5 office life. Still they must structure their days in some way in order to produce their creative work. I’ve always been fascinated by the different approaches people take. The book Daily Ritual: How Artists Work by Mason Currey is a wonderful compendium of approaches taken by over 150 famous artists from the last few centuries.

Stephen King, Jean-Paul-Sartre, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Benjamin Franklin, Patricia Highsmith–it’s an eclectic, eccentric mix of capsule creative work biographies. The styles of getting the job done are more varied than you might think.  Some set work quotas, some set time quotas, while others work intensely for a period of months and then don’t work at all for the rest of the year. The book is a quick fun read and it will probably give you a little boost of confidence that your way is no crazier than anyone else’s.

But there is one area that the book does not address: what about performance artists who do not work in solitude? An actor, dancer, or musician might be onstage tonight, but what is happening during the day? Even more to the point, since even successful performing artists can have long stretches of time between gigs, how do they structure their time so that they can continue to perform at the necessary level?

We might keep in mind the difference between “rehearsal” and “practice.” Rehearsal is what an artist does in order to bring an intended performance piece to fruition. Practice is what an artist does to keep her or his skills at an optimal level. There’s a lot to be explored here. For example, just how much practice does an actor do compared to a dancer, musician, or magician? And what does the practice of each of these different kinds of artists look like? It could make another very entertaining book as well.

“When the goldfinch cannot sing,
When the poet is a pilgrim,
When prayer will do us no good.
‘Traveller, there is no path,
The path is made by walking…’

Beat by beat, verse by verse.” –Antonio Machado