I have been procrastinating. Shocking, but true.
I started a novel under the tutelage of Lisa Cron, my friend/client/colleague, whose book Story Genius, a follow-up to Wired for Story, is coming out in 2016. I actually started the novel as a PART of Story Genius, in the PAGES of Story Genius – which constitutes this strange Escher-like reality.
Here’s how it went down: Lisa is writing a non fiction book; I am coaching her through the writing of that book; she needs a novel to be developed step by step in her book so she can showcase her powerful novel-developing technique; I develop that novel; she coaches me through the start of that book as I write it for the book that I am coaching her through.
Crazy, I know. But it was awesome, and I’m sure Lisa and I will both be writing about it more as her book nears publication. We both learned a lot in the process.
So anyway, I started this novel and it turns out that I really sort of love it, and so I have no choice now but to write it. But I am already so busy with coaching projects and building my Author Accelerator business, so my own writing has not been happening.
I am not a fan of procrastination (as anyone who has been coached by me for three seconds well knows) and I finally said, “ENOUGH. I’m doing it!”
Two days ago, I wrote down on paper a commitment to have a complete rough draft done by January 1, and I had two witnesses who I know will not let me off the hook. That is a super ambitious deadline and not normal, and probably not even recommended, but remember that I had this rocket boost of a start from working with Lisa so I am not starting from zero – not by a long shot. I know the exact ending of the story. I know what happens at the big Aha moment. I have about six scenes of backstory written. I have sketches of all the major characters. This is the genius of Story Genius.
The first thing I want to do on this path to DOING IT is to revise the first chapter that I sketched out for Lisa (who needed a rough draft, not a polished one.) I thought I would show how I do that so you can follow along and learn something about editing your own work.
This is a novel, but ALL writers deal with the issues I am dealing with here because ALL writers are telling stories, even if those stories are part of a self help or how-to book, or a memoir.
I’m not even going to tell you anything about the novel -- I’m just going to show you how I approach what is on the page and what I do so that you can learn something about doing it, too.
Okay so here’s the first chapter as it stands. What I would urge you to do as you read this is to look for what I think it a pretty glaring problem with my handling of TIME.
The idea for the dog came to me in the meat aisle at Whole Foods. A woman walked by me with a small white dog tucked into a bag that was slung on her shoulder, and as she ordered organic grass fed hamburger, the dog poked its head out and she began to murmur.
“That’s right, sweet Bruiser, Mama’s getting your favorite for dinner.”
The grass fed beef was for the dog. I halted my cart. “It eats organic meat?” I asked.
“She absolutely refuses kibble,” the woman says, “and you can’t really blame her, can you? It’s packed with preservatives and added fillers and the meat they use to make that stuff – arghk.” She made a sound of disgust and scratched the dog behind its ears. “It’s the scraps from the slaughter house floors. It’s enough to turn your dog vegetarian.”
“Dogs can be vegetarian?” I asked.
She laughed. “Of course! You just have to give them enzymes so they don’t have gas from the beans and tofu.” She took the package of meat the butcher handed her, cooed again to her dog, waved, and headed off toward the eggs. I supposed the dog liked scrambled eggs for breakfast.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” the butcher asked.
It took me a moment to realize he was speaking to me. I had come to the store to get organic spinach, rosemary sourdough bread, garlic hummus and seasonally appropriate fruit. My plan was to clean up the house and stock the fridge with so much healthy food that when my sister Nora arrived the next morning to save me from myself, she would think I was just fine, and she would leave me alone.
Every since Henry’s accident, she called every day. Are you eating? Are you sleeping? Have you left the house today? When was the last time you threw up? What did the doctors say? And what about the show?
The answers were no – I was not eating.
No – I was not sleeping.
No – I hadn’t left the house.
The last time I threw up was within hours of whenever Nora called.
And the doctors? A shattered heart doesn’t show up on their CAT scans. They don’t know how to diagnose twenty years of regret. I hadn’t even bothered to go.
“What about the show, Ruby,” she pushed, “What about the finale? They’re advertising it everywhere. I just heard something on the radio.”
