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Feeling loquacious today...
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2004-08-12 2:47 PM
A Novel in 63 Days
I've been meaning to write about the nine-week process of writing a draft of my baseball novel, "The All Nations Team," but I haven't had the time until now, almost a week and a half after finishing up (on August 1st, just as I'd planned to do, which in itself was a miracle).
I've also not wanted to really think about it, until now. I was still reeling from all the wordage, to be honest, 'til now.
But I think I need to write about this, for me, mostly, because I just about broke something in myself working on this novel at this breakneck speed. If anything, these notes will help me avoid doing the same thing in the future, keep me from making the same mistakes.
To begin, I think writing the draft of a novel is a good idea. For me. I tend to be a bit scattered, working on a couple things at once, and sometimes not finishing what I start (though not often, I must say).
Mostly, it's a matter of time management -- I work full-time, so there's at least 40 hours a week down the drain, plus commuting time. It's hard to get on a roll with the words if I only have half an hour here or there to do it. Knowing that this was only going to be a temporary thing, I was okay getting up early, staying up late, giving up sleep (and pretty much all social activity toward the end there) so I could focus on getting the story out of me and onto the page.
"Focus" is the key word of that previous sentence. By writing a novel in such a short period of time, I never really lost focus (except for my painful two-week lull, but more on that in a moment). Not only did I start to think like my characters but I saw the real story of the novel take shape, and I made two key realizations: novels are made up of big scenes, and everything you write should be interconnected to really please the reader.
Big scenes -- seems obvious, right? But putting together a dozen or so really crucial scenes is hard labor. I had to fight the tendency to summarize, especially as this novel took place over the course of 3-4 years. The only time I let myself "tell" instead of show was after a big scene, like the one where the team I wrote about beat the best Negro League team three games to one on the Fourth of July, even though their opponents had former heavyweight champ Jack Johnson swatting home runs for them (until Johnson escapes from the police -- who want him for violating the racist Mann Act -- by leaping over the centerfield wall). Even describing that big scene now, a few weeks after writing it, makes me smile. It advances the plot, it has lots of cool action, it shows how the characters interact, it develops the themes of the novel, and most of all, it's a fun, wild ride of a scene.
Which of course deals with the second big revelation I had -- everything's connected. Going back to that scene, you can see how those three wins increase the team's reputation and enable the team to travel to Cuba, where more plot developments occur. The team also loses a player during the four games of that big scene, but also gains a new one. Stuff is happening that will resonate later in the novel -- that's where it really gets fun as a writer, putting in all those little details and foreshadowing.
But probably the best side-effect I felt while jamming was the way I lost track of time and just told myself the story, one keystroke at a time. I had an ending in mind already, and I followed my outline pretty closely, but I felt like I was able to really see and hear and smell everything that was happening in the book. Even after 5,6,7,8 or even 9 hours of working at it with just a few breaks. It was a bit freaky, and quite intoxicating. Those were the days, on the last two weekends of working on it, when I wrote anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 words a day. A day. I was out of my mind, I really think. I'd go to bed thinking about the novel, dream about the characters most of the time, and wake up itching to write. (I'm just glad my wife had lots of patience with me during this time!)
That "flow" state at the end more than made up for the crappy two weeks in early July, after getting some good writing done in June (even while on vacation, at the beach -- how's that for dedication?), when I felt like chucking the whole thing and forgetting about it. I'd gotten sick with a nasty cold, probably from lack of sleep and too much caffeine in June, work was really crazy, and I was worn out. I really wanted to quit writing altogether (something I feel like doing about once a year, it seems). But then I got over it.
I'm not sure how I did, other than sheer stubbornness. I knew this was going to be a good novel, and I'd already gotten over my fear of writing it (fear of not being "good enough" to write it), and I hate giving up on stuff halfway through. I guess the best thing I could've done was what I did -- stopped for a bit. I had to trust myself that I'd get back to it, that the novel wasn't going anywhere while I recharged my batteries even as I worked 9- and 10-hour days at the day job. Trusting myself, plus talking to Elizabeth and her believing in me (and not allowing me to quit), got me over that speed bump. And then I was back to the races after that.
Would I do it all over again?
Not necessarily in nine weeks, but I'd like to draft my next novel fairly quickly, say in three months or so, and then (after a month or so off), work on revising that sucker for another three months or so.
Oh yeah, you can't forget revising. That's a whole 'nother ball of wax. But I like revising a bit better than drafting -- I'm more of a plodder than a sprinter, and I like marking up the pages instead of filling the empty pages. But I've come to enjoy drafting a novel a whole lot more through this process.
All you gotta do is keep putting one word after the other, and don't let yourself get in your own way. Just tell yourself the story as best you can. Revising comes later, and second-guessing yourself is not allowed. Before you know it, you've got a novel on your hands, and you've accomplished something that most people only talk or dream about -- you've written a book. Nobody can take that away from you, or from me.
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