It’s absolutely incredible how hogtied we are by the things we *think* we aren’t capable of. Oftentimes our actual level of capability has zero correlation to our perceived capability. In other words what we think we can’t do has nothing to do with what we actually can do.
If you would have told me one year ago that I would have completed an entire rewrite of a novel in four months, I would not have believed you. If you would have told me two years ago that I would turn out quality writing by editing on the train, I would not have believed you. I thought I couldn’t write a novel. (I knew I could at the same time as I thought I couldn’t–that’s how complex we humans are.) When the fact was 1. I needed to get to the point where I believed I could. 2. I couldn’t write a novel the way everyone else was writing a novel. 3. I had to believe I could write a novel to even find out how *I* could write a novel.
Once when I was Negril, my friends were jumping off this cliff and I wanted to do it too, but I am a scaredy cat, so instead of jumping I kind of slid off the cliff and my friends said I was so close to the rocks that they thought I could have hit my head. As I was free-falling, I kept thinking, when is the water going to come, when is the water going to come? And when I finally looked down to check, the water was right there and WHAM, it smacked me in my face.
That is the way I have to write a novel–I have to sort of slide of the cliff and pretend that I’m not actually free-falling through thousands of words, until I look up one day and WHAM, the novel is just there–written–staring me in the face. That’s partly why writing on the train is such an amazing strategy for me, because I can sort of slide off the edge of this massive undertaking. I’m not rewriting 300+ pages of a novel, I’m just doing some quick little edits to a page or two on the train. Some strange sort of super-commitment in this guise of non-commitment.
The other thing I said I couldn’t do was write with a page count. I’m not sure that I had ever tried to write with a page count, but when I was rewriting the novel, I noticed what I thought was a good day and then replicated that over and over and over again. A good day for me was 1,000 words, so I committed to 1,000 words a day. I ended up splitting them up–doing some at night and some in the morning, and making up skipped nights on the weekend, but I made sure I hit my count by the end of the week. It’s amazingly effective. I also used word counts to guide my structure by ending each chapter at 2,000 words (more or less). By doing that, I knew how to manage the arc of the chapter, when to start pulling in to the end of the scene. Now that I’m editing the book, I’m using page count to guide me again. I’m editing a chapter a week by dividing that week’s chapter’s page numbers by five days and editing that number of pages a day. So much nicer to know exactly how much I have to do to stay on track, and when I skip or fall behind, I know exactly how much work I have to do to catch up.
A NOVEL TIME LINE
Week six of Clarion West, 2001: Jack Womack takes pity on our tiredness and tells us our story of the week can be microfiction. My work does not usually deal with race–not explicitly–but some of the stories over the past few weeks have aroused a discomfort–I write a character who lives her racial discomfort and whose best friend is a constant reminder of that discomfort.
A Series of Attempts, 2001–2004: I try to use these new characters to save my very first novel idea. My first novel manuscript–written while traveling to England, Trinidad, and Jamaica on a post-college fellowship–had been shopped around. The writing received positive feedback from editors and agents but the actual story had no throughline–it was actually a parade of stories loosely held together by a connection you don’t learn until the end of the novel. One agent described it as being picked up and dropped, picked up and dropped. Despite the fact that Jack Womack told us we may not be able to use our first novel, or our second, or even our third, I still deeply wanted to save this first novel. I realize I need to learn novel-writing skills and it’s not happening organically (I’m also no longer writing many short stories). I decide to get an MFA.
Antioch University MFA, 2004-2006: When I present my novel–which melds my first novel idea with the new characters and story I came up with at Clarion, my mentor Frank Gaspar says “Go with the heat.” And the heat, he said, was in the new characters. I follow his advice and start a new novel. I write all the way through my MFA program and by the end finish a complete draft while living in Mexico. My final mentor: Susan Taylor Chehak told me I had a novel, she also suggested that I try past tense. I complicate this advice by trying past tense while adding a present-tense story line. This derails me.
Adrift, 2007-2011: I make progress, pick up speed, and stall. The present-tense story line doesn’t stretch the length of the full novel, when I run out of the present-tense story line, I stop writing. I try various ways to pick it up again and nothing sticks.
Aqueduct Press, 2011–2012: In 2011, I finally get sick of my bellyaching. I feel that all I do is complain about my work, I decide to try something new, I decide to honor my work. I put the novel to the side. Knowing that one of my central complaints is that I don’t have a book AND that over the years I’ve written a book’s worth of stories, I decide to do a collection of short stories. In my determination to succeed, I come up with a strategy of editing the stories on the train. This works, I get a book contract in 2011 and publish the collection in 2012. I spend 2012 promoting the book, pushing to get reviews, attention, book sales, knowing that I will need to build on my career–I will need to write another book.
Novel-writing!, 2013: In January 2013, after major surgery, I’m on bedrest. People are concerned, I am excited. Home for five weeks? This is not a problem, this is an opportunity, my own personal writing retreat! I commit to digging in to my novel. I establish a rhythm of writing 1,000 words a day. After I go back to work, I keep up the pace. By the end of May, I have completed a novel rewrite.
Clarion West Write-a-Thon, 2013: Over ten years after graduation from the Clarion West class of 2011, I am finally participating in the Clarion West Write-a-thon. Clarion West workshop participants are writing a story a week for six weeks. During those six weeks Write-a-Thon participants are setting their own goals. Please donate by sponsoring my page: http://www.clarionwest.org/writeathon/kiiniibura. Clarion West is an amazing institution who has consistently trained absolutely amazing writers. Octavia Butler was both a student and an instructor there. And, if you do sponsor my page and send me a page number, a paragraph number, and a word, I’ll write your word into the next edit of my draft.
This year, I’m using the Clarion West Write-a-Thon to kick off draft 3 of my novel. And I’m back to thinking of Jack Womack who insisted that this is all a process and that if we keep writing we’ll get there! This process is getting me there, in the sense of getting me to a publishable novel, but it is also getting me there in the sense of uncovering all the things that I think I can’t do–getting me closer to knowing what I can do.
While draft two taught me that I can write a novel, during draft three it looks like I’ll be uncovering all the things I believe I can’t do while writing a novel. For example, while editing chapter 1, the perfect set up for something that comes up in the 2nd third of the novel emerged organically. And as I was weaving it in to the story, I was thinking to myself: I thought I couldn’t stretch references out and sprinkle relevant hints throughout the breadth of a whole novel.
What I realize it that I need to stop thinking. Or in the inimitable words of The Talking Heads, “Stop making sense.” I could argue all the things I can’t do it, but that argument holds less and less water if I’m actually doing them. On top of which, I’d MUCH rather discover I can do the things I thought I couldn’t, then prove that I can’t do the things I *said* I couldn’t. Chew on that for a while.
Be well. Be love[ed].
Kiini Ibura Salaam