The Next Day

Draft #2

Once before, I did it. This total rewriting, remaking of a story.

The story in question was the third segment of a trilogy. I knew how I wanted it to end, but somehow the ending always fell flat. I kept sending drafts to a very patient writer friend, asking if it worked because I hoped desperately that it actually did and I just wasn’t seeing it. Except she saw exactly what I saw, namely that it didn’t.

Finally, I took what I’d written and set it aside, and I began again. This time, instead of beginning with a quiet, dull scene where family members talked about their depressed family member, I went to the other extreme. I plunked him down in the middle of a bar fight, one he’d started. At once, the story was alive, with people doing instead of merely discussing.

The other primary thing I did was to flesh out the villain. I’d essentially created a stock evil person who was out to kill the hero. The problem was that nobody is evil for solely evil’s sake, even Iago. Everyone has their own motivations based on their own beliefs and perceptions, even if those beliefs and perceptions are based on inaccurate information. More importantly, everyone believes their actions to be justified, regardless of how heinous those actions may be. So I explored the villain’s life—why he was so angrily jealous of the hero and his friends; how it came to be that he was saddled with his younger brother, a man of limited mental development and yet incredibly beautiful but for a facial scar for which the villain blamed himself; and how he sought revenge when his brother was hanged for a murder he had not committed (though the brother had murdered someone else, he was innocent of this particular crime); and most surprisingly, how he ultimately sacrificed himself in a way I’d never seen coming.

Some of what I’d written before was usable, and so I incorporated it again. Starting over doesn’t necessarily mean throwing out all that came before. It means only that each piece will be held up to the light to see whether it is appropriate and worthy of being in this particular work. If so, it will be woven into the new whole. If not, it will be set aside. As it turned out, the rewritten story included plenty of new material along with the recycled bits–and more importantly, the ending finally worked.

Last night, after I’d posted Rotten, a dear friend emailed me with this wise inquiry: “Is it maybe rotten because you are trying to write the book you think should come next, and not the book that wants to be written?” An excellent question, clear and straightforward. Except the answer is the next question: what is the book that wants to be written?

I still want to tell the story of what comes next for Meg and Ralph and everyone at the Pole. Plus, I’ve promised people the sequel to State v. Claus will be out in time for the holidays this year. And yet I find myself remembering the book William Kent Krueger wrote several years ago. When I heard him speak in 2014, after his standalone novel, Ordinary Grace, had become such a hit, he said he was writing a companion to this book. Several years later, though, he spoke openly about how he had never delivered that companion book to his publisher because the manuscript “was such a disappointment” to him. He described not only the sense of crushing expectations for this book, but how he was “trying to meet everyone else’s expectations instead of writing the story that spoke to me from my heart.” It wasn’t until he made the decision not to deliver the manuscript that he felt as if a weight had lifted and he felt free—at which point he “saw clearly the story I should have been writing, the story that spoke to me from my heart.” He concluded:

There are so many voices out there telling writers what they should write, what’s hot, what’s selling, what will be the next big thing. The lesson I learned from my experience is this: The only voice writers should listen to is the one that speaks to them from their own hearts.

State v. Claus, my humble debut novel, will never compare with Kent Krueger’s award-winning Ordinary Grace (which, incidentally, I love and highly recommend). Mine never appeared on bestseller lists, won no awards, resulted in no interviews in prestigious publications. The readers awaiting my next book are enthusiastic and supportive and I am immensely grateful to every one them, but they number in the dozens, not the millions. Even so, I imagine that my experience with Draft #2 may bear some resemblance to his experience with the book that preceded This Tender Land. As it was for Kent Krueger, the answer for me may be to dig deeper, to find the story my heart wants to tell.

Of course, it’s also possible that I’m simply putting too much pressure on Draft #2, that my expectations are too high. Before production, my first book went through seven complete drafts, the second of which was a complete overhaul of the first. Maybe just as first drafts are meant to be shitty, second drafts are expected to suck, and it was sheer dumb luck that the second draft of State v. Claus wasn’t awful. Or maybe it was awful, but I don’t remember, or I didn’t know enough about writing to recognize its awfulness, and so I plowed ahead instead of throwing up my hands and despairing over how bad it was.

