WE UNDERSTAND, BUT WE ARE THE FEW

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

I finished the first draft of my current novel last week. Ninety-seven thousand words; three-hundred seven pages.

I’m tired. It tires me. I printed it out for the first time and there it is, a big, hulking year of my life.

A friend slapped me on the back, “Congratulations, man! Now what do you do, send it to your editor?”

What part of first draft did he not understand? First? Draft?

Fortunately, it’s a pretty solid first draft. That’s what happens when you do a year.

It’s plot to the nines. It better be, I planned every scene in advance, wrote a beat-for-beat outline and rewrote that a dozen times before writing page one. Spent months and months doing research. It’s got the twists and turns and all the psychological shit I could put into a psychological, international thriller.

But, God, if it ain’t wooden. Hollow. Sans character. But that, my friends, is what draft number two is about. Character, character, character.

Of course, I wasn’t entirely aware of its deficiencies until I handed it to my wife, Ryen, a.k.a. uber-editor, who brought out the red pen. And I realize all over again how much I fucking depend on her. I’m continually reminded that she’s the best I’ve ever seen. I used to fight it, her voluminous notes. They gave me indigestion. I hated not having the final word. But I’m more mature now and I know that she only wants the best I can deliver, and, fortunately for me, she knows how to get it.

I had my glass of wine last week to celebrate, but the next morning I went back to the trenches. Celebrate what? I’ll celebrate on pub date. I’ll celebrate when I know it’s really done. Because nothing’s done until it’s done. I would, however, find cause to celebrate if I received a million dollar advance. But that’s the Lotto dream and I’m too firmly fixed in reality to fall for that one. Again. Of course, they say the third book is the break-out…

I think it will be good, but, then again, I’ve lost all perspective. I’m drowning in words. Thank God my wife is there with a net. I’m not sure it’s for me or the words. Either will do, I suppose.

So, now I’m back on PAGE ONE. Rewrite. Where it all comes together. First chapter rewritten, redone, re-conceived, re-novated. And the characters are real. Finally. They breathe and feel pain and anguish and strive to bring justice to an unjust world. That’s what’s happening in Chapter One, anyway. Chapter Two is hollow and burdened with plot. Chapter Two is tomorrow’s battle. I’ll wait for Ryen’s notes.

It’s a journey. We understand, but we are the few.

I was in a book store recently and the staff asked when my next book would be out. “You should be due for another book by now, Steve.”

Simple statement. Accurate expectations. Do they know what this entails? The hours and days and months of struggling against self-doubt to produce sentences and paragraphs and chapters of what would ultimately become First Draft Dreck, after hours and days and months of research and experimentation in style and voice and characterization, writing a hundred pages in third person close, then rewriting in first person, then converting it all again to third person close with alternating chapters of omniscient narration, only to turn those around again to third person close from the antagonist’s point of view…

And doing this unpaid. While savings dwindle. Or doing it after hours, under the whip of the deadly day job. Doing it and stopping it on account of sudden family misfortune or financial crisis. Putting it aside for weeks then returning, re-reading, re-working, re-writing.

“Won’t you have a book in 2012, Steve?”

The sheen of Debut Year has begun to fade.

I once read an interview with the great screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (Network, Altered States) where the interviewer asked about his “art.” “No one I know calls it art,” Paddy said. “We call it our work.”

It is work. If we’re lucky some will see it as art. Art is hard work. I have a hard time comparing a Rembrandt to a giant blue dot on canvas. One I would consider art, the other, not so much.

I don’t know when my book will be out. It’s going to take a solid two months of rewrites from this point forward, complete with additional research and input from specialists I know in the FBI and the Amsterdam Police Department. Then I’ll get story feedback from several authors. And, of course, never-ending notes from my wife. Put it all together and bring it to boil and there’s soup on the table.