My mouth went dry, because that was the question I couldn’t get past. I had no idea how to start the script and no idea how to end it. I hadn’t written a single word. I was suddenly faced with the reality that maybe I couldn’t do this without Henry. Maybe I was a complete fraud, and now the whole world would know it. “I’m working on it,” I said, as breezily as possible.
“How’s it going?” Nora pushed.
I’d looked around my house at the piles of unread newspapers and unopened mail, at the empty cupboards, and the dirty laundry. I could barely breathe without Henry, could hardly move. How on earth could I write the final episode of the show we’d been writing for seven years? How could I end it without him? “Good,” I said, “It’s going great.” The 72 hours until my Thursday midnight deadline flashed across my mind and my heart raced in panic, so I lied. “I just need to get it to my producer Sharon by the end of the weekend,” I said. “It should be no problem.”
There was a moment of silence on the line and I could almost hear the gears in my sister’s head turning. “That close to the air time?” she asked. “Your show airs on Monday night.” There was now an unmistakable edge of disbelief to Nora’s voice. It sounded ominous, like thunderheads on the horizon.
“They shoot it really fast now,” I said, trying to sound authoritative. “One day. The cast and crew, you know, they’re so seasoned.”
That’s when Nora showed up at my door. She hadn’t set foot in LA proper for at least two years, but there she was – still in her riding boots, her big Chevy truck parked at the curb of the once beautiful house we had grown up in. She’d seen right through my lie.
She took me in her arms and said she was so sorry. She said she had come to help and that everything was going to be okay. It was all just too much – her touch, her sympathy, her belief that she needed to swoop in and save the day. I felt my stomach begin to curl in on itself.
“I’m fine,” I said, and forced a smile. “Just a little tired from writing.” I rubbed my wrist as if to relieve my killer carpel tunnel. “But I have to get back to it,” I said, “I mean, I can’t invite you to stay or anything.”
She peered at me, suspicious.
“We can have lunch in a few weeks,” I quickly added, “I’ll come out to the farm.”
But then she began to look around at the house – at the peeling paint and the chipped kitchen counter, at the stained rug in the living room and the leaf-choked, algae-filled pool outside the back door. I followed her gaze and cringed at how much the house had deteriorated.
“What?” I said, as if I had no clue.
“The house,” she said. “I know you said the show has been taking all your time, but Ruby, this is…” She put her hand over her mouth, sucked in her breath and turned to stare at me. “When’s the last time you had anyone over?” she whispered.
“To the house?”
I shrugged. Henry and I always worked at his house, and more nights than not, I’d end up sleeping there. If I ever went out with anyone, it was at a diner near the studio. “I don’t know,” I said, “I can’t remember.”
She went to the refrigerator and peered inside – mustard, ketchup, and six packs of kid-sized applesauce. Applesauce was all I had been able to stomach in the three weeks since Henry’s accident.
“Oh sweetie,” she said, and I knew from the tone of her voice that I was in trouble.
Nora decided I was a danger to myself. She decided to call in a realtor to clean up and rent out the house. She decided she would call Sharon and tell her that it was impossible – I wasn’t going to deliver the script. And she decided she would take me with her out to the horse farm in Ojai – which was two hours away from where Henry lay dying, and might as well have been the end of the world. I’d protested, of course, but she wasn’t listening.
That had been just yesterday, and she was due back in a few hours to execute her plan. I had to convince her to change her mind, which is why I spent the whole night straightening up the house and how I ended up at the meat counter at Whole Foods, perplexed by the butcher’s question. How could he help me?
I looked down the aisle after the woman with the dog, and something began to take shape in my mind. The receptionist at the production company thought I should get a dog, and the woman who cut my hair, and the mailman who brought nothing but junk and bills. Nora had been suggesting I get a dog all my life – she, the veterinarian, who raised packs of dogs and kids and horses. “You should get a dog!” It was the knee jerk reaction people gave to single women and middle aged women and depressed women and women in pain, and now I was all of those things.
A dog would get Nora to leave me alone.
I turned to the butcher. “A pound of the grassfed hamburger,” I said.