Is Draft #2 salvageable? Should it be? I don’t know. As I often do when I’m struggling, I return to Amy Tan’s essay, “Angst and the Second Book,” in which she recounted her fight to write her next book after the enormous success of The Joy Luck Club. She wrote not only about the pressures imposed by her newfound fame, but about how she composed pages upon pages of stories based on what she thought various people wanted, as well as an imagined review of the as-yet-unwritten book. She noted, “Perhaps these stories would have, or should have, died of their own accord. . . . But some of the stories could have been saved, the weedy bits trimmed away, as with any writing, until the true seed could be found, then taken as the core of the real book.” She estimated that “the outtakes must now number close to a thousand pages”—and this before she even began the story that ultimately became her second published book, The Kitchen God’s Wife.

So perhaps my Draft #2 is like one of her interim stories—she does not call them “failed,” and neither do I. Perhaps what I need to do is what she described doing as she wrote The Kitchen God’s Wife: “I wrote with persistence, telling myself that no matter how bad the story was, I should simply go on like a rat in a maze, turning the corner when I arrived there.” Of course, she acknowledges that this approach was not the magical cure-all, and she ran into additional difficulties as she worked out the story which included hundreds of moments of self-doubt and deletion of hundreds of page from her computer’s memory. Still, persistence proved key in taking this book from idea to publication.

Sometimes, writing is easy. Other times, it’s like the struggle to open the jar whose lid is stuck fast, and all the standard fixes—running it under hot water, banging it on the counter, using a special gadget for a better grip, finding a stronger person—fall short until, after numerous attempts accompanied by grunts or holding your breath, the lid finally loosens ever so slightly.

Draft #2 is like that stuck lid. The question is what it will take to open it, or even whether I’m trying to open the right jar. After all, it’s always easy to start a story. The hard part is keeping on—assuming, of course, it’s the right story in the first place. Or maybe it’s the right story, but its current form is wrong and what it needs is to be taken apart, the component pieces disconnected and studied, before the ones that work can be reassembled and the others discarded.

I’d still like very much to have this book out for the holidays. But what I’d like much more is to write a good book. If I have to choose, I choose good. How that happens will remain to be seen.

4 thoughts on “The Next Day

  1. Sounds like a gift quilt I’ve been working on. The first draft was too dark for my friend, the recipient. I started again, with a different background, sure the pop the colors. Meh! Yes, it’s lighter. Maybe I’m just tired of it. My friend has an absolutely killer color sense. And it may be okay. But I can also imagine her not liking the pattern or the fabrics or just some of the fabrics. Her birthday approaches June 1. I need some more background fabric and I need to get it to the quilter, then bind up the edges, so it’s time to decide. Or else I could give it to her, also providing permission to donate the quilt if it’s just too annoying.

    So I’m totally with you in your frustration and disappointment with Draft 2. The silver lining: The Next Day is a great description of a little-considered corner of the creative process. Choose good: yes! If that were a label on any of the menu items, it would be easier. I guess.

    Love, Kay


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your insights, Kay. To the outside world, the creative process looks like a straight line, but we know differently. In the case of your project, I think it’s more challenging because you’re trying to work out a piece for someone’s specific tastes rather than, for example, the general quilt-buying population. Since it’s a custom piece for a particular recipient, is asking her what colors she’d like an option? Otherwise, I suggest trusting your artistic taste and moving forward, because I’ve seen photos of your work and I have absolute confidence in your ability to produce a beautiful quilt.

      P.S. I don’t know how long it takes to make quilt, but I do know that there’s no hard and fast rule that says a birthday gift must arrive on the birthday, especially for an adult. So maybe choose good over timely, and send a card with a note to let her know something amazing will be coming when it’s truly ready.


      • Thanks, Jo Anne. I’ll choose good, though I wish I could count on “amazing”. And I’ll look forward to whatever you publish, whenever. Keep sending us your best.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, sweetie. It would nice if “amazing” was something that could be decided and planned. At least for me, it’s something that either happens or doesn’t, and intent doesn’t factor in. If anything, trying to be “amazing” would stifle my voice completely. So I’m shooting for “good.” If I should happen to overshoot, so much the better.


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