Friday, April 12, 2013

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Why, yes, here I am. Has anyone even noticed that I’ve been MIA? Probably not. Before I get started on this long-overdue post, I wanted to let those of you who don’t already know and who might be interested in my more contemplative side that I’ve got a new blog this year over here. I can't promise that I’m any better about writing there, though, than I am about writing here. I can promise that books play a major role, as they always do, no matter which side of me you’re encountering.

Now, I thought maybe some of you might be interested in a glimpse at a week in the life of a writer who is hard at work on the second draft of a novel. She’s been working on this second draft for well over a year, had been sure it would be done by now. This, she has discovered, is what happens when one writes the first draft constantly saying to herself, “Just get it down, get it down. You can look that up, work that out, fix that, etc., etc. when you get to the second draft.” (Okay, maybe this didn’t all happen in one week, but it’s sort of an “average” week and very easily could happen all in one week.)

Writer has just been informed by a high school swimmer that the high school swim season is in the fall. Writer could just pretend to ignore this fact, calling on “poetic license,” and could let her teenage character live in an area where swimming is a spring sport. After all, the book takes place in a town that doesn’t exist. Why couldn’t it have an imaginary swim season? But writer is anal retentive and always wants basic facts to be accurate. This necessitates a complete reorganization of the book, because a major episode in the book revolves around this teenager who is on the high school swim team.

“Thank God for computers that allow one to cut and paste. This shouldn’t be too difficult to do…Oh, wait a minute, if this section is moved here, and this section is moved there, then I’m going to have to change that whole boat section, since most people don’t go boating in Massachusetts in the middle of January. Oh, that’s perfect, the fight between [character A and character B] works much better now that it’s been moved. Oh, but wait a minute. Oh shit, [Character A] can’t be pissed at [Character B] for [Action C] when [Action C] hasn’t even happened yet. Damn! How am I going to fix that? Will it help to move Action C to Chapter 3? No, not unless I get rid of [Character C] in Chapter 3. But I don’t want to get rid of Character C in Chapter 3. That’s one of the best parts of Chapter 3. She deserves to stay. Hmmm…maybe if I cut this section, move that to Chapter 6, and add a bit here about why Character A and Character B won’t see eye to eye? There. Oh, hell, Chapter 3 is now 78 pages long, and Chapter 5 is only 3. Oh, and the vernal equinox has taken place in early August.” (It’s worse than one of those old-fashioned, uncreative, math “word problems” isn’t it?)

At which point, writer goes and pours herself another cup of coffee and decides to check Facebook and email and respond to neglected friends and family members.

No matter how difficult it is, writer is determined to sit at the computer, working on the second draft of the novel for at least two hours (the minimum she has allowed herself to put into it every day).

“Okay, I’ve got this figured out now. Just need to add a scene to Chapter 4 that will help Chapter 5 make sense.”

Writer opens her saved working outline of the book to see where this new scene might make sense in Chapter 4. The outline mysteriously stops after Chapter 3. The book has many more than 3 chapters.

“Huh?! What’s happened to my outline? I can’t work without my outline! Don’t tell me I accidentally cut a huge chunk of my outline and saved it that way.”

Writer resists the urge to cry, takes the deep breaths well-meaning friends always tell one to take in these situations. Anyone else notice that they rarely ever seem to do a damn bit of good? She scrolls up and down the document in the hopes that the rest of the outline will magically appear. Then, she looks at the title of the document and realizes it says “Outline 2.” It’s not The Outline, but rather, a confusing document she created when playing around with cutting and pasting the true outline. Writer is thrilled and immediately changes the name of “Outline 2” to avoid confusion in the future, then gets to work writing the new scene.

“Oh, I love that. This is perfect. I wonder why I didn’t think to put that in there when I was writing the first draft. This is gonna be so good!”


Writer is now reading the new scene she wrote yesterday.

“Huh? This makes absolutely no sense at all. [Character D] sounds like a robot. Nobody talks like that, and could [Character A] be any more of a cliché? “

Writer spends well over an hour rewriting the scene and still isn’t happy with it.

“Oh well, I’ll work on that in the third draft.”


You may be wondering what happened to Day 4. So is writer. On Day 4, there was a massive storm, and water began to pour through the light fixture in the upstairs bathroom. Writer and her husband had to find multiple buckets, mops, etc. and deal with the mess, which was an indication that the house needs a new roof. In the midst of that, one of the elderly members of husband’s congregation (did I mention he’s a minister?) went to have cataract surgery. His wife was supposed to drive him home after the surgery, but she got dizzy and passed out while waiting for him. The hospital wanted to admit her, but she insisted on going home, so they called the church (because their children couldn’t help) and minister and wife (because, you know, she’s just trying to write a novel and doesn’t have a real job) were enlisted to pick them and their car up to bring them home.

