I started writing a new novel in February of 2012. I planned to write a chapter a month; in fact, I wrote a chapter every two months until September of last year – until I started over again. For a little external pressure, I signed up for NaNoWriMo, and I had over 80,000 words on the page by the end of November 2012. They were good words, too. But they weren’t the right words, or they weren’t in the right order, and the story still wasn’t clear, so in December, I put that draft aside, too.
In January 2013, I started over again. Thanks to all the previous work I’d done on the book, I’d gained a much clearer idea of the story. Instead of spanning a lifetime, the story would take place over three years. And some of it would take place in a setting I had to make up, so I indulged in the singular pleasure of primary research, which involved delving into out-of-state archives. This research was not just great fun, but also a terrific way to keep refining the scope of my story and adding a subplot with meat on its bones.
In the spring, I started writing again. Now the story would take place in about twenty months – a much steeper arc, with more happening in that shorter time frame. Of course, I was able to plunder lots of material from the earlier drafts. I also filed away material that will no longer fit in this story for a possible sequel. Just because a character or scene doesn’t make it into one novel does not mean that the effort of words were wasted.
My goal for this year had been to finish a “sloppy copy” by the end of June and rewrite it twice by the end of the year. But I was struggling. I was writing well, but the story was stalled – until I attended an all-day writing workshop in June. There, I wrote a new opening for the novel. I’d finally found my way in.
I didn’t make my June thirtieth deadline, but I’m not too far behind. Here it is, the end of July, and I’m three hundred pages into the story, with about hundred more to go. My revised goal is to have this first draft completed before I leave for a week long vacation in September, so I can think about the story as I ride my bike along the Great Allegheny Passage.
In order to meet this deadline, I’m forging ahead heedlessly, inserting notes for scenes I can’t write yet, but know where they will have to fit in. I’m also highlighting and/or striking through passages I love but know won’t make the cut. I’m not quite ready to delete them; the strike-through helps me get used to the idea, so it will be easier to take them out later.
Yes, I wish I wrote faster, and no, I don’t either. All the writing I’ve done around this story has helped me get to know my characters so well that I’ll be able to make them vivid to my readers without subjecting them to every childhood trauma. All this writing has also helped me find the book’s structure, the authorial voice, the historical details that will lend it verisimilitude and the backbone upon which the book will hang with firm musculature.
I still have a long way to go. “A first draft,” as a friend who’s won the National Book Award once told me, “is just notes to yourself.” Ah, yes. But what notes!
Deborah Lee Luskin lives in southern Vermont.