I’m about to start the first draft of a new novel. This instills in me all the self-confidence of two virgins in a MINI Cooper. I’m sweaty and awkward. I don’t have a clue where anything goes. And I’m already questioning whether this was the right vehicle for attempting this in the first place.
I don’t know why first drafts scare me so much. It’s not as if I don’t know by now that I’ll be rewriting it all in a few months anyway. You’d think, with three published novels and a finished fourth manuscript behind me, I’d be like Larry King at the altar: ring in one pocket, attorney on speed dial in the other. I know what’s coming—the revisions, the tossed scenes, the killed characters, the discoveries I won’t make until I’m practically finished with the draft. And yet I will do almost anything to delay the process. This past week alone, I have:
1. transferred all of my children’s baby pictures to DVD
2. volunteered to be on the interview committee for the new principal of my daughter’s middle school
3. Filled out my bank’s customer satisfaction survey (probably a first in the history of my bank)
4. Actually listened to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door.
I’m so desperate I called up GEICO to see if I could save money on my car insurance. (Don’t let the Cockney accent fool you; the lizard is a liar).
I’m really starting to panic.
I’m stalling by researching stuff I will never, ever need to know. The Internet is great for this. I can start off with a simple question about common Honduran surnames for my new mystery series about a Latino detective in suburban New York and end up two hours later reading the history of the Indian ruler Lempira who fought the Spanish and now has the Honduran currency named after him. (Pause to reflect: would the U.S. be in any better shape if our bills were called “Geronimos”?)
My first mystery series, set in the New York City Fire Department, provided loads of fun researching how to start fires and blow up things. There is nothing like watching a video of a room turning into a solid wall of flame in under three minutes to give one an Old Testament appreciation for how fast things can get jacked up. Makes that unexplained clunk in my car and the untraceable leak beneath my kitchen sink feel like good Karma by comparison.
Here’s where a well-conceived outline would come in handy. I love outlines. I really do. Wish I could write one. Typically I start out with three pages of notes for the first chapter and by chapter five, I’m down to descriptions like, “someone dies here” and “they have good sex.” (Is there any other kind in fiction?) The truth is, I just don’t know what’s going to happen until it does. I write great outlines for my second drafts. But that’s like waiting for the medical examiner when what you really needed was the doctor. It’s so much more convenient to catch the problem before the patient stops having a pulse.
I know what I have to do. I have to write something awful—something I would only show to my mother when she was alive, and only then, after she’d had a couple of glasses of good red wine. And then I have to believe that it will get much, much better as I lay down more of the story. To build a smooth road, you always have to start with a pile of rocks.
Chinese Fortune-cookie stuff, I know. But it also happens to be true. I had an art teacher at Northwestern University named George Cohen who once instructed every student to paint the “best” painting he or she could create. In the second class, Cohen asked every student to paint the “worst” painting. Then Cohen papered the room with all of our artwork and asked students to vote on the best pieces. About 75 percent of the pieces voted as “best” were the ones we had painted as our “worsts.” (Makes me wonder about my other decisions in life.)
So I will try to be fearless and not worry about what’s “best” and what’s “worst.” I will try to have faith that over time, there will be a road through the wilderness.
Then again, I could always start another entry in my blog…