After that it goes to my agent — thank God I’ve got one of those. If he doesn’t love it I’ll be rewriting to his notes. Then he’ll go out with it. We’ll have to find a house to pony up. If-and-or-when that happens, I’ll have to deal with an editor’s notes. That could go on for months. When said editor is satisfied, when the book is officially “accepted” for publication, it will proceed into production. Ten months after that…voila! It’s on the shelves. (Damn, Steve, where did you go these past two years? We thought we’d see a book…)

I finished the first draft.

Maybe I should celebrate now.

31 thoughts on “WE UNDERSTAND, BUT WE ARE THE FEW

  1. Sarah W

    Congratulations, Stephen—it's a draft! That *needs* to be celebrated!

    I remember finishing a major, two-year grant project at the library. I stood up and said, "I'm done! I'm finally done! Where 's my parade!"

    My supervisor marched out of her office, scooped up a handful of paper bits from the big hole punch, tossed them over my head and said, "Hooray! Well done! Now you can start indexing the newspaper photos!" and marched back.

    (I kept the paper bits . . . )

  2. Dao

    Your first draft deserves a celebration. Hurray!

    I wrote 20,000 words into my story and I realized how soulless my characters were. They were so interesting in my head but on paper, they felt flat. It took a bit of energy to convince myself that it's the first draft and that's how it's supposed to be. Second draft forward, things are going to be better. I'll look forward to reading your new book and from the tidbits you wrote about it, this seems like an interesting story.

  3. Alaina

    I guess I'm lucky: my characters have soul from the start. But man, I leave occasional plot holes you could drive a truck through.

  4. David Corbett

    This will sound strange to anyone but a writer, but there are few things more intimate than reading something your loved one has written and giving her notes on how it could be better, deeper, funnier, more complex, more true to her own standards — or having her read yours and do the same. Joyce Carol Oates never showed her work to her husband, and I feel sad for her. There's a grace to doing it well, but it also requires a kind of honesty a great many couples can't manage. The scenes in the film JULIA, based on Lillian Hellman's story "Pentimento," where Dashiel Hammett is doing this for Hellman, are some of the greatest love scenes ever on film. And moments like that provide some of the most loving memories I have.

    Of all the gifts you possess, Stephen, and they are many, I think your marriage is perhaps your greatest, and the one that strengthens and enriches all the others. And it would not be what it is without both of you. I'm sure Ryen is a world-class รผber-everything, or pretty damn near. But I also get the sense that she's right where she wants to be, and that you're both the better for it.

    But plotting before you knew the characters like your own family — were you mad?

  5. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    I'll add my congratulations to everyone else's. Well done, guy. Take a break … OK, that's enough – back to work.

    Actually, putting the book aside for as long as you can manage is the best thing right now. It gives you a little distance, a little perspective. The flaws jump out that much harder and louder with a little time between writing and re-reading.

    But I have to disagree with David. Sometimes you only get to really *know* your characters by the way they behave under pressure. And to put them under pressure you first need the story.

  6. David Corbett

    I actually agree with Zoe, but I think that's part of the character work. I don't think you can plot the whole book down to the beats until you know some of those core scenes where the character is under pressure and responds. But I think that needs to be fleshed out scenically, if only in brushstrokes, before the intricacies of plot begin. (My character bios are always scenes, not descriptions.) Otherwise, you risk sooner or later shoehorning the character into a scene that has to happen a certain way, because that's where the plan dictates, even though, as you've now come to know the character, you realize it's not just a reach, but absurd.

    Also, I don't think this is a one-step process: character then plot, or the reverse. It is — pause for phrase ensure to make all groan — a dialectical process.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Sarah – that's a pretty good idea you got there – if I can get my hands on a shredder, maybe I'll make confetti out of that first draft…

    Dao – I don't even really enjoy the writing process until after the first draft. So, think about that, I spent a year of not liking writing, so I can get to two months of liking it.

