Fourth Draft Jitters

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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.

Fumbling, Failing, Falling: Wild Mind–Living the Writer’s Life

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There are lots of good books about writing, but this one is still reverberating. The premise of this little book is that the essence of good writing comes from being able to access that part of us that doesn’t know what it is doing: the Wild Mind. We are lurching through a desert in a car with no brakes at 150 miles per hour, our eyes straining through the windows and our job is to write it all down as fast as we can. Better yet, kick out the car windows, feel the hot air rush against our cheeks, smell the sulfur night, hear the wolves bay.  And when we crash into the twelve-foot cactus that was hidden around the bend, at all costs hold onto your pencil. Your Monkey Mind has just crashed into your Wild Mind and the skid marks are your next poem or story.

Natalie Goldberg’s book is part memoir, part writing advice. She does not separate life from writing. Life is practice; practice, life.

She writes about the day she got permission. About how every artist needs that nod from another, more respected, artist which says, “It’s okay, you’re one of us, you have permission to continue.” Permission to fumble, fail, fall. Who would want permission to be in such a club! But the journey is helped with the encouragement of others.

Her writing exercises are very practical but not at all like What I Did on My Summer Vacation. Start with “I remember” and keep writing. When you can’t remember anymore, start again: “I remember.”  Do this for ten minutes.  When you are finished, repeat, only this time begin with, “I don’t remember.”

I like her recommendations for revision as well. In order to keep the new material as fresh as the original, she suggests you make a notation next to the paragraph that needs revision. Then on a separate paper let yourself run free with that paragraph’s subject. It may go anywhere. The idea is to let your Wild Mind out so that even in revision the language is chewy and alive.

She talks of her life, how it is not different from writing, how lovers, family, jobs have disappeared and changed but the one commitment she could keep, she had to keep, was her writing.

The sickness and the cure are the same. Pick up the pencil, keep the hand moving.