Ted Thompson

The Evolution of a First Novel

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This week I turned in the final draft of my book to my publisher. If you know me, or have happened to run into me at CVS on a Tuesday evening with a distant and vaguely stern look on my face, you know that this has been a long time coming. While I generally try to avoid childbirth-as-creative-process metaphors, calling this book a rough pregnancy seems about right (though I still feel like I know as much about writing novels as I do about being pregnant). Anyway, it was eight years, all told—about as long as it takes to make a second grader—the last two spent revising after I sold it. A long slog, a lot of doubt, a lot of worry, one terrible evening sitting in the car in the Fairway parking lot trying to figure out if we could afford to give the advance back (a low point that my wife wisely refused to entertain), but now it’s DONE. And I’m proud of it. Like really proud. And I can’t imagine having done it any other way.

Before I started this, I was always mystified by how books got written. Like how does anyone get from one of those half-formed 2 a.m. ideas to a bound object with a beautiful jacket and 300 deckled pages? Did that take a couple of weekends locked away in a cabin, or was the author struck by creative lightning after work? It seemed impossible or magical. It seemed like something that could only be achieved by very special people—David Foster Wallace in his bandana, looking forlornly away from the camera, or people who lived in other eras and unironically wore hats.

Anyway, to be honest I still have no idea. But here’s how it happened for me, for this book:

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As so many novels do, this one started as a short story with very humble intentions. I wanted to write a comedic story, something light I guess,  but mostly I just wanted to write something that made sense. After so many half-drafts and failed starts, I gave myself the goal of writing one short story that held together. That was all. Here’s the first page (above), before I even started writing full sentences: “Notes on Retired Man Story.” (Yes, I use a manual typewriter for first drafts, which is not as annoyingly precious as it seems, but a topic for another post.)

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That became a draft of a story (above right) which honestly still didn’t really hold together. I showed it to a friend who graciously gave me notes (thanks Merrill) and with that revised version, I was miraculously accepted as a waiter at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

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At Bread Loaf I had the great fortune of having Robert Boswell (whose draft you can see above, marked “RB”) lead my workshop. He was encouraging and kind, and when we met one on one, he shook his head and said, “As it is, this story doesn’t work.” I still remember the directness with which he said it, and how thrilling it was to feel as though he was taking it seriously, that the story was worth taking seriously. He suggested that it could be longer. “Go home and let yourself write,” he said. “Don’t worry about what it is. Just explore. Play.” So I did. That’s the draft above on the right, a version I ended up calling a “novella,” which essentially meant I didn’t know what it was. But I followed Boswell’s advice. I played. I felt as though no one would ever read it, and I stopped trying to make something perfect. I just kind of closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the sentences. And that ended up being the draft I sent to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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I wrote stories at Iowa. I set a goal for myself of turning in a brand new story every time I was up in workshop—no revisions or re-tooled oldies. That meant I turned in a lot of bad stuff, and took my lumps, but outside of class I was still working on this thing. By that point, I had taken to calling it a “novelito,” which was a new form I claimed to have invented (bigger than a novella but smaller than a novel) so that I wouldn’t have to admit to myself I was writing something as intimidating as a first novel. I had started other ones, had many pages and scenes in grandiose prose that I thought sounded like Melville. They were terrible. Tell yourself you’re writing a novel, I thought, and your inner English major comes out and ruins everything. Finally, my thesis advisor, Charlie D’Ambrosio, casually called it a novel over a cup of coffee and I reluctantly agreed.

The draft above, on the left, was my thesis at Iowa, the novel’s first full draft. The one on the right is the revision I wrote during my third year in Iowa City, based largely on Charlie’s notes. During that year I was teaching one creative writing class to business majors on Monday nights and sitting alone with this book the rest of the days, changing commas to em-dashes and then changing them back. I guess you could say I was blocked, but a better word I think is stumped. I could write, but none of it felt right. It was over-thought, over-worked, dead. I wrote scenes, then erased them, then went for walks in the frozen Iowa air, talking through a single sentence for twenty blocks. I had none of the openness or playfulness or easiness that I had during the Boswell draft. Looking back, I wonder if the first year after an MFA does that to you, it winds you up pretty tight, gives you all this awareness about what you’re doing and leaves all the smart, critical voices of your peers echoing in your head. I had no idea how I was going to make money after I left, or reenter regular civilian life, so suddenly the book became not only a piece of writing but a ticket to my livelihood and self-image. Too much was riding on it. That, combined with some relationship troubles (these things are always connected, aren’t they?), made for a long, snowy winter. 

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We moved back to New York, I took a full-time job, and the comma-moving was relegated to the early mornings. The job didn’t work out, and so with a month’s rent in the bank, my wife (then girlfriend) said I should take the next two weeks and finish the book. I still don’t really understand the faith she had in me. The book still didn’t have a real ending, and the momentum in the middle kind of fell off a cliff—I didn’t really understand anything about structure or pacing, had never really thought about them—but I took the two weeks and finished a draft (above left), which is the one that sold. That’s actually my editor, Reagan Arthur’s, first edit up there on the left. It was precise and particular—a word choice here, a fact that didn’t quite jibe there—but ultimately she was like an acupuncturist. All of those tiny notes added up to a holistic change.

