Sunday, July 15, 2007

SHOP TALK#2: WRITE BADLY! (Second in an occasional series)

As I read the first draft of my novel The Vampire of Alpine Canyon for the very first time, I heard the critics thunder:

“Worst novel I’ve ever read! I’ve always been a First Amendment stalwart, but this vile excrement 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. 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 rather like a high school memory: a sauce of
embarrassment and anguish. Sometimes, I glimpsed glittering life floating on a black mysterious
pool; sometimes, it was just algae rotting in oxygen-deprived water. I could see where I hadn’t a
clue I what was doing. (Toward the end, I realized I’d neglected an important character and spent fifty pages fleshing him out to uneven, but very helpful, effect.)

Draft #1 was the bad unpublishable book I expected: There were so many loose ends it looked like octopi in a front-loading washer. But when you get right down to it . . . 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 anybody a first draft was the most obvious one: “Your book sucks.” Usually, this comes in an angry tone of schadenfreude designed to crush the morale needed to get through the second draft, which, if ever finished, is written so as not to provoke further rage: And so it ends, with a nice, formulaic safe book, praised in workshops across the nation.

In other words, I had to figure out where, how and why my book sucked before letting any other human eyes near it.

Bad as the book was, I still felt I had something. Despite the flat characterizations, rushed
storytelling, dithering plot lines and paucity of convincing detail, my basic story still seemed a
good one. The ending seemed to work especially well—very unusual for a supernatural novel, which, even after the best, most exquisitely drawn and designed buildup, often collapses in bloody fiery confusion.

Bad as it was, it still recalled that night under Sierra stars. There were moments where it flew
like a dream, whispered from my shadow, snickered from the darkness.

Draft #1 came out around 500 pages. When I finished Draft #2 two weeks ago, it 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 lacking certain geographical features for
the tale I’m spinning. So, I created an imaginary county, though I left some local landmarks with new names. I not only got my 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 but one step in that “serious bureaucracy” mentioned in my last posting. Creating this
Flying Monster’s-Eye view helps establish a window of time within which the action would take
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 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 and with great success.

I chose a more 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, maybe like those written by the English master Ramsey Campbell. But that’s not what I’m angling for with this tale.

This time, I’ve taken off only two weeks. My sense of urgency grows; my need to get on with it sharpens. The Muse that says “I think you’ve got something here” now sings another tune: “Wait no more! Go on! Suck all you want! But write!”

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