I have not been writing a poem a week as I tasked myself in Cross Training, nor have I met the goal I set in my Bylines Calendar of writing a chapter a month. If I wanted to grind to a complete halt, I could trip over these “failures,” wallow in chocolate, and stop writing all together. Believe me: there are times when I have. I’ll be the first to admit that in the past, I’ve failed to meet unreasonable goals, indulged in self-pity, and gained weight.
Not any more. Even though I haven’t met my lofty goals, I have not failed. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been sitting down at my desk five to six days a week, making progress on my new novel. In fact, I’ve written pages and pages of the new book – and tossed out all but thirty-six. But with these thirty-six spanking new pages, I’ve got the beginning of my story. Maybe.
At least for the time being, I’ll let these 9,000 words stand and move on. I know that in the next draft, I may ditch them, and in the draft after that, I may invite them back. The point is, I’m finally in first gear, rolling along, picking up speed – successfully Starting Over.
It’s a huge relief, really, to have words on the page, to have made some of the agonizing decisions about how to start, how to structure, how to tell this story – a story I still don’t entirely know. But each day, I know more. I even accept that sometimes knowing more means having to delete interesting details and events, pithy dialogue and killer language. Inevitably, these paragraphs of characterization were critical for me to write: I had to discover my characters’ backstories – but I don’t necessarily have to burden my reader with them. Sometimes, I’ll write a thousand words one day and delete nine-hundred-and-fifty of them the next. Then, I’ll whittle the remaining words further, until I’ve carved a detail about my character into a vivid – and economical – image or subordinate clause.
Yes, I wish I could compose faster and with fewer words from the start. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that this is my process: write long and refine. I know that I’ll inevitably gain momentum as I go along. It’s getting the story started that’s so hard. I also know that this is still only a first draft. I didn’t always know this.
There was a time when I thought my first draft was also my last, and there was nothing left for me to do but await publication and accolades after I typed “The End.” Now I know that only after I finish the first draft will I even have an idea of the story I want to tell. This incredibly valuable first draft will guide me through the first revision. And the second. And the third.
At some point, I’ll invite readers – friends who are also professional writers – to read the book and ask questions, so I can learn what works and what doesn’t. And then I’ll rewrite it again. And again. But I’m still a long way from revision.
The novelist W. Somerset Maugham is credited with saying, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Even if there were three rules for writing a novel, they’d be different for each book. No, the best writing advice I adhere to is from Dorothy Parker, who said, “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.”
Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator. She is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at www.deborahleeluskin.com