I’ve been working on the first draft of a new novel for slightly more than a year. Progress has been in small steps punctuated by constant breaks: My halftime job at Golden Gate Audubon gives me the rest of the week to write, but the paying work often creeps over into the unpaid work and then there are all the other interruptions of family, holidays, life.
This week, though, I’ve reached the last chapter.
Audubon work was relatively contained in June so I got on a roll. I saw the end of the book ahead of me, a long straightaway after winding through mountains. I was writing a lot! I became unusually spacey, caught up in imagined conversations between my characters while driving or taking my spin class or buying groceries. I was so distracted that I locked my keys in the car at the gym last week.
Then Sam went backpacking for the past five days, so I had my own private writers’ retreat here at home – nothing to do but write, go to the gym, and heat up canned soup.
Yesterday I was exhilarated to reach this point. To get the whole darn thing down! To have a narrative that goes from point A to point B! To write down on paper all the ending episodes that I’d had in my brain for months!
I had to restrain myself from posting jubilant cheers on Facebook. Huzzah huzzah huzzah! Champagne for everyone! Wait, I told myself, until you are actually done.
Today I got even closer. I started what will be the last chapter.
And now I don’t feel exhilarated at all. Quite the opposite.
I’m sad because something very sad is happening to my main characters. I’m anxious because once the first draft is done, I need to put on my critical hat and look at all the things that suck with the manuscript and make it better. I’m worried because I’m not going to have a chance to finish the draft until this weekend, when Sam will be out of town again and the post-draft letdown will really hit and I will be by myself and I will feel REALLY AWFUL.
For me, one of the necessary tasks in writing a first draft is to suspend all critical voices. Like many writers, and I suspect particularly women writers, I have a very persistent internal critic that is happy to point out every way in which my work is hackneyed, melodramatic, overwritten, predictable, boring, cliched, shallow etc. Over the years, I have gotten very good at shutting the valve on my critic while I plow through a first draft.
But then the first draft is done, and it’s time to edit and revise. I need to be critical. But there’s no halfway setting for my critic valve.
Once released, the critic blasts out with the power of a New York City fire hydrant on a hot summer day, and I’m flooded with self-loathing:
This book sucks! I can’t write decent dialogue! I’m no Virginia Woolf! I’m no Tom Wolfe! I’m not even Wolf Blitzer! This book should be flushed down the toilet before anyone can laugh at its incompetence, which is only exceeded by its hubris!
I’m worried that’s what happens next. With Sam out of town. So…
To-do list for the weekend:
Trip to Ace Hardware. Look for a Critic Wrench that can open the valve part way. A little bit at a time. Drip by drip, revision by revision.
But first, finish the book.
And second, open that champagne. Even if I’ve forgotten that I earned it.