in the slog

white graffiti on red brick -- the image is an outline of a headscarfGood morning — it’s April first! What foolishness are you getting into today? Outside my window the rain is making me believe I’m back in the East, like there’s some real spring happening, what with everything in flower and the tender transplanted roots of vegetables in the garden drinking up what the sky is offering. How about that for the first day of National Poetry Month — April’s the month to celebrate the necessary power of poetry, and/or to write your own.

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Today I woke up and spent some time with morning pages, then worked on my novel for about an hour. I’ve hit page 600 in the book. 600. Six-hundred pages of what now? Of backstory and morning writes and snippets generated during workshops and character development and rambling and the slow build toward plot discovery and story. The book isn’t done. It’s not quite near done. It’s certainly through the halfway marker, and we might have crossed the three-quarter point, but there’s still a lot of writing to go.

And this is just the first draft. Once this draft is done, I’ll turn around immediately and begin again, printing out the entire book and spreading it out across the floor, looking for the places where more story needs to be developed, and the places where the narrative bogs down into unnecessary exposition or backstory. And then there’ll be more writing to do.

At this point in the work of this book, the only word I can find is slog. I want the writing, I want this book to emerge, and I feel like I’m pulling us through mud every time I sit down to the keyboard. The words come quick or slow, it doesn’t matter which — the point is that there’s a lot of them still to come. If I don’t do this every day, spend some time either generating new work or transcribing pages that I wrote by hand (or both!), then it’s easy to get lost in the overwhelm: there’s no way I can finish this thing, because it’s too complicated, too messy, too simplistic, too reductive, too boring, too ___ (fill in your internal editor’s favorite admonishment here).

Starting a novel is a delight — maybe this is only so for a first novel, rather like with first love. You don’t know yet quite what you’re in for — you’re simply full of delight and possibility, and you return as often as possible to the pages of your beloved. Then you get close, and the landscape of your intimacy opens up wide before you, and you confront your limitations and terror, and the real work begins.

On Friday, as a writing exercise, I took a piece of notebook paper and created three columns, each headed with the name of one of my main characters. Under each name I listed out the scenes that need to be written for her, each one sketched briefly. I noticed the places where the scenes will connect the characters, and began to get a sense for the end of the novel. I’ve avoided this sort of exercise, because I like the romantic notion that the novel is emerging organically — I don’t drive it/outline/force it into any particular shape — and that’s all well and good until you reach page 600 and realize you would like a sense of where this whole mess is going. Generating the list of scenes to write helped me understand that I am listening to these characters and where they want to go — however, it did not help me to feel like I have any less work to do. Rather, I look at this list of 25-30 scenes, knowing that that’s the minimum I could write to move the book forward, and feel a bit daunted: that’s at least 100 more pages.

Ok. Maybe there are 100 more pages. Today I wrote four. Only 96 left. That’s what the slog looks like: a little bit at a time, mostly with no light visible, or even an awareness that you’re in a tunnel. I keep going anyway, because these characters have taught me to have faith in them, and I want to know where they’re taking me.

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Are you writing 30 poems in 30 days — or 30 something-elses in these 30 days of April? Are you thick in the slog of a long project? Give that work 20 minutes today — that much time, if nothing else. Write out a character’s dream, or an interaction at a supermarket, or a poem pulled from the first words you find drop your fingers on the keyboard. Every morning’s another chance to do a little more. “This was not judgment day – only morning. Morning: excellent and fair.”
― William Styron, Sophie’s Choice

Keep going, keep going, keep going.

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