The Write Life
Lamar Henderson / Guest blogger
I’m a really bad writer.
That might be a glaring admission to make considering I have been writing fiction pretty much since I learned to write in the first grade and that being a writer is the only career I’ve seriously wanted to pursue in my life. (Some people might say that it’s about time.) Consider, though, a few facts.
In spite of writing fiction since first grade and being a writer is the only career I’ve seriously wanted to pursue in my life, I don’t have a lot to show for it. A few years ago, I put together a collection of short fiction to self-publish (Ten Minutes ‘til the Savages Come, now available as an e-book on Amazon, B&N and iTunes), mostly just to experiment with self-publishing and to make a rather unique and special birthday present for my lovely wife.
The biggest problem I should have had putting together this collection is selecting from my body of work the items I wanted to include in this omnibus edition. In fact, the problem I had was gathering up enough material that I was willing to publish in order to make a book. Looking through the bulk of my early short fiction – the college years, mostly – I found that most of it seriously wasn’t anything I was willing to put out there for public view.
Well, that’s all right, I told myself. I wasn’t really a short-form writer, anyway. Even my short fiction was mostly novellas. I’ve never even been a big reader of short stories. I’m a novel kind of guy.
As to that, though, although I’ve started many a novel, I’ve only completed first drafts of two. The first one, an epic fantasy started back when epic fantasy was actually starting off as a publishing category, took me seven years to complete. I wasn’t writing all the time, though – I’d write on it for a while, then have to work on boring, bothersome stuff like actually finishing my degree or, you know, getting a job. And, honestly, the last third of the manuscript was finished in a sort of literary death march fueled no longer by my love of the project but only by a fierce, numbing resolution to actually finish the damn thing.
Which I did. And it sucked. I mean, epic vacuum going on here. The thing is, although my first novel sucked, and will never actually see the light of day, I imagine, I did learn a whole lot about the process and craft of writing a novel.
You’d think I would have wanted to put all that to use, then, you know, as being a writer is the only career I’ve seriously wanted to pursue in my life, and all. And I tried, I really did.
For nine years I tried. Nine. Years.
When my second novel came along, it sort of snuck up on me. I’d been fiddling with a character for a while – most of my stories start with a character idea – and one night, I just started writing. I managed to get through the first chapter, and actually did some revision, something I’ve never been good at, either. For reasons I can’t really get into (mostly because I don’t know them, actually), this project took off and had a life of its own. In a period of about two months, I cranked out a first draft of the second novel. And no slim volume of prose was it, either – it came out to about 165,000 words. (For those keeping score at home, the definition of a novel generally starts at 50,000 words.) It was a rush, an exhilarating time. I can’t think of a project before or since with which I was so enraptured.
In the next few years, I made some half-hearted revisions and looked for an agent, which didn’t go anywhere. My second novel took up space on my hard drive, and we seemed to come to an understanding – I didn’t bother it, and it didn’t bother me.
The next decade saw my production decline even further – you know, that whole life thing getting in the way of writing. I did get some stuff done – started a few more novels, wrote an actual screenplay – but in the back of my head, I kept going back to all the things I’d worked on and not really finished.
And that’s the thing, in the end. A first draft is rarely a final draft. If ever. A writer friend of mine once said that, while writing the first draft of a novel, he would have no idea whatsoever what his book was about, and it didn’t matter to him. It wasn’t until the revisions, the subsequent drafts, he said, that he ever figured out what the story was and how it needed to go together.
And that, friends, is why I’m a bad writer. It isn’t just that I don’t write enough. It’s that I have never really dug into the hard, difficult, horrible work required to revise a first draft and polish it into shape. And I’m not talking about just copyediting – I’m talking about completely rewriting large chunks of a manuscript. A second draft, a third. Hell, I’ve read that Fitzgerald would routinely go through nearly 20 drafts of his manuscripts. I am certainly no Fitzgerald.
Well, it’s finally time, I think. I still want to be a writer. I want to be a good writer. I want to be a writer whose work people actually want to read. That means I have to roll up my sleeves and dig into the meaty work of revising what I’ve done before. So, I’ve started doing that with my second novel. I’m into chapter 5 of 26 now, and I’ve already had to completely rewrite chapter 2 (I’m terrible at writing chapter 2s) plus big chunks of the rest. It’s actually going pretty well, I think. I think, this time, maybe, I might be able to turn out a book people will actually want to read.
We’ll see how it goes.