where the writers are
Shop Talk #2: Go On! Write Badly! (Second in a series on the writing of a novel)

As I read the first draft of my novel Dragon's Ark for the very first time, I heard the critics' thunder rumble through my brain; my eardrums fluttered, my nerves sizzled with wintry pain:

"Worst novel I've ever read! I've always been a First Amendment stalwart, but this vile excrementive pile has changed my mind!"-San Francisco Chronicle.

"It wasn't until I closed the book and threw it in the incinerator that the stench that permeated the room faded away"-The New Yorker.

"Makes Dean Koontz look like Michael Ondaatje. Clearly written by a chimp (maybe two of them). City Council should pass resolution expunging author's birth records from city files-" Peekskill Evening Star.

"I can't take it anymore! Hand me that revolver!" Publisher's Weekly (deceased).

OK, it wasn't that bad . . .  but reading Draft #1 was truly like a high school memory: a sour sauce of embarrassment and anguish best left unsampled. One in awhile, every ten pages or so, a glimpse of glittering life floated up from a black mysterious pool; sometimes, it was just algae rotting in oxygen-deprived water. I could see where I hadn't a clue what I was doing. (Toward the end, I realized I'd neglected an important character and spent fifty pages fleshing him out to uneven, but useful, effect.)

Draft #1 was the bad unpublishable book I expected: There were so many loose ends, it looked like an octopus rolling around in a front-loading washer. But when you get right down to it . . . So What? Big Fucking Surprise. And without any guilt or paralysis. Why?

Because I hadn't shown it to anybody! Not even darling Elizabeth. I figured out many years ago that the only lesson I ever learned from showing a first draft was the most obvious one: "Your book sucks." Usually, this comes with an angry downbeat of schadenfreude intended to instill guilt ("You wasted my short time on this planet!")  and crush the morale a writer needs  to write the second draft, which, if ever finished, is composed so as not to provoke further anger. And so we finally write a book that is nice, formulaic and safe--the critical darling of workshops everywhere.

I admit,  I'm too sensitive. I find anger, human anger especially, threatening, even frightening. I will avoid a long biographical exegesis about this. It's enough to say that aggressively short and violent tempers, combined with scorn for the virtues of disciplined patience and cool reason, were the norm with the males of the family and likely inculcated in me a fear of making mistakes. Add to this the truly naïve belief that perfect sentences always fluttered like tiny lightening bolts from the fingertips of the great--that inky pearls of beauty poured from William Shakespeare's pen with every second he spent at his writing desk. Do-overs were for losers! First thought, best thought! Otherwise, keep it to yourself!

In other words, I was alone with this: I had to figure out where, how and why my book was bad before letting any other human eyes see it.

Bad as the draft was, I still saw something worthwhile. Despite the flat characterizations, rushed and weedy storytelling, dithering plot lines and paucity of convincing detail, my basic story still read soundly. The ending seemed to work especially well, which is very unusual for a supernatural novel. Many of them, even after the best, most evocative and exquisitely poetic buildup, often collapse in bloody fiery confusion.

Bad as it was, it still recalled to me star-sparkled Sierra nights. It had brief passages where it flew like a dream, whispered from the far blue shadows of my imagination, snickered from my dark corners.

Draft #1 came out around 500 pages. Draft #2 was longer by ten chapters and a hundred-plus pages. (Three of those chapters were ripped from that fifty-page monster I wrote in the first draft.) But that was not a bad thing. It was longer, I suspect, because I knew and understood more. I predict that when I read it (right now, that would be starting yesterday), that everything--character, motivation, plot, story, setting, drama, emotion-will be clearer and stronger.

By the time I'd started Draft #2, I'd drawn a crude map of the location. The real Alpine County, sadly, turns out to be a little too under-populated and lacks certain geographical features for the tale I'm spinning. I created an imaginary county, though I left some local landmarks with new names. I not only built new geographic features, I created a whole new town. Some work remains to be done in this area.

As I marched through Draft #2--only a handful of days off for illness and holidays--I used a calendar from a previous year to construct an "events calendar." As I finished each chapter, I entered the following information:






This was only one step in that "serious bureaucracy" I mentioned in the last essay. The creation of this Flying Monster's-Eye view helps establish a window of time within which the action takes place. It assists with plot, continuity and pacing. It will undoubtedly help with analyzing and cutting chapters and scenes and joining episodes.

A side note here: Over at literary agent Nathan Bransford's blog, the subject of point of view (POV) came up, an essential decision in all fiction. Genre fiction is often told in the first person. Dracula famously did this through diaries, letters, and articles, allowing Bram Stoker to flit in and out of various POVs. Ghost Story by Peter Straub (my favorite of all) goes in and out of first and third without the media. This fragmented approach does work.

I chose a conservative path: Third person, singular POV; two major, four or five minor; one POV per chapter (with one or two exceptions). I briefly toyed with cutting down to two POVs only. While this might create a more intense experience, it might also make it a more claustrophobic, subjective story, like those by the English master Ramsay Campbell. But that's not quite the tale I'm spinning.

This time, I've taken off only two weeks. Urgency grows; my need to get on with it sharpens. The Muse that says "I think you've got something here" now sings urgently: "Wait no more! Go on! Write badly!"