Why I Love/Hate My First Chapter

Beginnings are the worst.

Just ask the guys muscling for position at the starting line of a race; all elbows and hip checks and ankles getting stomped on. Ask the folks dragging themselves out of bed for a pre-dawn workout, fighting against the gravitational pull of the singularity created by a warm bed. Ask the authors, staring at the terrible white expanse of the blank first page.

The beginning of any endeavor is the worst, because each step is a battle. Every inch of ground is an inch that must be won not only from the enemy (your competitors, the weights you’ll lift, the miles you’ll run, the white space you’ll reclaim in ink) but also from your own momentum — momentum that wants to let you slide to the back of the pack, stay in bed, watch TV… do ANYTHING but fight that fight.

So it goes with writing.

I’ve just started a second novel, and MAN is it tempting not to do it. As much as I’m excited about the prospect of a new project, I know that for the few months of fun in drafting I’ll have the long slog of a better part of a year or more in edits ahead. Then, there’s the story itself. I don’t know for entirely sure where it’s going yet. I’ve got some moments and ideas mapped, but it’s still a lump of clay. It needs shaping. The result is that each foray into this new world feels a bit like a fish flopping around on a riverbank: There’s water just over there, just at the edge of vision, and if I can just get there, if I can just find the flow, everything will be okay. Problem is, a fish is designed for swimming, slicing through the water, carving liquid paths in currents and bubbles… the movement comes out as herky-jerky twitching on land, and I can’t even tell if it’s moving me closer to my goal or not.

I’m also pretty sure I’m terrible at writing beginnings anyway. Every word that goes on the page feels like needless exposition; clunky, unnecessary, and obtrusive, like riding an elephant to work. Any attempt at action takes a hard left with an explanation of who this person is, what the place looks like, why it’s even going on… end result? The 3000 words or so I’ve written so far feel positively glacial. My sneaking suspicion is that it’s crap, and I should probably pack this thing in, cut my losses, and do something more productive with my time.


Much as the drafting is frustrating, it is freeing: the first draft is not constrained by the need to be perfect or even good. It doesn’t even have to hang together; it can have unformed limbs, elbows that bend the wrong way, or a vestigial tail. All that crap — the characters that randomly appear and disappear throughout the narrative, the note that you forgot to plant earlier in the story, the the gobs and gobs of exposition that feels like so many monster trucks spinning their wheels, spraying mud all over the walls — can be fixed when the narrative surgery begins, in the edit.

The draft is raw, bleeding genesis, messy and gory, staining the earth red in its wake. (Give me Genesis!)

The draft is rainbows spewing from the netherparts of unicorns, coloring the sky with a riot of sound and fury. It’s a newborn eagle spreading its wings for the first time after its mother boots it out of the nest: nervous at first, stumbling over its own tangle of talons and beak, but then — then! — the wind catches its wings and it soars. The story creates its own momentum and, once tilted over the edge, it rolls and tumbles and picks up crumbs and absorbs stray cats and it barrels down the hill, absorbing everything in its path.

At least, that’s how I think it will be. I’ve only done this once before, after all. But having done it once, the inertia is that much easier to break; the fear of failure is that much easier to overcome.

The first draft is awesome.

The first draft is awful.

The starting is the hardest part, but the good news is, as long as you keep your momentum up, you only have to start once.

Word Wars: A New Hope

I’ve been in a writing funk for, gosh, let’s just go ahead and call it three months.

I’d been beating my head against the wall of the edit of my novel and… it’s just so exhausting. Reading the pages over and over again. Checking for continuity. Evaluating the language. Fixing this. Tweaking that. Blasting holes in the drywall and going back in with a blowtorch to re-weld the pipes. The most tedious and thankless of work.

Yeah, WORK. Who ever thought this writing thing would be WORK? It turned into such an ungainly mass of WORK that just like real work, I was hiding from it, finding excuses not to do it, stretching it out, and basically procrastinating myself into a corner, and teaching myself to hate it at the same time. Seriously, if I didn’t love it so dearly, I could almost say I hated the project right now.