There was a dog park under the power lines on Sunset – a vast swath of dusty dirt where dogs could always be seen leaping and running. All I had to do was take one for a couple hours. I would bring it back that afternoon, as soon as Nora saw that I was okay, that she had made a mistake. The dog owner would have a few hours of panic that his dog had gone missing, would no doubt put up “Fido is Missing” fliers, and when I took it back, someone would rescue it and be a hero. I parked the car, and watched as grown men and women ran and clapped and whistled after their ridiculous beasts.
I opened the door and stepped out of the car. I unwrapped the meat and placed it on the ground.
A sleek grey dog appeared in moments, followed by a fluffy white thing, but they both turned on a dime when their owner called.
A hairless dog with an overbite appeared and thrust its nose into the meat. It was the strangest looking dog I’d ever seen – one black ear and one white. A pirate patch of black over one eye. And a black birthmark splotched right on his nose like a Rorschart test. No one whistled for it. No one even seemed to notice.
I eased myself back into the car, dragging the meat with me. The dog leapt into the car and I turned on the ignition, backed up, then sped out of there and headed home.
Did you spot it? I did this strange thing where I went backwards in time and TOLD the reader what happened at the crucial moment when the sister realizes there is a crisis. It starts with these lines:
I had come to the store to get organic spinach, rosemary sourdough bread, garlic hummus and seasonally appropriate fruit. My plan was to clean up the house and stock the fridge with so much healthy food that when my sister Nora arrived the next morning to save me from myself, she would think I was just fine, and she would leave me alone.
There’s so much RECOUNTING there, so much telling, so much that I am keeping from the reader… and it gets worse… especially in these lines:
That had been just yesterday, and she was due back in a few hours to execute her plan. I had to convince her to change her mind, which is why I spent the whole night straightening up the house and how I ended up at the meat counter at Whole Foods, perplexed by the butcher’s question.
This kinds of mistake is par for the course for a first draft. I am, after all, still trying to figure out my story. It’s clear to me that all the missing action should be on the page, where the reader can see it unfold and feel what the character feels. I should yank the reader into the story precisely when the character gets yanked into it, which is when the sister first arrives.
In order to fix this, I have to rewrite the entire scene. I have to start from scratch. I may be able to keep chunks of it, but I have to start in a whole new place – I am thinking that this moment is when Nora arrives at Ruby’s house.
This revision is going to mean I lose my first line – “The idea for the dog came to me in the meat aisle at Whole Foods” – which I believe is pretty much the greatest first line of a novel that has ever been written, but for the time being, I am going to have to get over that and give up the line.
So, where EXACTLY should I start? I am thinking when Nora shows up at the house. Here are some lines where I try that:
Nora walked in, wearing dirty jeans, cowboy boots and a flannel shirt rolled up at the elbows. Her long grey hair was up in a high ponytail. When she took a step towards me, I noticed a chunk of what looked like horse shit fall off the heel of one boot onto my wooden floor, and I flinched – not because I cared about the state of my floors, but because it was clear that Nora had come straight from the stables. She had dropped everything to get here quickly, as if she thought the house was on fire, as if she thought I needed to be rescued. In that instant, I realized that Nora posed a much greater threat than I’d thought.
I suddenly wished I was wearing anything but what I was wearing -- sweatpants and one of Henry’s old college shirts. I had clean jeans hanging in the closet, pressed white shirts, chunky silver bracelets. I could have made a much better case for my sanity if I was wearing anything else.
But then I remembered the way Nora had always joked about how I was the only person she knew who got to work in her pajamas, and made a quick decision.
“Oh hey, hold on one second,” I said, holding up my index finger, and trotting over to my laptop on the kitchen table, which was, thankfully open. “You caught me in the middle of a scene.” I sat down, knit my brow, and began to bang away on the keyboard, pounding out the David Hockney quote that had been haunting me for days--Sometimes I just begin, Sometimes I just begin, Sometimes I just begin – as if I’d been in the midst of spinning the most intricate and dramatic scene I’d ever written, as if I was on top of my game, as if I didn’t need rescuing at all.
