f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Three Sentences

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Three Sentences

(As we move toward our discussion of Ezekiel's Shadow, I thought I'd post an "article" that ran at my author website at at some point in 2002. That site is down now and I don't think too many of you have seen this so it's getting to see the light of day again.) (Also, this was when I was "promoting" the book rather than sacrificing for the sake of learning, so it's a little more upbeat than next week will be.)

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In going through some files recently on my computer, I had the embarrassing pleasure of discovering something I thought had vanished—my very first draft of Ezekiel’s Shadow. Written—sigh—five years ago, (ed. note - Now eight years ago) I was surprised at how the words were simultaneously familiar and unrecognizable. There is certainly a reason most never made it to the printed page, but it was a nice reminder (as I begin the journey through Untitled Novel 3) (ed note. Still untitled.) of the journey that it takes for a book to take shape. That said, since many of you are interested in, but uninitiated about, the actual craft of writing, I thought I’d use this opportunity to look at the opening lines from my three major drafts and show how ES went from five words typed on an ancient Mac in a Wayne, PA, library to the book available at fine stores everywhere today. (ed. note - Nope. Out-of-print.)

::

Ian Merchant talked to himself.

This was my first sentence ever, and if I’m proud of one thing, it’s that I got the man’s name right. A good name, in a way I can’t fully explain, can help give depth and what the painters call chiaroscuro to a character, and, though I don’t remember how, I had Ian’s from that ever famous get-go.

I also knew he was a horror writer and I knew, like most writers, that he spent an inordinate amount of time by himself. And so into that solitude and silence I threw Ian’s own voice. The quasi-autobiographical reason comes a few sentences later, explaining that sometimes Ian speaks the words he’s written: He needed to hear things, feel their rhythm. That, in an unadorned sentence, is how I write. To me (and thus to Ian) writing is all about the rhythm of the words on a page and how that cadence captures everything to be found in a novel from voice to suspense to humor. It’s all about the words and the order in which they are placed, one after the other.

The great downfall of this beginning, of course, is that I was trying to write a suspense novel, not a meta-fictional argument in the form of a novel. The set-up left Ian alone too often (a tough, and generally boring, thing to be in a novel) and left me struggling to populate his world. Still, I plugged away for (timeout for some quick math, here) 204 double-spaced pages holding 62,498 words. Half of a book. Of which, I guess, I kept 40%. So call it 80 pages. 80 pages and a title, The Memory of Bones. That’s when I started draft 2.

::

Sitting alone on the train after a discouraging meeting with his publisher, Ian Merchant looked down and realized that, on top of everything else, he’d forgotten to polish his shoes.

Forgoing the minimalism of Ian Merchant talked to himself in draft 2, I apparently tried to cram as much information into the first sentence as possible. I have the recurring setting of the train to/fro New York; I have the implication that Ian Merchant is a discouraged writer; and I have the soon-to-be-relevant fact that his shoes are dirty. The shoes, it turned out, were last worn at the Arizona funeral of Ian’s spiritual mentor, the man whose death pushed Ian into the creative and spiritual funk around which the novel turns. This was Draft 2 (newly titled, at one point, The Book of Ian Merchant) and after all (and I do mean ALL) was said and done, the thing weighed in at 508 double-spaced pages and 159,248 words. For those who are wondering, this is a long book. Really long. It’s really surprising to me, sometimes, to think that I got my editor to read through the entire thing. Less surprising was his eventual response that he liked it, but that I had some (his words) “slow spots.”

And so I had to cut for Draft 3. And rearrange. And reconstitute. And one thing that was lost was my tightly crammed opening sentence. I don’t miss it particularly, because the change was necessary. But I didn’t change it because I disliked the opening, but because I needed to open somewhere else.

::

Ian Merchant tried to write of death but found no words.

I needed to open with Ian’s personal struggle. This is his story, 100%, it made no sense to try and look at it obliquely or come at it from angles. It’s a simple story of a man stuck in this thing from which he can’t seem to escape—and so why not throw him into it right from the beginning? Thus, the above.

The book also gained a new (and final) title as Ezekiel’s Shadow and most of draft three was spent compressing, tightening, and getting rid of slow bits. Many will argue (including my beloved 90+ year-old great aunt) that some slow bits still remain. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Regardless, I deflated it to 454 pages and 133,834 words. And so it remains. Or thereabouts.

For me, (to be overly simplistic) the key to writing is threefold. I need to enjoy the story in which I’m buried. (This is the easiest part.) I need to be able to hear and duplicate the rhythm of the language to which I want my story to dance. (This is the hardest.) And I need to remember that no word I write is sacred. Even a first line. This is the one that gives me the best chance for the best story to emerge from these thoughts God’s been willing to grant me.