But it’s out of my hands now. I’ve passed it on to a few beta readers and I have feelers out for a few more, so now it’s time to cut the cord and let that one fly away (birds have cords, right?). I started thinking about the other novel ideas I had kicking around in my head from a few months back. I stopped stressing about the details of the “finished” work. I began thinking about what sort of deadline I could impose upon myself for a new project; how many words a day I could write, how many months it might take. I started dreaming up characters and themes and plots and motifs and a hundred other little things I want to include in the next story. I cobbled together some notes and a ghost of an outline in Evernote (god I love Evernote, it’s like a personal assistant I don’t have to pay or buy lunch for).

And then last night, the craziest thing happened. I cracked the seal on a brand new word document, breathed in the heady aroma of that blank page, and started writing. Originally I only planned to get a couple hundred words down — just the introduction of a character and a place — but before I knew it I was back in top drafting form, slinging words with abandon, hastily leaving notes to myself, swearing at myself in the margins, in short having a ball of a time. Within just forty five minutes, I’d penned a thousand words, and it had felt as effortless as falling off a toaster. This, I reminded myself, is what it’s supposed to feel like. This is why writing is awesome. Creating people, giving life to worlds, unearthing plot devices from the raw soil of my cerebellum… ahh yeah, that’s the stuff.

The months of ennui fell away like a cobra’s skin. Underneath was the churning engine of creation that so wrapped me up and carried me away at about this time, one year ago. Still purring like a kitten, still snarling like a junkyard dog to chew up some words and spit out some copy. I felt glorious; I felt renewed. I guess this is the start of the next chapter.

When I started my blog last year hand in hand with my novel project, I had a simple system for organizing posts. Everything I posted about the novel here on the blarg last year, I tagged “the project” and/or “commitment 2014”. I had promised myself that I’d get the first draft written before 2014 was out, and I fargoing did it despite my own expectations that I wouldn’t. I’m on Twitter now, so I guess it’s only right that I start the tradition anew.

#TheProject lives.

#Commitment2015 is here.

Fasten your seat belts and hide your children.

Too Much Think

There comes a point all things significant in my life wherein I find myself thinking way too much. I thought too much about marrying my wife, about buying our first house, about having kids… and I am definitely thinking too much about the edit of my novel.

I started out, if anything, not thinking enough. Not really wanting to tackle the tough choices, not really wanting to rejigger the narrative, not really willing to tear out the skeleton of the thing to make the changes that are necessary. But it grew on me, and I started to realize that not only are there tough choices to make, but that I often needed to take the harder of the two paths for fixing the problems in the story. And I started hunting down the problems in the narrative like  Indiana Jones seeking golden idols in the depths of Mayan temples. Each new problem solved gave rise to another, bigger conflict I could fix. Each prospective fix, not necessarily right for this situation, took on new significance, grew wings and started looking for problems to apply itself to. And then, a little stymied after a hectic work week, I threw myself at the edit again yesterday and spotted a white whale just lazing about below the surface of the waves on the horizon. A prize so massive, catching her and bringing her in could alter the trajectory of the narrative like a moonshot. It was a job too big for a single day, so I put it on the EPOS and marinated on it overnight.

And I realized something. Drafts of a story are like prototypes before a product launch. None of them is perfect, but each one gets polished to a point where it at least looks and functions more or less as intended. There may still be bugs on the inside, but to an outside observer, it looks like a complete thing. And my edit of this story resembles not so much a prototype as a cluttered workshop after a hurricane and a flash flood. The narrative is in pieces. Loose ends like frayed wires are protruding out of the armholes, eye sockets, fingertips. Entire limbs of the story are disjointedly stuck on with duct tape while other vestigial bits are still cluttering the margins like piles of unswept sawdust.

