Last Tuesday, I celebrated finishing the rough draft of Mammon. At some point, I realized I had to quit writing around the ending and just get it down. It felt good when it finally happened. I had to kill off a scene I really liked and introduce a character who I wasn’t completely sure about at first. What I finally had on paper was much darker than what I originally thought it would be. But after nine months (I wonder if there’s any significance to that number) of these characters trying to pound, claw, and scratch their way out of my head, the story is told.
l got started on the day Friday morning, and when I realized I didn’t have a single hipster, demon, ghost, or redneck telling me how their story should look on paper, my day felt empty. I had more things to do than I could possibly get done, but I wasn’t worried about how to introduce that character or structure the next scene. It was liberating not to feel pulled toward Wrenton, SC, but it was scary as hell, too. I guess it’s kind of how Brooks and Red felt when they were released from Shawshank Prison.
That freedom, though, is an illusion. Now, it’s time to take the words and phrases I’ve slapped onto paper and shape them so the story isn’t just told, but it’s told well. That’s the real work. While I’m writing the rough draft, I use self-discipline to do things like cut the grass, talk to people who aren’t involved in the story, go to work, take a bath. Rewrites, though, are different.
Rewrites are work. Rewriting is the magic that brings characters to life and makes settings real. Rewrites bind the story together, so the first word is still relevant when the last word is read. Rewrites involve killing off entire scenes that, even though they took weeks or months to create, don’t move the story along. Characters leave the stage and get replaced with someone not nearly as loveable. Decisions have to be made that were put off before. I now have to decide, for example, if Mr. RT Ballard enjoyed Old Grandad bourbon, or Old Crow. It’s a small detail, but they’re all important. This is one decision I may enjoy more than others, and it will probably help me get through the process.
Now is when I look at what I’ve written, knowing it was perfect when I put it down, and realize it’s all crap. Now is when my words tell me I’m not a genius, after all. The process is humiliating and humbling, and unlike the rough draft, it takes discipline. In fact, editing a novel is a lot like my college career as a cadet at The Citadel. I’ll pull out those lessons learned from a freshman year spent blitzing shoes and brass to perfection, pulling my chin in and rolling my shoulders back, addressing upperclassmen using a sir-sandwich, walking in the gutters, and dreading meal times. That year was followed by three more of shining shoes and brass and adhering to a rigorous schedule. What I learned from that time will help me stay with the process until the story is right, no matter how much time and effort it takes.
A lot of the rewrite work has already been done as I’ve prepared each chapter to read to the critique groups I participate in, so I hope Mammon is ready for beta readers by early November. Then I get to start the process again, and when that cycle is done, again. At some point, I’ll have to decide it’s ready and send it out. It will never be finished, though. No piece of art – painting, music, or writing – ever is. I’ll wake up tomorrow shaped by the experiences and thoughts of today, and I’ll see my manuscript through the eyes of the person I’ve become instead of the person I am today. That future me might not be too different, but he’s going to move a word or a comma. I guarantee it.
I don’t know everything about him, but it’s a safe bet he’ll be an anal retentive jerk when it comes to the written word.