Tag Archives: novel

Coming down from the mountain

Words to live by: the paperweight my friends Buck and Patty gave me. It stayed next to my laptop all summer.
Words to live by: the paperweight my friends Buck and Patty gave me. It stayed next to my laptop all summer.

I’m packing up the cabin, cleaning out the mini-fridge and writing a goodbye note for the bear (we had some good times this summer). Tomorrow morning I’m heading back to Austin, where I’ll keep working on the novel.

I’m excited to get home. I’m not at all sure what my life’s going to look like when I get there. Hopefully I can bottle this mountain simplicity and bring it with me.

I know I’m going to be a little giddy at first as I get reacquainted with the wonders of civilization: turning a knob and getting clean water from the tap, the porcelain brilliance of a toilet (don’t get me started, I could write poetry about flush toilets at this point), Internet at your fingertips, cell reception everywhere you go. And more importantly, I get to see my family and my friends.

I’m going to miss the mountains, and living in a world that feels very compact and slow. The days seemed to drip by like winter syrup; I could almost feel my senses waking up again. The smell of pines and spruce and the scrubby little plants that give off this musky, herbal scent when it rains. The shifting shadows on the mountains every evening as the sun sets. The sound of a raven overhead (a raspy whoosh-whoosh, like an old foot-pump loom) or a grasshopper snapping past your ear like stripped electrical wires touching. And at night, silences so deep that I could close my eyes and swear I was in the Michigan woods after a heavy snow.

Living in the cabin never fails to remind me how little I really need to be happy. Even the little slice of my worldly possessions I packed into the Kia for the summer was too much. I could have left half of it at home. Give me my music, books, a laptop to work on, a camera, a few clothes, some favorite DVDs, and I’m good.

I’m looking at the top shelf of the little kitchen cupboard I nailed together 10 years ago – my first cabin improvement project. It’s filled with antacids, Pepto-bismol, Nyquil, ibuprofen, allergy pills — all the stuff I needed in Austin to knock down various bodily bothers that seemed to be coming with increasing regularity. After the first week or so up here, I haven’t touched any of it.

I suppose the explanation is simple: less stress, more peace. I’m doing exactly what I want to do, I’m exactly where I want to be and I control the rhythm of each day.

A little voice keeps whispering, “But this isn’t the real world.” Which is true. It’s easy to lose your mountain zen when you’re stuck in Austin traffic on a 100-degree day and the A/C conks out. But then I remember: I quit my job. Right now it’s very real, and right now is all I care about.

When I go back to Austin, for the first time in 18 years I won’t be going to the newsroom five days a week. I’ll have to find a new rhythm, and it’s going to be a big adjustment. In some ways, it’s going to be like a new city, I think.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to spend so much time here (big thanks again to Eric and his parents for making that happen).

I could probably squeeze another month or two before the snows come and the cabin is truly cut off from civilization, but the Austin City Limits festival is coming up soon. I go every year, and every year my house fills up with friends for the weekend. It’ll be like a homecoming party.

My plan is to stay and write in Austin through the holidays, then head to a new writing destination early next year. So if people are still interested in reading, I’ll keep writing…

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How to gut a novel for its own good

Those of you who tuned in at the start of this blog will remember that I drove to Colorado in July lugging a lot of words. My draft was 147,720 words, to be precise. And I loved each and every one of them. How I toiled over that dependent clause at the bottom of chapter 38, until it sang to me in this perfect, tinkling dependent clause voice.

Still, I knew that many of them would have to be selectively culled from the herd in the interest of not making agents and publishers choke. Being a newbie to fiction, I wasn’t aware until recently that 147,000 words is a lot for a novel, unless you’re Tom Wolfe or you’re writing the Unabridged History of Western Civilization.

When I printed out the draft at the Pagosa Springs UPS store, it didn’t look mastodon-like. It was 312 pages. Hey, it’s not that bad, I thought. Then I realized that it was single-spaced, in 11-point type, with margins so skinny that the words filled nearly every inch of the page. Which left very little space to scribble my edits on the hard copy. My notes look like tiny hieroglyphics from an ancient scroll written with a hummingbird feather. Three hundred pages of that.

For days, I’ve been squinting at those notes and making all those changes in the computer file. I’ve also got pages and pages of other notes, re-written dialogue, and scraps of new material scattered among legal pads and computer files. All of those are going into the soup too.

I’m on page 274 of the hard copy – about 40 pages from the end. So far, I’ve cut more than 53,000 words from the draft. In other words, more than a third of it is getting flushed.

And it feels pretty good.

I think 10 years of working behind an editor’s desk at the newspaper (not to mention years of grading college journalism students’ work) has made me a little ruthless, even with my own stuff. I also think that letting the draft sit in a drawer for a year helped. I’m so removed from the writing that it’s like reading someone else’s work — someone else’s bloated, unfocused work. All of a sudden, that dependent clause at the bottom of chapter 38 seems so … dependent.

So I’m going all Zorro on it with the red pen and trying not to flinch too much in the process.

Between the slashing X’s, I can see little glimmers in there where the dialogue or a plot twist still gives me a little jolt of pleasure, sections that even my squinty-eyed inner editor can read and say, Okay, it’s not all crap.