    Alaina – the characters in my first two books started with more soul than this one, but I think that's because I spent a lot of time with real, live people I used as models for the characters.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David – beautiful words to pass along to my wife, thank you. I haven't seen JULIA, but I suddenly pictured how the scenes you described might play out, and I can see how they could be love scenes. The vulnerability, the trust, the openness. Time to Netflix. And I agree with you on the–groan–dialectical. Plot influences character influences plot. I did a ton of both – including complete character histories – before writing out my plot beat sheet, which is really a plot/character beat sheet. But, since this is something of a spy thriller, the plot was too complicated to keep in my head, so that's where the majority of the first draft energy went – to plotting that plot. My characters are all doing the things that they would do. They are properly motivated, I believe. But I'm not getting into the real depth of their lives and their feelings and internal thought. That's what I've left out. That's what I'll be struggling to achieve in the next draft.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Zoe – geez, there wasn't even enough time for a glass of wine in that celebration. Thanks a lot.
    Like I said to David above, I can't really help but attach the plot and characters simultaneously. But character action is definitely tested by the things that happen around the character, ie, plot. If it's done right it's interchangeable.
    I also usually like to take a month break from my writing when I get to this point, but now I can't afford the time. That's what's good about Ryen reading the book and giving her notes – she's a new perspective. Fortunately, I trust her instincts, so I can sit back and look at the work from a distance.

  10. David Corbett

    "The vulnerability, the trust, the openness." Don't forget frustration and fury.

    Okay, not that I see your process, it makes sense. It kinda sounded like you'd made this intricate watch and now had to insert some gremlins. We all have our own process, and you can't do anyone else's. I get the need to plot out — I do it too, because my books are usually pretty complex — but I do it in conjunction with the character work, and it sounds you pretty much do the same thing.

    You've laid the foundation, slapped on the roof, put up the framing, inserted the plumbing and wiring. Now you're doing the finish work. Got it.

    Good luck, sir. And congrats on making it through Act Two of your writing process.

  11. Richard Maguire

    Well done, Stephen. I know you've a lot of work ahead, but there must be a real sense of achievement that you've finally discovered the statue inside the block of marble.

    Seems like your working method is that of a screenwriter or playwright. Your mention of story beats is something I haven't heard a novelist talk about. Anyhow, good luck with the rewriting, and I'm really looking forward to reading this book.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    You should definitely celebrate. But I have that same problem, finishing a first draft; I'm already anticipating everything I have to do to make it even readable, much less live. Still. Celebrate.

    And I don't think you should worry about missing a year. This year was such a shakeup, I think we ALL have had to reevaluate the way we approach the publishing process.

    Hmm, I think I know next week's blog…

  13. Tom

    Schooled again; thank you all.

    David, speaking of dialectics, there's an actors' exercise in working out dialogue at the start of rehearsal. The players speak each line, but the respondant says – before the response written by the playwright – "And that makes me feel <<fill in emotion here>>. It's useful to get it out on the boards at the start of the work.

    As others have said, I'm very much looking forward to seeing this book in print.

  14. Chris Ransom

    Congratulations, Brother Steve, on finishing your first draft. I know how what that means and what a profound relief it is to print 90 or 100 thousand words of something out. If there is an intriguing beginning, sustaining middle, and some semblance of a climax ending in that first draft, so much the better. Characters who are clumsy but have some spark of life, yes, please. Chapters with their own delicious little structure and strange turns of the screw, hidden gardens of florid details that make us feel alive in the creation, and at least a handful of lines of dialogue that crackle with wit but do not forsake realism. Is it too much to ask for a theme that remains elusive but can be budged into coherence the next pass? Unplanned motifs that have sprouted from the subconscious to twinkle from the corners for those special readers who care enough to look for them. Most of all, I think, or so it seems with each book deeper into our shaky careers–does this first draft serve as a foundation that will allow us to build the house, a beautiful house with all the elegant designer touches and mood rooms that allows us to feel, even for a few months, that we are not purely regurgitators of plot machine content but actual writers? WRITERS? Have we harnessed the primal energy and seduced the bitch muse, enough so that, after a year of feeding this mysterious mess we hope to call a book, the book will now in kind feed us? How sad and crazy is it that right about the time we have achieved momentum and the rock is ready to crash down the mountain like a glorious avalanche, when we are finally done pushing that goddamned rock up the hill, when we are finally and totally fallen in love with our story, we have only a few more months to savor every tryst and wallow in the honeymoon suite. But then, it wouldn't be ecstasy if it could last forever, for another year, would it?

