“The End” is my beginning

A couple of weeks ago, a few days before family arrived from out of town, I typed “The End” to a book manuscript I’ve been working on for 16 months. That’s a little long for me. Usually I finish a manuscript in just under a year. But I also started a business in 2012 so admittedly I was busier than normal.

A few days later I printed out the rough draft and stacked it on my working table (mostly because my desk was, and still is, covered with things that need to be scanned/filed/shredded, which is why I have a “working table” in the first place but that’s another post) and that is where the draft remains, not because I dread the first edit, but because I don’t.

I enjoy the first edit more than writing the original draft. Why? Because once the first draft is done, I have something tangible to work with. It’s no longer an idea, a dream, a possibility. It’s there. It exists. I don’t see a rough draft as a completed project. I see it as a foundation, a structure, a base for what I’m about to build.

Contrary to the stereotypical writer, I don’t become terribly attached to anything in my first draft. I don’t have to wrestle with the necessity to “kill my darlings.” The words that make up my first draft are just words. They can be rearranged, exchanged, hauled off to another section, or discarded altogether. That’s all fine with me as long as when I am finished I have created what I imagined before I typed “chapter one.”

Words are only one of the ingredients of that creation, just as sand is only one of the ingredients of a beach. By itself, it’s just sand. But sculpted by water and wind, creatures on top of and beneath it, and the hands and tools of people, the sand becomes anything from castles, to turtle nests, to dunes. As a writer I am the sea and the air, the life above and below the surface, combining and recombining words to create the landscape of my story.

It’s during the first edit that I do begin to resemble some of that writer stereotype. I become a bit obsessed. I become so focused on the book, the book, the book, that I put off everything else, things like chores and social opportunities, or any other use of my free time, sometimes even those daily walks on the beach. Clearly my priorities get out of whack.

Knowing my tendency to develop tunnel vision during the first revision, I’ve left my manuscript undisturbed so that I could cross some important items (like hosting a family visit, completing first quarter business administrative duties, and uploading a few website changes) off my task list. With that done, I can safely devote my attention to that stack of paper on my working table. But first, just in case I get lost in my work, I think I’ll take a walk.

Dolphin Plaza entrance to Hanna Beach, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, FL

Dolphin Plaza entrance to Hanna Beach, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, FL

Second pass changes

My beach walks consist of parking the car, crossing over the dunes and heading straight for the water, and then walking along the shore for a couple of miles, turning around, and walking back. I almost wrote “retracing my steps” instead of “walking back,” but that would have been inaccurate. My steps seem to disappear almost as quickly as I make them in the ever shifting sand.

Although I have been taking these walks nearly daily for more than half a year, I continue to be surprised by how much changes in the time it takes me to cover the same ground twice. Whether the tide is coming in or rolling out, whether the wind is blowing sand or not, whether the beach is crowded or nearly empty, change is constant along my route.

In those early walking days I often made the mistake of procrastinating. If I saw something interesting to take a photo of, or investigate, or maybe a shell to pick up, I would hesitate and tell myself I’d do that on the way back. But I quickly learned that putting it off usually meant losing the opportunity. Maybe whatever it was washed out to sea before I returned. Maybe someone else picked up that shell. Maybe a gull carried something shiny away. Whatever the case, waiting until my second pass meant missing the moment.

During a walk last week I started thinking how much this is and isn’t like the process of converting a first draft of a piece of writing into a second draft.

Sometimes a second draft is such a considerable change from the first rough attempt that it is nearly unrecognizable. Shiny things and beautiful landscape from the rough draft are discarded or at the very least altered enough so as to appear new. Sometimes a second draft nearly obliterates the first one, taking the raw material and rearranging it as severely as a gust of wind or strong wave rearrange sand and sweep baubles away.

The difference lies in who or what controls the change.

With the coast, nature is absolutely in charge. Wind, waves, and rain sculpt the sand and deposit goodies on the shore. Yes, humans are part of that nature, but I am not directly in charge of the creation at large. I’m just an observer.

When taking a second pass at a writing project, however, I am the creator. I decide what stays and what goes. I mold the raw materials into the shapes that I imagine. Even so, I sometimes find myself surprised by the differences of the second pass.

Of course there are exceptions. On this morning’s walk I noticed a shell with friends attached to it at the water’s edge. I was only about half a mile into my walk, just hitting my stride, and decided not to stop to take a picture. I told myself I’d snap a pic on the way back if the shell was still there. As I passed it a wave covered the shell and my feet and I figured the shell would be long gone when the water receded.

Thirty minutes later it was right where I left it, waves still lapping at it occasionally. The lighting was less than ideal and I didn’t take a great pic but here it is…

Similarly, when I opened the file for the rough draft of this post, I found it already said most of what I was thinking. I just needed to add an ending.

Today was one of those days when the second pass didn’t change that much after all.