Amendment to: Kind of a waste of paper, part 2; revision 3.B

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.

Kind of a waste of paper, part 2

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.

Progress report

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

Beginnings are hard

In February, obeying the rules of what they call the Balenchesky System in writing classes, I threw away my novel draft (then about a third done), deciding to keep (more-or-less) one third of the storyline. I couldn’t wait to get started on a new beginning. In March, having tried out five or six first chapters, I was so thoroughly disgruntled with beginnings that I swore them off, claiming an intention to simply not have one. In April I wrote Chapter 2. By the middle of May, in a change of fates, I had not only written a beginning but completed the first four chapters of what had come to be known tentatively as The Rub. On the last day of June I finally decided to blog about it.

Beginnings are hard. I used to think beginnings were easy, but that’s just because all I ever wrote were beginnings. In a whoosh of inspiration I’d splash across the page a brilliant beginning for a tale—probably the most brilliantist thing ever—but come to think of it, it wasn’t really a beginning at all (even if brilliant), because what kind of beginning exists without the other bits, the meat of the story?

But it turns out the more I know about a story at the start, the more raw data I have to obsess about. Unfortunately there’s no opportunity to blithely splash down whatever comes to mind. What I mean is: I splashed down five or six or ten beginnings, and none of them were any good. When it came to The Rub, I obsessed a lot.

Disclaimer: If your eyes go all crossed trying to follow this, skip to the next paragraph. It’s okay. I would.

With my beginning chapters I needed to (according to all those beginner’s writing books) introduce the main characters, establish the setting, provide a fair sense of the mood of the story, suggest the coming action, grab the reader, establish (I ran out of synonyms) point-of-view, and be funny. Unfortunately, when it came to my beginning, these things conflicted with each other in myriad surprising and aggravating ways. I wanted to impart a sense of the status quo of my character’s lives before the disrupting action of the novel, but it turns out that status quo stuff is incredibly dull; I wanted to jump straight into the action, because that’s what is interesting (or at least I hope it is), but if I started with the action there was no context and things fell flat. I wanted the first chapter to be funny, but since the comedy comes from characters and situations, the first chapter can’t be funny, because our reader doesn’t know the characters and no situations have really gotten underway. To make the first chapter funny I’d have to write a scene with broad humor, but that scene, in my many attempts, never really worked toward establishing enough of the other requirements. I wanted to grab the reader, but I didn’t want to do anything cheesy, like starting with some cliffhanger. (I hate that!) I wanted to win the trust of my reader with my best, most poetic, most wonderfully descriptive writing, but that sort of thing can really bog down the chapters that are supposed to do all that grabbing of the reader I mentioned. I couldn’t really use my protagonist’s point-of-view, because… well, because! And on and on and on. And then on some more. I forget now what all the conflicts were. But, on and on and on they went, and on and on and on, and so on.

For those of you who skipped straight to this paragraph (which is most of you), congratulations. Smart. Anyway, to get you skippers up to speed, suffice it to say that there was an obsessive’s dream of complications to be wrangled when crafting my beginning. So what I did, as I said earlier, was swear off beginnings. I simply wouldn’t have one. Who needs ‘em? So then I obsessed over Chapter 2 for quite a while, and ultimately (no fabrication or even exaggeration here) I cut off the beginning of Chapter 2 and just kept the rest. And it was good. And somehow, against all reason, against all odds, fueled by a magnificent, exhausting burst of creativity from my success with Chapter 2, in a whoosh of inspiration, I splashed across the page a brilliant beginning for a tale—probably the most brilliantist thing ever.

If only it had been the beginning to my novel. Hee hee, har har.

But seriously, it was a pretty good beginning. At the time I wrote: “It’s quite gratifying to produce something that I know I couldn’t have written a year ago, or even six months ago.” So, pretty good then, relatively speaking, of course.

Later, without quite so much obsession, I wrote chapters 3 and 4, which took longer than could be expected, but that’s pretty much what I’ve come to expect.

All in all, in the splendor of its wonderful design, its sheer masterful compromise, it’s a beginning that fulfills absolutely none of the requirements I set forward as critically, vitally, pivotally essential for my beginning. But you saw that one coming a mile away.

Next week: The chapters following the beginning are actually pretty hard, too