So, now it’s Day 5. Writer has gotten to a section in the first draft of the novel where she has a sticky note that says “Research post-partum depression.” She figured, when she stuck that sticky note there, that she’d just do a quick online search to see if what one of her characters was doing might be typical of someone suffering from post-partum depression. Writer goes online to discover that there’s postpartum depression and then there’s a very rare thing called postpartum psychosis, which seems to be the better diagnosis for her character.

“God, I don’t want her really to be that sick. She’s got to bounce back and be okay and return to the way she was when she was first married. What am I going to do?”

Writer spends her time doing more research than she’d wanted to have to do, then figures out how to keep her character just sick enough to be able to retain the key elements she needs to make the story work but not so sick that she drowns all 3 of her kids in the bathtub (a subplot that would ruin the book).


Writer spends half her time poring over details about the character with post-partum depression from the beginning of the book to make sure they make sense. Once satisfied, she begins rewriting and revising a relatively straightforward section of the book that doesn’t need many changes.

“This is so much fun. I love writing!”


Writer reaches a section she realizes needs about three extra scenes if it’s going to work now that she’s had to rearrange everything according to a different calendar. She looks to see if cutting and pasting other scenes and changing some of the details might work. Nope. In fact, she’s discovered that she just might have to delete some of those scenes (one of which she’s already re-written twice and now loves), because they don’t really make much sense anymore. She begins writing one of the new scenes and is completely dissatisfied and frustrated. She double checks to make absolutely certain there isn’t something she can just cut and paste and use here. Nothing. She gets up and does some yoga stretches. She sits back down and hates everything she’s written. Even though it’s only 10:30 a.m., she contemplates fixing herself a vodka gimlet.

“Now I know why Hemingway and Faulkner were alcoholics.”

Instead, she closes the laptop and picks up a book to read. Nothing like a little distance to get some perspective. Tomorrow, she’ll start again.

There you have it, all those of you who might wonder how an aspiring author spends her week. I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone who’s always dreamed of writing a novel and hasn’t begun yet. If I have, please reread "Day 6" and focus on that. For some reason, the ecstasy of that one day far outweighs all the agony of any of the others. What can I say? It's one of life's best highs, and you keep going waiting for the next one.


Susan said...

I have tears in my eyes from laughing so much, because I recognize every single line in this post! I'm working on my first draft of a new novel, and have to keep reminding myself that I can go back and fix it later, or I'll rewrite the same two pages endlessly.....

CONGRATULATIONS on writing again! Emily, I'm so happy to hear this!

I'm sorry your house had such a bad leak. And that life keeps pulling at you, the way it does. I think the victory is in writing in spite of this, or because of it. Just keep writing....I have the biggest smile here right now because you're writing!

and yes, I did notice it had been silent here....when did you begin writing again?

Emily Barton said...

Susan, oh, I am so glad I'm not the only writer who has these sorts of experiences. I'm also so glad to hear YOU'VE been writing. How exciting! (Is that like a drug addict encouraging another drug addict? :-)!)

At this point in my life, in which we are living in a house that belongs to the church and not to us, a leak is a nuisance, but at least all we have to do is deal with it until the church fixes it, instead of having to go through the whole process of having it repaired ourselves.

Stay tuned. I really hope to be posting here at good old Telecommuter Talk more often. I miss blogging on a regular basis, but, as you noted, life keeps pulling me the way it does.

Stefanie said...

"Now I know why Hemingway and Faulkner were alcoholics"

thanks for the good laugh! :)

Courtney said...

I've marked your other blog and will check in there as well. So happy to see you back in the blogosphere - we are losing too many good people and they are all being replaced by slide shows! And yay for novel writing!

Bob said...

Emily, I'm sorry to confess that I haven't looked over here in a while due to your blog inactivity (which, believe me, I completely empathize with). So belatedly I just "caught" your latest post which seems to explain everything (hilariously). Frankly, I'm surprised you had the time to post even this, but I'm grateful as it explains some of your silence and even your move towards the handwritten epistolary, which I love receiving as they're, just, oh, so 19th century. Seriously, I'm delighted to learn you are making some real progress on your novel (what did writers do before the Internet for research? -- guess there would be no postpartum psychosis). Keep going girl!

Emily Barton said...

Stefanie, always happy to make you laugh.

Courtney, yes, we've lost a lot of good people, but I'm making my (slight) effort to keep the blogosphere alive and well.

Bob, thanks! I have no idea what writers did before the Internet -- oh, wait a minute. I guess they went to the library :-)!

Unknown said...

It sounds like an interesting series. I will check it out

book publicity