    I'm 95,000 words into my fourth novel and I think I have another 20K or 30K words to go until the story is all there. And then there will be many revisions, cuts, fixes, flourishes, polishes, edits, closing of loopholes, rethinking of entire chapters, excising of entire passages. I love writing the first draft, but only after I reach approximately half or two-thirds of it, when the corpse on the table begins to wiggle a toe, then a hand, then sits up and looks at me with its black crater eyes. I love to rewrite, to make something lovely out of something drab. I always find it easier to fix what is there than to create something from nothing. First drafts are shoveling ten tons of coal into a blast furnace until our backs are permanently stopped and our shoulders ache like a linebacker's and our hands have become palsied with repetition. First drafts are terrifying circles out of Dante. Second, third, and all other drafts are ice skating on dreams, the most beautiful girl in the world hooked under one arm.

    I envy your ability to outline and stick to it, even if it's painful. I write detailed outlines for every novel and inevitably abandon them. Not by choice, but because what has been written in outline has already left the Ransom brain barn and cannot be written again. For me it's always on the fly, from the gut, on a whim and instinct, and that tends to leave a helluva mess someone's got to clean up. But I like cleaning up. One of my favorite things about being a writer is that I don't have to be brilliant the first or second or third time out. But give me ten or twelve tries to get a line right, I can fool myself and others into seeing brilliance. OK, brilliant is a stretch, but I will settle for strong, lucid, expertly controlled, competent and engaging. Something our readers can buy as professional. Something we can be proud of. That we can do.

    Don't be crazy–celebrate now. Every writer should celebrate as many milestones as possible. First draft, acceptance, publication, that surprisingly not stomach-turning sales report. It's a lonely job, we deserve to throw an office party a few times a year. Get drunk, make a pass out your wife, get naked, climb on the desk and belt out a tune. You deserve to, and it will keep you sane.

    I can't wait to read your new novel, my friend. Thanks for the post. The timing was right and your insights are always inspiring.

    Chris

  15. David Corbett

    I'm posting this for Allison Davis, who has issues with her computer, or her computer has issues with this blog, or …

    Here's to Soup! Do shots, takes less time between drafts.

    You're lucky to have Ryen, some of us have to impose on our friends like you and David.

    This blog was a good validation for those of us slogging through (the slogging blog) and I thank you for that and will keep my head down and keep writing. And don't forget you did write a screenplay in there, so it's not like you're slacking or anything. Onto the next.

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Chris – this stood out above everything else –

    "Get drunk, make a pass out your wife, get naked, climb on the desk and belt out a tune."

    You've described my writing process to a tee. So, what do I do to celebrate?

    Boy, but do I love your long, wild, rolling, passionate comments, blogs unto themselves, filled with brilliance–yes, brilliance–and insight and life-force. Your enthusiasm reminds me why I do this. Despite the drain of it, I do love the process. But, like you, I love the re-writing the best. I love the subtle tweaks. Unfortunately, I get impatient and I want to rush the process from here on out, when in truth I know that this is when I need to put in longer hours, and more months, if necessary.

    Thanks for your beautiful words. I love reading your mind at work.

  17. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison – it's never an imposition for friends like you. And, some of us would never get as far as we do if others didn't step in to save us along the way. Here's to the one's who save us.
    And thank you for reminding me that I did in fact write a screenplay this year, too. I have that excuse for the length of time it took to get my first draft done. Thank God it was there, or I'd have no excuse at all!
    Here's to finishing the book for good in 2012, and writing yet another screenplay, and launching a TV series, and seeing Grinder produced. All up in the air, at the moment, but all on the agenda.
    Can't wait to see your novel in print. Sold in 2012?

