Over the past year, I have published as little as I have since nearly the start of the 21st century. But it has been one of my most fulfilling years as a writer.
In August 2018, for reasons and in a process explained here, I set out to write a novel. At this time a year ago, I was still working on the outline, and was still working on it by the time spring arrived. The outline grew in detail with characters who were well drawn in my mind, but the process was arduous and for as much time as I was putting into the preparation, even taking into account my day job, it just seemed to be taking forever. Eight months of outlining might or might not seem like a lot to you, but just for comparison, my two nonfiction books on the Dodgers each took eight months or less from outline to draft to completion, total.
So after circling for landing all that time, I decided to bring the plane in and start writing the actual book, filling in the gaps in the outline as I went. It was the right decision, but let me tell you, there were a lot of gaps. And mistakes. And true moments of despair.
I can still remember going to a bombtastic Mets-Marlins game with Mike Petriello on a Friday night in May while on a work trip in New York, describing where I was with the book and telling him, “I’m really not sure I can do this.” Sometime in the summer, I realized that in the second half of the book, I abandoned one of the main characters for something close to an eternity, and to this day I don’t know how I could have begun to write off an outline with that kind of gaffe. In the 35 years that I have been writing in what I would call a serious fashion, some of the struggles I encountered with this book have been as painful as any I’ve ever had.
And yet, I kept hammering away in the odd hours available to me, because I kept finding that there was almost nothing else I wanted to do more, and almost nothing else more satisfying than the breakthrough after being stuck on a line or a plot point. It’s a runner’s high, or a base hit to drive in a run in a softball game, except that when you have that breakthrough in writing, it’s not merely a memory — it remains in front of you in type, forever if you like.
In May, I began to keep tabs on my progress of what I call my sandpaper draft — as I’ve explained before, my rougher-than-rough draft. By the start of August, I transformed the first half of the outline into prose, hit the gas pedal over Labor Day weekend and finished the second half of that first pass on September 20, with 66,000 words down. (My goal for this novel has been to do the job with between 70,000-90,000 words) In many places, the writing was the quality of duct tape, and I raced through the climax of the book without much commitment because I knew something was simply lacking in the ending I originally designed. But I could actually say, 13 months after I made the decision to try this, that I was ready to revise.
After re-reading and making notes on what I had written over the final 10 days of September, I started Draft 1B around the time the Dodgers entered the postseason. Progress was fairly slow at first, though it accelerated with the Dodgers’ early elimination in the National League Division Series. If you saw my distraught post that night, you would have been correct to infer that I wasn’t going to worry about what trades or signings the Dodgers made in the offseason. It’s not that I don’t care — I still check multiple times a day to see if they have made any significant moves. It’s that I’m not worrying about it, thanks to the ways this novel has generously fulfilled my angsting needs.
Because my sandpaper draft had many problems, the moments of despair didn’t go away in the fall. Not only was I trying to repair mistakes I knew I had, I discovered new ones along the path of revising. The writing on the page started getting better, but every now and then would come a chapter that I still couldn’t make sing, try as I might.
As recently as six days ago, when I started my week-long vacation from the office, I still hadn’t solved my ending, and I had no idea how I was going to do it, much less how long it would take for me to do it. I had been working so dilligently to create characters and situations for readers to invest themselves in … for what? A big, giant letdown, it appeared.
One thing that’s always been true is that I do some of my best writing by not writing, by getting away from the computer and just letting myself think. That’s where many of my breakthroughs come. But with this ending, not even that strategy was working.
But then, I finally forced myself to make a dramatic change in tactics. For more than a year, I’ve had this point in the final chapter I’ve been trying to get to, and I had essentially been trying to reverse-engineer my characters to that climax. Six days ago, I told myself to toss that aside, and just deal with the characters at the point where I was stuck. Without trying to dictate how it would all end, without worrying about preserving anything I had already written in the sandpaper draft, what would each of my characters do next?
Somewhere between 4 and 5 p.m. last Sunday (I apologize for this level of detail, but I’ll assume if you’ve read this far, you might find it interesting), a single-sentence idea popped into my head for one of my main characters in response to that question. And all at once, that idea released the flood, the hounds and the Kraken all at once. I went nuts with writing. Somehow, without neglecting my family on our trip, I rewrote the final 10 chapters of the novel, plus an epilogue. I came upon an ending far more satisfying than what I had envisioned, and — I’m not lying to you — it was thrilling. All week, my mind hasn’t stopped racing through all the thoughts about what I’m writing.
I can now tell you that 11:03 p.m. Friday, I finished Draft 1B: what we can now call the rough draft. It’s now at 88,000 words, about 15 percent of which I wrote this week. And — I know it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason — almost all of that was from the characters telling me what to do, and me just putting their paths down on paper. In fact, now the book is at such a length (close to maxing out on my 90,000-word upper boundary) that I now have the privilege/challenge of trimming the fat.
If you’ve been following me this long, you know that while I have fantasies about this book being published, I have no illusions. I know how difficult it is for any novel to be published, let alone a first attempt, and I haven’t forsaken the idea that mine might still lack something fundamentally necessary to reach an audience.
At the same time, my prime motivations for writing this book remain what they were from the start: To express thoughts and emotions that I feel deeply and personally through characters and story in a satisfying way, to me if not anyone else. It’s a bucket-list item just to get this far. And by that standard, I am sky-high about where things stand.
You can’t say I’ve rested on my laurels. At about 7 this morning, I began the process of Draft 1C, once again going through what I have to create a running list of what I need to fix. To give you an idea, I had 16 bullet points alone in my notes under the heading “Surgery,” which is to say, things I need to remedy before I worry about further polishing the existing writing. But it’s actually not an intimidating list, and I already knocked off one of those surgical bullet points this morning before writing this post.
I feel like I should apologize for this post, by the way — it’s long and self-indulgent, even by my usual narcisstic standards. Mainly, I’m writing this down as much to preserve my memory of this year as anything else, as well as to offer a little insight into the writing process for the few of you out there who might find it interesting. It’s also to explain why I’ve posted so little about the Dodgers in 2019 — and why my favorite Dodger Thoughts post this year wasn’t about them, but about my family.
It’s not that I don’t care about the Dodgers. Right now, I just care about this book more. Sometime in 2020, maybe earlier than I expected, I think I’ll have a draft I’m brave enough to start to show for feedback. I’ll no doubt be waiting for that feedback in the fetal position, but so it goes …