I knew, when it went out, that the book wasn’t quite where I wanted it. It’s hard to explain without sounding like a perfectionist, or someone who’s just scared (both of which were true, too), but there’s always an internal logic, or heart, at the inside of a piece of writing. It’s driven by your subconscious, your feelings, and most of the process of writing is a kind of architectural dig to dust off those buried things. It’s not always a raw discovery in the surprised, oh-look-what-I-found sense (though that happens), mostly its a process, through the intense forces of prose and narrative, to properly excavate that which you already intuitively knew but could never name in any other way. Or at least that’s my experience. You know when you’ve gotten it right and you know when you’re still looking at a pit full of sand (to keep the architectural metaphor going) with a bunch of partially covered lumps in it.

I started revising again, this time with a book deal and a grant from an amazing foundation, both of which you would think would be buoying, would give you confidence, but my experience was the exact opposite. I’m still not sure why, but for about a year after the book sold I lost pretty much all confidence in my writing. Just poof—gone. Everything was flat and dead, stillborn sentences, over-thought dialogue, entire scenes in which characters spoke of their inner lives like Freudian analysts. From April 2011 to October 2011, I spent every day rewriting the same scene. I wrote it maybe 200 times. I could spend a week on a line of dialogue.

One afternoon I took the dog for a walk. I had spent the morning staring at my computer and needed some air. We went through Red Hook, all those empty streets, warehouses locked with graffiti gates. It was getting cold, a gray day, and all the families on their bikes were back indoors. Red Hook is a summer town and this was long after Labor Day so it had gone back to being industrial and pleasantly desolate. We walked to the pier that looked out on New York harbor. It was windy; there weren’t even fishermen. Raisin was shivering, poor thing, and I remember standing there and looking at lower Manhattan, which from down there is an imposing, impossible sight—a city of power and money and strength, in the middle of the workday it seemed to me a hive of productivity and confidence and ambition, all those people with jobs, making money, making things—and I thought: “I am never going to finish.” I could try and try and try, I had all the discipline in the world, but concerted effort alone was getting me nowhere. I thought about jumping in the water—not seriously enough that you should be worried, but it crossed my mind. But what would I do with the dog? I couldn’t just leave her on the pier. She was cold! So instead I went back to my desk and cut everything except the first 60 pages. Just deleted it, gone. And from there, everything opened up.

I’m not going to pretend like it was a breeze from then on—it was still a full year of writing—but somehow it allowed me to reenter that place I had six years before when I turned that story into a novella. It allowed me to play. Suddenly I wasn’t trying to fix things, but I was inventing them. My subconscious, or whatever it is that drives these things, was reengaged. I could close my eyes and listen. I wrote on the subway, tapping whole paragraphs into my iPhone that went directly into the manuscript. I woke up in the middle of the night to write exchanges of dialogue that made me smile. I loved these characters again and wanted to spend time with them, wanted to do them justice on the page. I know this is all the wishy-washy stuff that writers say about their work, but I will say that good writing seems to be driven by the part of the mind that we don’t understand, something like harnessed dreaming, and so when you’re in that place it feels separate from you. Your frontal lobe is able to sit back and observe, rather than direct. Or something. There’s no way to talk about this without sounding like some kind of reiki healer. But honestly, when it’s working, it’s utterly exhilarating.

That was the draft above on the right. It took just under two years, but I turned it in in August of 2012. I had blown my contractual deadline by a year and two months, but neither my editor or my agent said a thing. (Angels, both of them.)

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I ran into my editor at a party a few weeks after I submitted it. Even writing that sentence makes me feel like I’m giving an impression of my life here that isn’t quite right. I think writers outside of New York imagine this sort of thing happens all the time, that it’s all one big party at George Plimpton’s old brownstone or something, but to be honest that’s not the case. I hadn’t seen her in over two years. Most of my life in Brooklyn is like it was in Iowa, though somewhat less social. This is a topic for another post sometime, The Myth of Literary New York, but anyway, we saw each other at a party and she said, “You really took that book for a ride, didn’t you?” We laughed about it because of course she was right, and her edit (top left) mostly reminded me of the book that was buried somewhere at the center of this newly expanded edition. She named the parts that I knew were still vague and made the book better.

I can’t express how thrilling it is to get a read like that, where someone is able to name exactly what you have been working on privately for seven years. It makes the changes not matter because you know the larger stuff has been communicated. The book is standing on its own. I made those changes and got an excellent edit on that draft by Laura Tisdel, which is above right. This, I assume, is probably more like the normal editorial process: highlighted parts that are vague, or overwritten, astute cuts, a global note or two. I feel like most writers bang these edits out in a weekend and call it done. I did the equivalent of that, at my pace (two weeks, give or take). I think when you’re just starting out you have this image in your mind of what working with an editor will be like—something like a collaboration, if that’s what you call the editor buying you lunch while pointing out specific examples of your genius. In reality, it’s much better—a careful read by someone with a minutely calibrated bullshit detector. I often hear people complaining that books aren’t edited anymore, that publishers are only in the sales business (blah blah blah, bitter bitter bitter) but if publishing everywhere is anything like my experience, I can announce that those people are dead wrong. I’m an unknown first-time writer with a rather literary novel, and I got the sort of attention that makes a book better as a piece of writing, not just a sales object. If that’s so rare, then I’m very lucky. 

Since I turned that pass in last week, I can say that something has changed. Every time I turned in previous drafts, my wife pointed out that I would get tense and impatient, grumbling about how the end wasn’t yet working or that it wasn’t quite there, and putting my dirty mug a little too loudly into the sink. (As she said, "I’m Ted, I’m all ‘Grumble grumble grumble, clank clank clank.’") Well, that’s all gone. I guess they say you never finish a novel, you just abandon it, and that may be true. But I think it’s more like you make peace with it. You’re no longer helicopter parenting it. You just kind of let it go, out in the world, let it have a life of its own.


Notes

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