  18. Lisa Alber

    I should send my friends to this blog post so they get a true feel for the process–long and arduous in the writing and revising, and then long and arduous again after the agent receives the manuscript (and sells it, hopefully). And I still need to find an agent, so there's that, too. (I may have one now, actually. We're in the circling-around-each-other phase. Though she did befriend me on Facebook–does that count for something? :-))

    My version of the question, "Won't you have a book in 2012, Steve?" is something along the lines of, "What's taking so long to get the first novel published?"

    Man, reading about your wife and her uber-prowess…I felt envious! I'd love to find that one reader who is my ultimate editor and supporter. Your description was lovely. And your book sounds great–rooting for the breakout third!

    The line that struck me most was, "The sheen of Debut Year has begun to fade."

  19. lil Gluckstern

    I'll just wait until you hone it which is the better part of writing. You see, I believe that all the work shows in the finished product by not being obvious. I don't know if that's clear, but as a reader, I really respond well to books that are not laborious or self conscious. I know you've worked your a** off, but you books have the rhythm and smoothness that hard work produces.

  20. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Lisa – the fact that the agent has asked to "friend" you on Facebook is a really, really good sign. I think I waited a year AFTER I was published before my agent "friended" me. I guess he just really wanted to be sure I'd be sticking around. Also, regarding that Debut Year line – I remember a blog Brett Battles did a couple years ago about how wonderful the debut year is, but that he's happier now after having written more and having had more published. The debut year is incredibly special – I wish I could do it over and over again. But, ultimately, I have to agree with Brett. We want longevity.

    lil – it's amazing, actually, that after all the plotting and the self-conscious consciousness of the early drafts of a book, we still need to craft a final product that feels like it came off the top of our heads. That's part of the art, the craft, to be able to turn it into something fresh and new and immediate. I think there's an immediacy to Boulevard and Beat, but they both went through the same laborious process.

  21. Pari Noskin

    Do celebrate, Stephen. If only for the first — of many — victories. You actually HAVE to celebrate, else you'll not mark the moment as well as it ought to be marked.

  22. KDJames

    Stephen, of course you should celebrate! Never pass up an opportunity to do that, they're too few and far between as it is in this profession without questioning their validity.

    We all have a different process and, from my perspective, a year to write a first draft doesn't seem all that long. But what do I know? So far, my own process involves doing whatever will make things more difficult and take longer to accomplish. It sounds like you've refined a process that works for you. It takes as long as it takes and I have a great deal of respect for your determination to polish the story to your satisfaction and not rush through it.

    Then again, Brett Battles will probably write an entire fucking bestselling novel in the time it takes me to write this comment. The bastard. Obviously, he has a different process (she said enviously). Once I figure out what it is, I'm going to distill it and bottle it and sell it on eBay. Or keep it for myself. One of the two.

  23. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Pari – I used to celebrate every minor milestone when I wrote screenplays. I'd feel more celebratory about this draft if I had finished it six months ago. Now the celebration feels like too little too late. I'd rather save it for the bigger celebration, like when my agent goes out with it, or when a publisher wants to make a deal.

    Rebecca – I know an enormous weight lifted off my shoulders when I wrote that last sentence. That in itself was a celebration.

    KD – Brett will sell it for a dollar cheaper!

  24. Reine

    Hi Stephen,

    Sorry to be so late. I love this conversation. All of these fantastic writers commenting about writing and the feelings that go with it. I love that it is work, because that normalizes it for me. The mystery is still there.

    It is clearly a hard job. But it is art. I hear people call it a craft, much as my father called acting a craft. But to me that denies the living quality of inspiration-led talent that needs to couple with unrelenting work, criticism, surrender, work, work, work and begin again.

  25. Susan Shea

    I may not write like you (don't do outlining to any extent) but I'm with you on the long slog to a first draft. I'm always amazed to hear people chirp that they finished a draft in two or three months. Mine gestate longer and then I rewrite them considerably, you might almost say obsessively, not havng a Ryen. Good description of the slog.

  26. Robin Dreeke

    An awesome job Steve. You are doing great and I absolutely believe in the story and think you have pulled off a miracle in capturing the realism. It is so accurate I think you come close to historical fiction. Keep charging,
    Robin

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