An afternoon in a novelist’s life

standard September 9, 2009 4 responses

I push away my empty plate and put down the book I have been browsing while eating. The restaurant is half full of chatty patrons, but the waitress doesn’t seem to mind that I’m taking my sweet time in the booth. She has brought me a thermos of coffee and left the check on the table without saying a word. My manuscript sits next to me on the table, silently reproachful in its thick black binder. I only have some 50 pages or so left to read. It’s my first read-through and it’s taken me almost a month to work my way through the bulk of the novel.

I pick at the last three grapes fighting for attention at the bottom of a tiny ramekin and finally pull the hefty binder towards me. It’s the same thing every time. I have to fight the reluctance to open the cover, find the page I last marked up, and dive back in. It’s the same reluctance I felt back when I was still composing the story. It’s a fear of sorts, but I’m not sure what it is I’m scared of. Probably that it won’t be as good as I thought, or maybe that it will be as bad as I fear. Either way, there’s a reason it has taken me a month to get through the first round of edits.

I take a swig of my hot coffee and shove my reluctance to the side. Purple pen in hand I turn to the page I was last working on. I’m quickly drawn in and next time I take a sip of coffee it has grown cold. Most of the restaurant patrons have left, the only other people still sitting in booths are a couple of businessmen quietly discussing something in hushed tones. The waitress is busy refilling condiment jars, she works around me silently. I take another sip of lukewarm coffee and dive back into the story.

I’m frustrated. My purple pen is getting more of a workout than usual today. I’ve been reading Pat Conroy’s latest novel and it irks me that my prose just isn’t nearly as lyrical. He makes it seem so easy, so effortless, so poetic. My prose reads like a 6th grader’s first attempt at a short story in comparison. It’s enough to make me wonder why I even pretend that I’ll ever be a published author.

I remind myself that Pat Conroy has been in the business a long time and that his latest book has already gone through countless edits and rewrites after being reviewed by multiple editors. This is my first novel and I’m the only one who has ever seen it. This is a first draft. A first, awkward, rough draft.

I push through the section that is causing me such angst, purple pen flying, crossing out whole sections, marking hasty notes in the margin. It’s not the prose that’s bothering me as much as the character involved in the chapter. It’s all wrong. She’s all wrong. I make a note in my notebook that the chapter needs to be reworked and I move on to the final three chapters.

These flow better and by the time I turn the last page I’m not nearly as frustrated any more. For sure, this is no New York Times best seller, but it has the makings of a darn good story. It needs work. It needs more depth in some places and more coherence in others. The characters need to be better developed, and yes, some of the prose needs to mature a bit, but as I finally shut the binder, having made some sort of note on each and every page, I know that I’m on the right track.

I gather my things and pick up the check. The businessmen are still deep in discussion and the restaurant is almost ready for the early dinner service. The hostess spots me heading to the front of the restaurant and motions that she’ll be right with me.

She rings up my tab and smiles.
“Are you writing a book?” she asks nonchalantly.
I hesitate for just a beat.
“Yes. I’m writing a book.” I answer with a smile before gathering up my thick binder and walking out into the sunshine.

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4 responses

  • Dan Farfan

    I’m liking the imagery of the purple pen. Consider in a future entry (or series?), making the purple pen into a character. Maybe the purple pen takes on the persona of the professional editor you may never really have, the “one” you strive to please with your work (because it seems too self centered to strive to please yourself), the “one” you have literary battles with.

    You can flex your storytelling and genre muscles around, for, with, near and about the “purple pen” once you make it a character, give it a voice and have a relationship with it…. in your life.

    Dan Farfan

  • Editors make a huge difference in any writing and you are the first to attck yours. Don’t be so hard on yourself. I remember reading a Vanity Fair article about the blood, sweat and tears Conroy and his editor (Gay Talese’s wife) put into one of his books (you know, lyrical or not, the man is wordy). It can take many seasons.

    I’ve recently been in touch with Dave Cullen who wrote the book “Columbine.”

    It took him ten years of research, writing, and post traumatic stress to get that book done.

    I have written to Dave about something in that book that gave me such hope, something I have taken from the book and tied to my faith and now live. He was touched by my comments, and revealed to me that he had to fight many an editor, one in particular, to keep that in the book. My comments, it would seem, validated that fight, though he knew he was right.

    I used to have a poster in my classroom that read, “Writing is the hardest work that doesn’t require heavy lifting.” This is so true!

    But then some of us are happily waiting to read your purple pen-marked book, because “Reading is the equivalent of breathing chocolate air.” (Nancie Atwell)

    Allow yourself the time to relish working on your book.

  • I think any creative person needs to be exposed to great craftsmanship throughout their own careers.

    It reminds them of why they are working so hard in the first place and it inspires them to do better.

    Enjoy it all.

  • I love reading your blog! Thank you for sharing such wonderful works of writing!

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