At first, when the germ of my story was a husband who discovers his late wife’s secret diary, the novel was called generically The Diary. But that plot line felt like too much melodrama (and what do I know about husbands?), so I replaced the husband with a hapless thirty-something single and the diary with a love letter trapped unread in a book for many months; the novel became The Letter. Of course later I added the diary back in to complement the letter, and I called the thing The Letter/The Diary
This arrangement lasted me all of the first draft and into the beginning of the second draft, until this morning I decided to remove the letter altogether (what do I know about love letters trapped unread in books for many months?) but keep the diary, at which point the novel became the cumbersome formulation The Letter/The Diary.
That’s when I remembered the list of halfway-decent titles I had worked up a while ago (none of which really seemed quite right for the final title but one of which could certainly serve temporarily). I took the best one and gave the novel the working title The Long and Short of It. I’m sure that’ll change.
The first draft, started at the end of May, is complete. I only got six or seven citations for driving too slow in a public lane.
My gaze turns towards what’s next, and the weight of the decision-making, persistence and general fortitude required for the second draft dawns on me.
Procrastination begins now.
First draft is half done in relation to my plot outline. I only got one speeding ticket and two warnings.
Work on the first draft has begun and continues apace. Against the technique of my last novel, where in succession I refined and refined and refined each chapter to just shy of perfection, going at about a crawl, the idea with this one is to get the whole draft onto paper as fast as possible, outrunning my internal editor and critic (chasing behind with their red pen and big black marker and paper-crumpling hands and ridicule-spouting mouths, gaining ground and losing ground and then finding a shortcut, but never actually catching up). Speed is the watchword. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It really shouldn’t be perfect. If it’s perfect then I’m not going fast enough.
Once the draft is on paper I’ll have nowhere to run. Those pesky two will be on me with all kinds of insults and corrections and notes on grammar and general abuse, but they’ll have a good sense of the whole of the story so it won’t be idle criticism. I’ll put them to work on what needs changing on a high level with their tools of destruction. They’ll hit the big areas first—character problems, arc problems, chapter problems. With the bigger problems thoroughly yelled at they’ll move onto less big ones and even less big ones and then smaller ones and then the ones smaller than the smaller ones and lastly the fine detail of the sentences.
Then, finally, at last, after all that refining and refining, I’ll finally have my draft to a point where those pesky two will insinuate that I might as well toss the whole thing into the bonfire.
I was a little hard on The Rub when I last assessed it. Contra myself, the book isn’t all bad: a few chapters almost satisfy my standards, there’s some wonderful absurdity, some prose that sparkles, some likeable characters, good tension, a noodle in a glass of tea that will sear into your memory—but the truth is that the novel fails as a first-page-to-last whole. The paltriness of its story vision just can’t sustain novel-length treatment, at least not without modifications so great as to turn it into another book altogether. There won’t be a second draft. I’ve moved on to the next thing. And it’s only through working on the next thing that the real benefits of writing The Rub become apparent.
When I began The Rub a debilitating worry was that my prose wouldn’t satisfy my standards. When I sat down to write I couldn’t meet the bar; I felt like my creative tissue was dried out. The struggle with The Rub finally put it into working order. Now I know with enough effort and revision I can write at a high enough level to satisfy myself, which means I don’t have to agonize about it, so I can focus on more important things.
I’m close to halfway done with outlining the plot of the next novel, currently known as Untitled. When I began The Rub I didn’t believe in plotting too much ahead, nor would I have been able to if I had wanted. I had no idea what sorts of scenes I could write or how to grow a story. Now I do. And now I know I need to plot because it’s like writing three drafts without all the waste. It’s one more lesson built on top of many wrong avenues I had to take. I keep trying new things: some don’t work, others become instrumental to my writing process.
Though there are many other things I could mention, from pacing to tension to voice, I don’t want to bore you too much more—let me just say, lastly, that though at first glance it may seem paradoxical, the biggest benefit of the failure is confidence. I did something I hadn’t done before, even if it wasn’t all that good, and now I know I can do it again (but much better). I learned a million little things that I can apply to the next one. I’ll only get better. The next novel will be great—and if it isn’t, then the next one or the one after that. It’s only a matter of persistence.
At long last the first draft of The Rub is done. It’s shorter than anticipated, and the last chapters are rather rushed. But it’s done. It feels good to be done with something, even if I did cheat a little bit.
The end is incredibly awful, and the beginning isn’t very good, and neither is the middle. Almost by definition a first draft is bad, but not this bad. I wouldn’t wish the reading of it upon my worst enemy, not even Ross. But like I said, even as bad as it is, it feels good to have it done.
What do I do next? I don’t know for sure. Perhaps I will work on the next draft or perhaps I will take a break from this and work on something totally new. I don’t know yet. But that’s the exciting thing about being done with this draft.
Today The Rub, at 28,626 words, surpasses my previous novel draft of December, which at 28,344 words was somewhat shy of the third I had claimed for it. That’s a net of 282 words—not bad for seven and a half months of work.
Back in February it was a difficult decision to start over. Now, with the two documents at about the same length and The Rub in a state more or less what I had envisioned for it when I restarted, it’s a good time to sit down and consider how the new novel stacks up against its predecessor, which is precisely why I goaded Ross, the only individual unlucky enough to read my drafts, to proclaim, “Yes, Aaron, starting over was the right decision.” But he wouldn’t be goaded. He doesn’t care for goading.
So I’ll just have to toot my own horn and say, yes, self, it was the right decision. Totally right. Couldn’t have been righter, self, if I do say so myself.
Next week: Why I’m throwing away everything I’ve written and starting over from scratch