Monday, July 9, 2007

Shop Talk #1: There's a Draft In Here! (First of a Series)

“’Bob opened the door.’

“Dear Diary: Today, I wrote ‘Bob opened the door.’ Tomorrow I will write another exciting sentence as we discover what Bob sees through the now-open door—"

John Caldwell cartoon caption.

en days ago, I finished the second draft of my debut novel—and this blog’s real raison d’etat—The Vampire of Alpine Canyon.

Don’t fret. No spoilers lurk ahead. But I will try to answer the questions that have so many folks bouncing like frisky kittens: “Gee whiz, Mr. Burchfield! How’d’ja do it!? Gosh! It must be fun to write a novel! What’s it like?”

Well, it’s like this: Several years ago on a summer evening stroll along a High Sierra road in beautiful Alpine County, California, my wife Elizabeth, who misunderstood my anxiety over the eighteen-wheelers that thundered close by us like elephants looking for small animals to squash, made an off-hand tease that set my brain on fire.

That moment was one of those that every writer—especially fiction writers—pray for. As I looked at the saw-toothed, tree-lined wildscape around us, and the sky dimmed with the last crimson smear of sunset, turning to a sparkling moonless black, I saw what that title is meant to make you see.

At the time, I’d been swamping around up to my hips inside a different book. My day job was flattening my brain, rusting my soul. I was already putting down the floor on my editing business. Sometime after that night in Alpine County, I decided the first book—entitled Hill of the Dead—would be entombed for another day (maybe forever). This new idea kept flitting around in my skull—soft black wingtips whispering off towering cave walls. I kept seeing scenes from it, like a movie.

I even briefly considered writing it as a screenplay. But I’m too old to sell screenplays anymore, and my Muse insisted it would work better as a novel. I could take it places strictly forbidden by screenwriting’s rigid molds. I could try to evoke the beauty of this mountain place I love and the lives of its fictional inhabitants.

This would be my fourth attempt at novel writing. Until I read Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art, I didn’t think that you could fail at writing a novel, come back and try again, several times even, before finally publishing one. I thought everybody was like Pynchon and Salinger: bashing home runs at first bat. Or at least getting on base.

On Monday, November 7, 2005, I got up around 6:30 AM, pressed the coffee pot button and watched the Today Show with Elizabeth for half an hour. Then I dressed, entered the office, sat down at my desk, turned on the computer, put on some music, and thought and typed, thought and typed for maybe an hour or two. Then I went and tried to make money.

As I do with workshops, I avoid “how-to” books (one or two will do, in my mind.) but I read a lot about writers’ working lives: how they go through (and survive) their work days. Here’s a problem I shared with many:

One memory of my previous three cracks at writing a novel was that a lot of it was as boring as the job I slaved at. Trying to figure out the how and the why of a Vampire opening a door, for example, is very a much a technical matter, not much more inspiring than coding towers of legal documents. A stultifying amount of detail needs consideration: kind of like doing inventory a nail factory. There’s serious bureaucracy involved.

And I couldn’t think of those details all the time, either. Most of the time, I blundered on, from one chapter to another, like stumbling through a house, room to room. “Worry about it later,” became a frequent mantra. As Truman Capote once nailed Jack Kerouac for doing, I was only typing. Of course, this is not On the Road. It’s not even Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a genre novel, a classic example of This Happened and Then That Happened. Details? I knew if tried to count all the nails, I might as well get a job at a real nail factory.

I thought and typed and thought and typed until August 21, 2006. I made no outline, though I made a character and location list. Many writers swear by outlines; others jump right in with only an idea of their destination. I took the second route. Like all the writers I read about, I had to find my own way of doing it. Sometimes I felt inspired. Many times, I was . . . typing . . . but even then, it seemed to go smoothly. I never lost the sense that I was writing a book that I eventually would want to read. I was haunted. To my bones. Enough to show up six days a week.

Typing THE END felt awfully good. Finally! I finished one whole draft of one whole book! After three tries! I spent a month sleeping late and thinking about other things (like how to make money). But I knew I’d only flown over this new territory once and hadn’t seen much more than moonlight and shadow. Before long, I would have to take to the sky and fly it again.

So what happened next? Surf by, next week . . . .

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