My first writing teacher was the brilliant writer, Ethan Canin. At the time, in 1996, his best work was still ahead of him, to my mind anyway. He’d written two short story collections and one novel, and had only recently decided to leave medicine to pursue writing and teaching full time. Most of us were starving graduate students without medical insurance and at the beginning of each class we could ask him medical questions about our aches and pains and sniffles.
It was my very first writing class in an MFA program, and would turn out to be the best, by a long shot. At the time I had not written a short story longer than 1,000 words and I struggled to get beyond writing about small moments. I loved to paint a picture, but often, nothing happened in the picture. It was just a pretty picture. Ethan pushed me to write bigger and he was always asking about the story. When I turned in my first story there were several positive comments about my use of language and vivid characters. When everyone was done commenting, Ethan shrugged and said, “But nothing happened.”
He was right. Let me summarize my first short “stories” for you:
- Man with very interesting but annoying wife has a heart attack in a restaurant.
- Interesting man meets interesting woman, his lawyer, for lunch to talk about selling his company. He has a crush on her.
- Interesting accountant who has an interesting relationship with his most interesting client decides to partner with an interesting woman he just met to expand her pizza parlor. He has a crush on her.
- Not very interesting man with memories of his very interesting grandmother drives to her funeral and then the reception. It rains. (A story, incidentally, that I felt I had to update after hurricane Katrina.)
You get his point. Interesting characters in interesting places say interesting things … and nothing happens. In a one-on-one meeting, Ethan told me I needed to write something that took place over years so I would be forced to make more things happen. He said I was a good writer, but I wasn’t telling stories. And always: “Write bigger.”
I can’t always recall as much as I’d like about what I learned from Ethan Canin, but on the rare occasion that I get to talk about writing, I hear myself saying things that Ethan said, and always I hear the words, “Write bigger.” When I was finishing my master’s thesis, which was a short story collection and was supposed to be at least 100 pages, I came up five pages short. So I wrote five pages of toss-off dialogue mimicking the voices I heard during two years of workshopping stories. It was a passive-aggressive candle on the cake of my MFA experience. All of the lines reflect things I had actually heard (or said) in workshops, but a few of them were, if not verbatim, accurate reminiscences of things Ethan would say. They’re not hard to pick out. I called the piece “Shopworn” and my thesis advisor grumbled that it wasn’t actually a story.
Over my two years in graduate school, I did manage to write bigger in terms of length, approaching the 4,000 word mark on a short story in my second year. But even that story took place over the course of hours not days. The idea of writing an entire novel just seemed impossible. I was a short story writer. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I wrote a story published by sprudge.com that took place over a span of years.
After graduate school I went to work in coffee and was utterly absorbed by my job and the industry in which I worked. My job required me to write constantly, so I honed my non-fiction skills, but my personal creative writing came to a standstill. Other than poetry, I wrote almost nothing outside of work for 10 years.
Then, in 2008, I had some extra time on my hands and unexpectedly found myself tapping out a story. It kept getting longer. In November of 2009 it was over 4000 words and longer than anything I had ever written. I sent it to a writer friend, who liked it, and said I should forget about it being a short story and go for the length and make it a novel. Even then, I couldn’t imagine sustaining a story for an entire book.
I started a new job and was crazy busy, but occasionally I would poke at the story. It was very slow going and I was putting in very little time. It took me three years to reach just 20,000 words (70 pages), but then just two years to reach 40,000 words (150 pages), then just one year to reach 85,000 words and the end of my first draft. At the beginning it took me 20 months to write 17,000 words. At the end, I wrote 17,000 words in just one month, from September 14 to October 14, 2014. More than half the novel was written in a year when I averaged 5,000 words a month while working a busy full time job.
Today I can easily put away 800 words a day or more for fiction, a lot more for non-fiction. That doesn’t mean they’re good words, of course.
I’ve learned to write bigger, but only in length and scope of subject. I’m afraid my now 87,000 word, 300 page novel, takes place over just a few days.
About the time I reached the halfway point over the summer of 2014 I had to take a step back and look at what I was writing in terms of structure. I taped index cards to the wall in my office with chapters and scenes and color coded characters and subplots and flagged loose ends that needed to be tied up. I also had to plot out point of view since I was doing something a little unusual (and something that might get the manuscript rejected if an agent ever reads it). The first quarter of the book is first person. Then there is a chapter in third person limited, but that person is not in scene with the first person main character. The rest of the book goes back and forth between a chapter in first person main character and then a chapter featuring a key character in third person limited who is not in scene with the main character … until the end when a character in third person is in a scene with the main character for the climax of the book.
Of course I like the results a lot. I believe the fact that there is a structure and intention makes it work. We get to go “off stage” from the first person main character and expand the scope of the story without giving into a sloppy omniscient point of view. Point of view in the off stage chapters remains constant. In the two instances where point of view shifts within an off stage chapter there is a break in the text and the point of view never ping pongs between characters in any scene. This method allows for some very precise control of pacing and avoids forcing the main character into a lot of information dumping scenes because we learn things we need to know about the world the characters occupy in the off stage scenes.
It’s a cheat, I know, but like the great magician Dai Vernon said, palming a card can be perfected to the point that not only is it not detected, it’s not even suspected. Writers and editors will see what I did, and readers might notice, but since no reader has yet complained or even mentioned it, I like to think I pulled it off.
So it took me five years, writing less than part time, to finish a first draft. From the first draft to feeling it was ready for anyone to read rough took another four months. I sent it to a small group of beta readers. By the time I received their feedback and made changes (including writing an entire new chapter), it was August of 2015. I continued re-writes and receiving feedback from an ever widening circle of readers, including those who did not plan on providing feedback and just wanted to read the book.
Now it has been just over eight years since I broke the 4000 word mark in 2009, and over three years since I typed “The End” on the last page of the first draft. Although the book can stand alone, I am 10,000 words into a follow-up. This is not a smart idea in terms of selling the book because a series is hard to sell, but I started writing it because I just enjoyed it so much. A writer friend told me not to start a second book as a follow-up unless I was doing it just for fun. Well, yeah.
Nevertheless, I also have a start on a novel that has nothing to do with Deep Water Running, and I have no doubt I will finish them both.