Sometimes you don’t feel like writing. Or maybe it seems like you have writer’s block. Or – even though you’re writing, you’re doing the process – it’s not going well. Maybe a scene isn’t coming together. Or your dialogue isn’t realistic. Or you’re outlining and the plot seems too improbable.
Maybe you’ve published in the past and maybe you haven’t. Maybe you’re your own worst critic. Maybe you never get validated for making art.
Regardless, you’re struggling. You might even say that you’re failing.
For those of you in the midst of that struggle, here’s a great essay by the award-winning novelist Don Lee:
Once you’ve published a few novels, you start to feel like you know how to do things, like you have a style, like you can repeat the process. But it’s the same struggle every time:
My first draft is always terrible.
By draft two, I realize that I might be in the wrong genre.
By draft three, I realize that I need to cut at least 100 pages that don’t work anymore. Those 100 pages don’t have a single, salvageable paragraph.
Then by draft four, and I finally feel like I’m getting somewhere. I usually send that draft to my agent, and she tells me everything that’s wrong with it. She often says, “I’m not really sure what you’re trying to do with this novel…”
With my current work in progress, I guess I’m struggling most with my rhythm, with pace. After Too Shattered For Mending, I got a lot of praise for my short chapters, for how those short chapters pushed the reader forward. I thought I’d found something style-wise. But now – with my current novel – my short chapters aren’t working. I’m going back through the draft and running chapters together, moving chapters around, combining short chapters that lack significant action/content.
I can’t figure out what I was trying to do with my last draft. I keep saying, “Does this book even matter?”
As a novelist, I have entire books of slashed material (as well as entire failed books).
This morning, I cut a series of postcards from my current novel-in-progress. These notes are from my narrator’s best friend from childhood, Tomás, after the two of them had a falling out.
A little background on the writing process: I asked my friend Ben Temple (who was a captain in the army during peacetime) to give me specific details and stories to make Tomás’ postcards more realistic. But they didn’t fit the narrative arc anymore, so here they are.
14 POSTCARDS FROM TOMÁS BEFORE HE WAS DEPLOYED
You dont even know how to say sorry after a thing like that. Just get up and walk away and say to yourself dont ever fuckin make that mistake again. Ever. So Im feeling like that but also Im here just thinking about being in a war and hoping to become a hero, a brave soldier that at least everyone could respect for that thing, am I right, Cabron? I imagined a sniper rifle in my hand, obstacle to obstacle or house to house. NVGs on my head at night, destroying the enemy, but apparently were gonna stay here in the USA and train…plus clean shit all the time.
Everythings still the same here Klay. We got something called “sequestration” sometimes…I guess? My CO yelled in my face, “Do you like sequestration?!!” and I had no fuckin idea what that was, but the way he said it, his tone, I just yelled back, “Sir, no, sir!!!” and he smiled. So I guess he likes me?
Heard ISIS was training in Pakistan now. Knew we had a battalion just over the border in the Aff desert. We all watched CNN in the briefing room like we were about to go to war. But then we didnt go. We waited another week on base like it was peacetime and there wasnt even an enemy we needed to destroy. Thats the army sometimes: too much time to think. I still feel bad about everything with you. It was once, I promise. Only once. And that shit is NEVER happening again. Write me back when you can.
Peacetime means PMCS pretty much everyday: Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services. Boring fuckin daily. Example: Checking the fire extinguisher in each vehicle. But we got bored after a while and just checked the boxes without actually checking the items. Got me and this kid Teague in trouble. Were warming up our LMTV when the fire extinguisher (which we had NOT inspected in a while) went off. Covered us both in white foam. Captain laughed his ass off, then assigned us latrines for a week. Only latrines. I dont know how many we cleaned, but it was morning til night!
Every day. But at least that reminds me of high school workouts. Its a infantry unit, so difficult compared to other parts of the branch I guess, but nothing like high school wrestling, and I wrestled varsity for three years. Braceros Fuertes! State finals senior year. Wish I could go back and win that match. Wish I could go back in time and do a few things different. Thanks for the letter the other day. It meant a lot to me.
Ugly fuckin’ Guerra in the desert over there. You seen any footage? We watch a shit ton here on base. The marines keep getting deployed, but not us, at least not yet. Were just sitting here on our asses in Washington State, fuckin ready to go, twiddling our thumbs. Its like were in full-on peace-time, and the mantra of the peace-time U.S. Army infantry soldier is this:
“Somebody – anybody – start a war now.”
Cleaning (always something to clean: the motor-pool, barracks, grounds, equipment…). Cleaning and cleaning and cleaning. I wanted to make one of those boxing champion of the world warm-up robes, all red silk, have it say “LIMPIADOR” in big yellow letters on the back just put that shit on in the morning and wear it to work, cuz – apparently – Im a fuckin janitor.
This is how it is: An infantry unit in peacetime or not yet on deployment “goes to the field” for about 10 days every 3 months. Really just El Campo. The woods there. Most common thing heard after field training in the Northwest: “We were in the field last month for 10 days. Wettest fuckin FTX Ive ever been on too. Were still rotating the tents through the motorpool… setting them up and drying them out until the end of the world.” Dios guarde mi.
I know you said its okay now and you and Olivia are talking again and hanging out, and Im happy about that but Im still so fuckin sorry about everything. You and me have been friends since when we were little and thats all that really matters to me now. That shit is the real stuff. Also Im bored as fuck here and I appreciated your letter. I liked your description of the country out northeast. I could picture it all. Made me miss Sisters, not the town really, just the high desert.
Cuate, theres this shit called STAFF DUTY: a soldier, a sergeant, and an officer, at the Battalion Head Quarters every night. The solider is awake by the phone all night long. The officer and NCO find some quiet corner of HQ to hangout in and then sleep. If an emergency occurs, those 3 use the alert roster to wakeup the Battalion and get everyone moving. Classic convo: “Want to go out with us tonight? Pitchers?” “I cant. I have Staff Duty.” People just watch regular movies during staff duty…if theyre smart.
Shit got a little more interesting this week: We had a platoonlevel live-fire training this week: M4’s, M249’s, & M203 simulators plus a vehicle mounted 50-cal all firing together. Went like this: the OIC rotates (let’s say there are 12 platoons in the Battalion) through his range over a 5 day period. Got to snipe 6 people, two on one day, plus we did an ambush that worked. Then I slept in my own bed like I hadnt just been out. Youd have liked this week.
This is MESSEDUP: I was locked down for 4 days before thanksgiving. We all were. People missing flights. Chingalo. And it was after a weeklong FTX…were in Battalion buildings… no clean clothes, no personal items except the ones we had with us on FTX. Felt like those days when were cutting weight for a tournament except all of us eating in the chow hall. All for one pair of stolen NVGs! 800 fuckin soldiers locked down for that! I wanted to track down the brigade commander and tell him to Chupame los huevos but he finally blinked on the night before thanksgiving. Said he would let us go but we all had to be back in 48 hours, and just as we were leaving post, the NVGs showed up MYSTERIOUSLY on the hood of a Humvee. Fuck whoever did that.
December: Private Wilson got busted for watching porn on the DOD computer during his staff duty assignment.
Then Private Jeurgenson.
Then Private Wonokoswki.
Then Private Childer.
Common article 15s from the UCMJ. Every single one of them.
Radioman Thompson said, “Why don’t they just watch Top Gun or some shit?”
And I said, “Somebody, anybody, start a war now.”
Looks like were finally gonna get deployed. Felt like I was dying…or becoming a professional cleaning lady.
Also, Im glad you and Olivia are back together. That seems good.
I guess Ill catch you on the other side. Im off to the Aff desert!!!