A Hard Day’s Work

           For the past eight months, I’ve been diligently working at the first draft of Ellen, the working title of the current novel I’m writing. Back in January, I planned to spend one month reading and organizing the notes I’ve been collecting for years, and then to write a chapter a month.

On February first, I was still on schedule, but each chapter has taken not one, but two months, to write. I accepted that. I was writing. I was writing slowly, but I was also writing well: funny, poignant, biting and necessary scenes. By the time I started Chapter Four, however, I suspected that as good as my words were, they weren’t the right ones. And by the time I reached Chapter Five, I knew I’d taken a wrong turn. So I printed what I had and read it through.

What I’d written was good – but it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. Ellen is about a middle-aged woman, and what I’d written was the story of my character’s childhood and adolescence – right up to her graduation from college. After reading the typescript through, I saw clearly what I had to do: keep the first two pages, and delete the other 163.

Ouch.

And yet, as difficult as it is to put those pages aside, I know it’s the right thing to do. In fact, my discipline of writing short for the radio has taught me the importance of leaving out everything that doesn’t move the story along. And in this instance, I know I’m right.

I also know that just because I’m not going to use what’s taken me months to write doesn’t mean I’ve been wasting my time. All the biographical information I’ve learned about my character will come in handy as I write forward. Some of the scenes, in fact, may appear later, as flashbacks. Nothing is wasted, even those scenes that never make it into the book.

Of course a part of me wishes I could write in a more straightforward manner, from beginning to end with no detours. But that’s not how I work. I’ve always written slowly and long, and then rewritten with an eye for excising everything that doesn’t belong. For me, the rough draft is about finding the raw material, and the fun is all about chiseling it into shape.

Recognizing and accepting my own process certainty soothes any discomfort of finding myself on page two after nine months of hard work; as sure as I am that I’m doing the right thing, deleting three quarters of a year’s work isn’t easy, so after I push “Delete,” I’m leaving my desk for a well-earned day off.

Deborah Lee Luskin is 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

22 thoughts on “A Hard Day’s Work

  1. I feel better now. I often come into things through the back door, truck through my artistic house leaving muddy footprints, then have to mop up after myself!

    • Not to worry – I’ve archived both an eFile and a hard-copy. But the main thing is that I’ve written the back story. It’s in my head and available to my imagination as I write on. Thanks for your concern. – DLL

    • But who knows what I’ll find several months from now? Writing – any creativity – means laying yourself open to story. I don’t remember who, but some novelist said, “Writing a novel is easy: all you do is open a vein and write.” – DLL

  2. “For me, the rough draft is about finding the raw material, and the fun is all about chiseling it into shape.”

    This is exactly how write and it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who cuts whole story lines out of my novel. As painful as it is having all that hard work permanently moved to a file labled “idea’s”, It’s rewarding to write better content for your readers.

    Enjoy your day off!

  3. Wow, as an amateur and want to be author, you have just scared the daylights out of me. If my book now standing at 100 000 words was to be deleted, I am sure I would retire my career before it got started. Maybe I won’t ever get it finished, or far enough to feel I need to delete it, but it takes a brave heart to do what you have. I salute you, for your brave move.

    • I’m not going to apologize for scaring you – I think it’s a good thing. In fact, I think one of the differences between amateur and professional writing is exactly this: knowing what to leave out. The reader doesn’t need to know as much as the author. Yes, what I’ve done is extreme – and exciting. I’m pretty confident that when you’re finished with your draft – at no matter how many words – you can improve it dramatically by cutting 25%. 100,000 words is already long for a book in today’s world of digital attention spans. Good luck! -DLL

  4. Brave move indeed! As I retype my chapters I’m running into statistics, etc., that I need to check to see if they are still current at this time. Work and more work! But at least I’m working on it! Keep it up!

  5. Hey Deborah,
    Thanks so much for sharing this post! I found it inspiring.

    Wow, that’s a lot of work to let go. I agree, none of it is wasted, no matter where it ends up. I hope you enjoy your well-deserved day off!

    Warmly,
    Diane

  6. I think this is a brilliant post. Knowing what to leave out is one of the most difficult of all things about writing…and one that most beginning writers can’t possibly understand. It’s funny. I give myself a number of pages I want to write per day on my novel…and sometimes I’m just as thrilled to see that I’ve taken AWAY pages instead. That’s often harder work! Thank you for posting this!

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  8. Thank you for writing this entry about your creative process.
    Seeing how much reading this short entry about your writing process has comforted me, i wish I had began reading other writers’ blogs sooner.

    Little more than a sputtering- i mean, aspiring, writer [currently travel writer] myself, I’ve often felt alone in my struggles to go more than twenty pages without suddenly realizing that the last 13 wasn’t doing anything for the story.
    i see now that not only am i not the only one struggling, but also that greater and more experienced writer still have to deal with this inclination to slowly roll off the road.

    Best of luck with your novel! I hope you will continue to blog about your triumphs and setbacks and epiphanies 🙂

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