I’m hoping to finish this phase (which we will call the Drastic Amputation Phase) in a few days. I’m guessing I’ll end up with less than 87,000 words when the carnage is over. That’s still a lot, but no longer in the holy-shit-that’s-long category.

At that point, the book’s going to resemble an office building hit by a good-sized tornado, with big sections sheared away and scattered by the wind. Enough of the supporting structure will be left to keep it standing, some of the furniture and decorations inside will be oddly untouched, and the characters will be shuffling around in a daze wondering what the hell just happened. (In that metaphor, I get to be both the architect and the tornado.)

Oh yeah, and I have no idea how it’s going to end anymore. I’ve messed around with the first 250 pages so much that my current ending makes absolutely no sense anymore. I guess I could have a good-sized tornado drop down from an angry sky and wipe everybody out (except for the unredeemable minor character whose sudden epiphany in the face of senseless destruction gives the story a sense of profound closure). I think an F3 would about do it. Would that be cheap?

I think I mentioned a while back that I’d probably be re-writing big sections of the novel. I was correct.

Which seems daunting. It is daunting. It’s a lot of work. I just need to take what’s still there, weave it together with some new stuff, make my characters deeper and more compelling, and turn this mess into something people might actually want to read.

In less than 100,000 words.

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Chainsaws and scalpels

The weather in the San Juans was just about perfect over the weekend: low 70s in the daytime, big fluffy clouds drifting over the aspens and dragging their shadows up the mountainsides. I would have enjoyed it a little more if I wasn’t trying to decide who to kill.

I’m 240 pages into editing the draft of my novel and sometime late last week, I decided someone else needed to die (and die sooner in the story). Writer’s bloodlust, I guess. If I have to lop off big chunks of the story to shorten this beast (147,000 words, if you’re keeping track at home), then someone’s going down with those parts of the ship. It just took a while to decide who would draw the proverbial black bean. It was a little creepy, mentally lining up my characters like the criminals in The Usual Suspects and saying to one of them: sorry, I know you survived in the draft, but…

Why kill someone else? Why increase the body count? Because these characters are making a perilous journey and I realized that the perilous part doesn’t really hit home until the climax, near the end of the novel. That made me think about something in Anne Lamott’s book (the wonderfully-written Bird by Bird), about letting bad things happen to your characters, and I’m realizing that I was a bit of an overprotective parent the first time through this story. So in the re-write, they’re getting knocked around more.

And one in particular gets knocked dead. A minor character. They have much higher mortality rates than main characters (did you know that the average life expectancy for a minor character today is only eight chapters? True fact). It was actually pretty easy once I convinced myself that she needed to go and plotted out how I’d do it. It was, I suppose, like a lot of pre-meditated murders: the planning took a lot longer than the actual deed. About 10 minutes of typing, and it was finished.

I haven’t even started the real re-write yet, by the way. I’m reading through the draft for the first time in about a year, getting familiar with the story again and alternately reaching for the scalpel and the chainsaw. The scalpel is all the little stuff that I can’t let pass without marking: tweaking descriptions and dialogue, minor trims to sentences and paragraphs, fixing punctuation. I’ve made, oh, about 5,000 of those so far.

I’ve also killed off entire chapters – probably more than ten so far. That’s the chainsaw work. Most were just little scenes that I liked, but in the cold light of editing, they don’t serve the greater story so they get the big “X” through them. One of them featured a rookie Border Patrol agent trying to interview a suspected undocumented immigrant near the river and botching the Spanish, while the man patiently answers the questions even though he can tell the agent means to ask something else. Then he starts speaking English because he’s not undocumented after all, he’s a local having some fun with this rookie. “I got the amnesty back in the ’80s,” he tells the agent. “God bless Ronald Reagan.” Hilarity ensues.

It’s gone. Chainsaw victim.

This is slow work, slower than I’d expected. I still had that newspaper mentality when I started this stage of the process, thinking I could burn my way through 50 pages a day (which is what I did the first time I “edited” the draft. Turns out I just tickled it a bit). Now I’m marking up every page, making notes about how I want to alter sections or whole chapters. When sudden inspiration has struck, I’ve re-written an entire chapter or significant parts of chapters. If I get through 25 pages in eight or nine hours, that’s a good day. Some days it’s more like 10 or 12.

Yesterday I “finished” 20 pages. This particular section was part of the buildup to the climax, and I’m seeing what a tangled mess I made. Dead-end plot tangents. Multiple twists that should be straight lines because they’re more confusing than intriguing. Little cameo characters who, like a tepid lover, arrive on the scene and quickly depart without making much of an impression or impact on anyone. Whack, whack, whack.

It feels good knowing that the story will be shorter, tighter – and hopefully a lot better. But I gotta admit, drawing big X’s through entire pages of prose that I remember agonizing over is … not so fun.

And when I’m done making all of my thousands of little marks on the hard copy, I’ll scoop them all up, along with all the new bits and pieces I’ve been writing on the laptop, and all the notes I’ve made in two legal pads, then take a deep breath … and start re-writing the whole thing from the beginning.

Then the real fun begins…

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