I like these lines – they allow the reader to be present – but there is zero context for what is happening, so the reader is left to figure out too much. I have to back up even further to the days before the sister arrives – to a moment when poor Ruby is losing it so that I can SHOW that. What I did was cast around for a way IN…. and what I did to do THAT was turn to some books on my bookshelf that share something in common with my stories. I read their opening lines, their opening pages. Here were the books:
· The Soloist by Mark Saltzman
· The Remains of the Day by Kasuo Ishiguro
· Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin
· Bel Canto by Anne Patchett
Inspired, I started to write – with my whole goal being to iron out that time issue. Here’s what I did:
I stood in front of the open refrigerator staring at the last little plastic container of applesauce and thinking about Shakespeare. Specifically, I was thinking about what he ate while he wrote, or if he ate while he wrote. Maybe he simply drank mead, the way Hemingway drank gin, and the deprivation was what fueled his genius. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea.
I shut the door, then slid onto the floor by the pantry in the exact place where I used to sit and read when I was a little girl because the heat from the vent would billow into my flannel nightgown.
“Romeo, Romeo,” I cried out loud to no one, and as if in answer, the phone rang.
I stayed rooted to my spot. It could only be one of three people, and I didn’t want to hear from any of them. I put my fingers in my ears to drown out the rings and so that I wouldn’t hear the message, which would blare from the ancient answering machine.
“Ruby?” It was a female voice, which ruled out none of them. It could be Sharon, my producer. Nora, my sister. Or Francis, Henry’s mother, who refused to leave Henry’s side at the hospital, refused to let me alone with him, and perhaps worst of all, refused to throw out the cloying red roses that one of the fangirl bloggers sent over.
“He would hate those,” I said.
“He always told me he loved that part of it – the fans on Twitter and Facebook.”
“Sure, when they keep their distance,” I said, “But that particular fan started a contest inviting fans to write the finale for us. That fangirl is way out of line.”
“I’m sorry, but the flowers are not your decision,” Francis said, and looked me in the eye for the first time since the accident. “None of it is.”
The voice on the phone continued: “Please pick up.” It was a solicitous tone. Sharon.
I pressed my fingers harder into my ears but I could still hear every word. “We need to know by end of business today if you’re going to deliver the script. We have a Plan B in place, but of course that’s not what I want. It’s not what any of us wants. Please call.
So there is was – the ultimatum. 8 hours to let her know. 72 hours until script had to be in the casts’ hands. I scrambled to think what Plan B could possibly be. For seven seasons, Henry and I wrote every script. The twisted classics came straight out of our synergy and our back-and-forth – he would pace, I would write, he would edit, I would polish. I had no idea how I could do it without Henry – or how I could breath without him – but Sharon had even less to go on than I did. Without me, she had nothing. The final episode of the final season would simply have to wait until Henry recovered. Juliet would have to wait, Romeo would have to wait, and our 8 million viewers would have to wait.
I stood, reeled, then vomited my chamomile tea into the sink.
The phone rang again and I moved to unplug it. “It’s me,” the machine said – Nora. “Listen, I have to come into town to pick up some dog food and I thought I’d stop by and bring you something to eat. You’ve got to eat.”
Her voice was measured and firm. Her mission was clearly not casual. I tried to remember the last time my sister had been in the house. A year ago? Maybe two? And why would she drive two hours to get dog food when she lived in the most dog-centric town in California? When she herself was a vet who probably got specialty food delivered in bulk?
I snatched up the phone. “Hey,” I said – cheerful, upbeat.
“Oh you’re awake,” she said, “Did you hear my message?”
“Yes, but Nora, really, I’m fine. I talked to Sharon just now and I’m working on a script. You don’t have to worry.”
“Then fine, come,” I said, “Bring me a casserole. Go ahead.”
Phew! Okay so clearly that scene is not finished, and there are lots of rough bits to fix, but the big issue of TIME is, I think, resolved. The action is ON THE PAGE, where it needs to be, and the reader is in Ruby’s head, where THEY need to be.
Is that true of YOUR story? It needs to be.....
What I’ll turn to next is tying this into the rest of the scene and smoothing it out.
Tune in next week to see how it all shakes out.