Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Writing craft: What a difference a decade makes

Now playing on the iPod - "Mauna Kea" - King Benny Nawahi

I just finished a book. For the second time.

Back in 2000 I completed a manuscript, then titled The Place of Solitude (title taken from T. S. Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday"). I was very proud of it. All writers should be proud of their first completed novel. Many people talk about writing a novel. Fewer start. Even fewer finish. That first book took years - many of those years I spent writing and rewriting selected scenes over and over again. Then about the time I was close to thirty, I realized the time had come to finish the damn thing. By hook or by crook.

I did, and I was proud of it, and I even tried to sell it. With no luck. Because there's a reason most first novels don't sell. They are first novels, and they have two major problems:

  1. You're still learning your craft as a writer. You can read all the "how to write" books you want to; some of them are helpful. You must read a lot, and absorb the lessons you learn; you need to not only recognize good writing, but bad writing as well so you can avoid the pitfalls. But most of all you have to learn the craft by doing writing, and lots of it.
  2. You may well be young in terms of life experience as well. This isn't a "write what you know" thing. But as you get older you learn more about the human condition, and ideally what you learn should inform your characters - how they behave, the dynamics of their relationships, and so on.

As time went on I wrote more and read more, and realized that the book I'd spent years on had many flaws. At the same time there was a lot of good in it as well. The characters, in particular. And a setting that has become part of my imaginary world (like Stephen King's Castle Rock, only a much nicer place!). There were also themes that I felt were important but couldn't at the time articulate to my satisfaction.

I let the book sit in the drawer and went on to write more. And read more. And learn a bit more about life. And from time to time I thought that one day I'd revisit that book and give it a do-over.

If I'm able to complete a book (and not all my ideas pan out - I've a few nonstarters in my desk drawer), most of the time when I'm done I feel satisfaction, and a sense of closure. I'm able to move on from it. There may be small things I'd go back and change, given the opportunity, but for the most part, when I'm done, that's it. I'll think about the story, but not in an "I wish I'd done that differently" way. More like replaying my favorite scenes in my head, to entertain myself.

But that never happened with The Place of Solitude. I'd re-read it and there'd be chunks I skipped over because they seemed amateurish or boring. There were parts that didn't ring true. There were gobs of exposition at the beginning because I didn't know how to tell the story more efficiently. What it did have, though, was a certain amount of sincerity and compelling characters. And the characters were what eventually saved the story. I liked them (and felt sorry for them after what I put them through). I decided after a while that I'd rewrite it one day - for me, so I could get things as right as I could this time; and in a way for my characters as well, so I could do right by them. They deserved better than I was able to give them the first time.

"One day" arrived last year when I finished my mystery Undertow. That book takes place in the same imaginary town as The Place of Solitude, and some of Solitude's characters made cameo appearances in Undertow - it got me inspired.

I decided to go ahead and instead of revising, just rewrite the whole thing from scratch. That was the best decision I could have made, for it made me change things I otherwise might not have, and I feel fairly confident those changes improve the book.

The basic story arc and character setup remain the same in the later version, but many other things changed. Some characters' roles expanded, others' were diminished, and a whole slew of secondary characters emerged. Background was no longer served up in unwieldy chunks, and the narrative drive was greatly improved. The timeline of the story was rearranged, and the beginning interaction of some characters, which had never satisfied me before, worked much better. The book got a new title as well: The Day After Yesterday. *

I miss a few things about the old version, primarily some of the dialogue that ended up getting cut. But I feel that sense of closure I never did with the earlier version. I've no plans to publish it (it's mainstream and I have no desire to write more mainstream books - any ideas would just be rehashes of this book). But dialogue can always be used in different books. I'm satisfied with the book now. And ready to move on to another, which is how it should be.

If it sounds like work - it was. A full year of it. But it was one of my more enjoyable writing experiences, not least because I was able to see how much I'd improved as a writer over the decade. That was something I didn't expect to discover, and it was very rewarding.

I'd be remiss if I didn't thank William Peter Blatty - he rewrote his early comedic novel Twinkle Twinkle "Killer" Kane into the much more mature work The Ninth Configuration. His was the example I kept in mind when I decided to rewrite my book.

And I'd like to thank my constant readers. And silly as it may sound, I'd like to thank the characters. I did it in part for them and I'm glad we had this time together.

*This new title, suggested by my friend Erik, is the name Paul Giamatti's character gave his manuscript in the movie Sideways. At least mine doesn't take up two manuscript boxes...

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