I’ve been so focused on fixing every little problem along the way that I never bothered to stop, clean up, and see if the thing as a whole is still working as intended. There’s been so much thought about making this little thing fit into its niche that I’m not paying attention to the fact that I’ve stitched an alligator arm onto a panda bear torso. I fear that there’s been so little big picture focus that I’ve created a Frankenstein’s Monster doomed to self-destruct in a boiling froth of unresolved plots and half-baked new characters. In short: I fear that I’ve somehow managed to make this second draft worse than the first.

But you know what? Maybe it is, and maybe that’s okay. If nothing else, it’s time to stop making huge conceptual changes, clean up the dust and debris, and see if this thing can even stand on its own two feet. The first draft did. It was shaky, but it stood up. This second draft? I honestly have no idea. I think it will, but I haven’t tested it properly with a read-through to see.

So it’s time to stop thinking so much. Time to stop trying to fix everything and start making sure that the fixes I’ve made already actually work. Which means no more breaking the story into pieces. No more new characters. No DELETING existing characters. No more rearranging story elements. I need less chainsaw, more chisel. Less dynamite, more sander. Time to sweep up the workshop, put the tools away, and just sit and have another good look at this thing I’ve built. Get a second opinion. Take a bird’s-eye view of the whole scenario.

And then, you know, with fresh perspective, maybe it’ll be time to lop its arms off.

Narrative Surgery

I’ve not accomplished much on the novel this week.

I’m terrified because, following in the wake of the question I posed to myself earlier this week, I’ve pretty much decided to take a sledgehammer to my first draft. I’m conflicted about it. The first draft didn’t do anything wrong. I rather like it, if I’m honest. But in the intervening time between when I penned the last period of the draft and I re-read the thing from front to back over the last couple months, I’ve come to accept that while it’s not bad in its current state, there are ways in which it could be so much better.

Problem is, the draft grew the way it did without a care for the changes it might undergo later. It grew a thick protective skin, developed bones and musculature and a web of interconnected tendons and ligaments that bind the whole squalling thing together in the shape of something that surely made sense to me at the time (and still does). But now I can see more clearly that, perhaps, that arm could stand to be relocated to the other side of the body, or that the ears are stapled on a bit too high, or that what the thing as a whole really needs is a scaly, spiked tail. And making these changes to the anatomy of the poor dear is going to require smashing parts of it to pieces. It’s not a change deep enough to throw the whole thing out and start over. But I’m going to have to separate that shoulder joint. That ribcage will have to be laid bare and prised open. That pelvis is going to have to be redesigned. You know, to accommodate the tail.

So I’m standing here feeling a bit like a sculptor standing in front of a great marble statue, tasked with making changes to the very anatomy of the thing, knowing that if I strike wrong, the whole mass of stone could crumble to dust before my very eyes. Okay, a story is a little more resilient and forgiving than that, but when I start making these changes, who knows what other lumps are going to pop up under the skin in other areas of the story?

I’ve been putting off taking that first sledgehammer swing, because I know that when I do, it’s going to consume my life, much the way a busted pipe can do, what with all the leaking light fixtures and waterlogged carpets and exploded drywall. I’ll make that first edit and then the patient will start hemorrhaging ink and plot points and it’ll be triage all the way through until I can get the whole bag of bones put back together in some semblance of rightness and sewn back into its skin.

And it still won’t be perfect. It may need the sledgehammer again, or maybe I’ll be lucky and all it will need is a few flashes of the narrative scalpel.

I had gotten a bit enamored with the idea that the first edit would roll through and, once finished, I’d have in my hands something approaching a state of “finishedness”. But I guess that’s not the way of it at all. The second draft, I guess, is just that — a second draft. Another stab at the target I was aiming for when I wrote the first draft, tempered by time and contemplation, but still in all likelihood a bit wide of the mark. Still, you can’t hit home runs if you never swing, and you can’t rebuild a shattered femur without laying the leg wide open.

