Saturday, August 6, 2011
reaching the finish line (sort of)
I just finished the first draft of my new Civil War novel about Robert Smalls (pictured above). I started this project as a screenplay eight or nine years ago, but ended up putting it aside for a long time. I did a ton of research, but couldn't find a producer who'd take a chance on a Civil War costume war drama at that time.
But I never stopped thinking about Robert Smalls or the project and decided that someday I wanted to write his story as a novel. Early in 2010, I started renewing my research, and Tracy and I even took a quick trip to Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina, where most of the novel takes place.
People often ask me how long it takes to write a book. The answer is that it depends on what you mean. It took me fourteen months to write this current draft, which currently runs about 126,000 words or about 400 pages. I think it'll take another year to revise it sufficiently so I can show it to people in the publishing industry. This draft took a while to write, because I was doing research every step of the way, even though I'd done a lot of my initial reading back in 2003, and had been able to lay out a pretty decent outline for the story at that time. (I was able to use quite a bit of my old outline, thought it shifted a lot.)
For me, novels are such big projects that there are many different finish lines. The one I crossed today is an important one. Now I have a structure and story in place. The bones of the book are all there. I've done most of the important research, though there's still lots more to fill in (but now I'll have a better sense of what I'm missing). But my first drafts are rough--practically unreadable, I'm sure, to anyone but me. Now it's all about clarifying the characters and working on the language. I write a book like a painter might make a painting, first with thin pencil lines, and then gradually adding more and more layers of color, until the whole image finally comes together. I've still got a long way to go.
But it sure feels good to have reached this milestone. Now I'll have to give myself a little space before I even look at the manuscript again. I won't even look at it for about a month, until the kids are back at school, and I've had a chance to get a little distance. I'm sure I'll be surprised (and sometimes horrified) by what I read. I tend not to reread the manuscript as it progresses, so there are parts of this book that I haven't looked at for more than a year. In September, it'll be my job to load the whole thing back into my mind and start figuring out how to make it good.
But for now, I plan to enjoy the warm glow that comes from having finished a solid first draft.