So I guess it’s time to start cutting.

Now, where did I leave that bone saw…

Progress Update: Last Chance for Gas

Today, a pretty big milestone in novel progress.

Thanks to a gargantuan push stemming from a renewal of gumption at the beginning of the week, I processed the last thirty pages of the draft over the past three days and am ready to start on my last phase of rewrites for this first editing pass.

To clarify, “processed” means I read it, cleaned up the stinky bits of language, corrected typos, and fixed the bric-a-brac on the shelves, all the while making notes about walls that need tearing down, wires that need ripping out, and pipes that need sealing. That’s the big, scary work, and that will begin … probably next week. Tomorrow I hope to review the first half of the novel to recreate the notes I lost with my old notes and finish creating an outline of the book as it stands. If I have time leftover, I’m going to map out the character arcs and think about re-ordering some portions of the novel.

To be fair, the processing was the easy part, and the much harder work–rewriting the crap bits, changing major plot points, going back to the beginning to plant seeds which need to be fully grown by the end–is still ahead. That’s the stage that’s truly harrowing. It stretches out on the horizon like an endless desert, and somehow I know there are no pit stops along the way; there will be no gas stations or emergency call boxes if I blow a tire or make a wrong turn. However, the big push this week has me crackling with energy and enthusiasm to keep pushing.

And the funniest thing happened as I was reading the last pages.

I realized that I really, really like the story. And I’m saying that not to toot my own horn, but because I truly think that for all the tribulations and for all I thought the book was awful when I was writing it, upon further review and after several months to get some space, ultimately it seems to me that the novel is not that bad. I’ve still got big decisions to make, the fates of characters to decide. I’ll have to destroy some of the helpless squealing unformed bits that I enjoyed so much at the beginning and create brand new replacement parts on the fly, but somehow that task doesn’t seem so daunting.

And that’s not even the best part.

When I was writing the first draft, I could feel myself running out of steam by the end. The last twenty thousand words or so felt like the last miles of a marathon; even with the finish line in sight, even riding on the balmy current of you’re-almost-there-itis, I could feel my knees giving out, my quads locking up, my lungs collapsing in on themselves. I felt like the ending I was writing was simply a placeholder, something awful I was writing to simply get the project to a stopping point so that I could rewrite it later and forget I ever wrote something so bad. But reading it the last couple of days, I find that I’m actually a pretty big fan of the ending. The characters end in good places (while good of course doesn’t necessarily mean “good” for the character, but rather “good” for the story), the critical loose ends are tied up, and there’s a nice sense of completeness to the whole thing. My wife thinks I should leave it open for a sequel in case this thing goes all Harry Potter on me, and I think that the potential to continue is there, though certainly the story could (and does) stand on its own.

There are holes to patch. Rotted boards to replace, rough edges to smooth down. But on the whole I think this thing is moving as it should past the ugly formative stages into the workable beta-reading stage. Which is itself simultaneously amazing and terrifying, because that means that I’m going to have to pry my whitened knuckles from its tender edges and let it go out into the world to be read by people who don’t know the time I’ve spent with it, who don’t know the love and the pain and the suffering and the insanity and the laughter and the frustration and the days and nights and the weekends spent living with these characters, exploring all the plotlines, envisioning the world of the story. Nobody can know all that, but they’re going to have to judge it all the same, and my only hope is that when that time comes, maybe they won’t return it to me and ask, “why did you bother?”

For all my confidence at the high points along this journey, I am still terrified that I’ll be unmasked as a pretender at this whole writing gig. I fear that my internal barometer for assessing the story is hopelessly warped and that I have no proper idea what makes a story actually readable or compelling or enjoyable in the least. But this is no time for entertaining those fears. It’s nearing time to cut the cord and throw this fledgling creation of mine out of the nest and see if it can fly.

I just hope that when that time does finally arrive, I can survive the feedback.