Writers on Writing #65: Christopher Lowe
Burn it Down
My regular crew of early-draft readers are a patient bunch, but I’m worried that I might be testing their limits. I have been at work on The Novel for close to four years, have produced pages and pages of writing that they have–willingly, generously, lovingly–read and commented on. Here’s the problem, through all of those pages and all of those drafts, they’ve really only read the first seventy or eighty pages of the book.
My process, oversimplified but generally accurate:
Step 1: Begin the book.
Step 2: Write a chunk.
Step 3: Delete the chunk.
Step 4: Begin the book again.
I repeat this pattern five or six or seven times, and then – hopefully, ideally – I hit a point where I don’t look back, where I just write through the thing, get to the end, and begin work on a global revision which is, for whatever reason, much easier for me than these painful beginning draft deletions. This process, I fear, leaves my readers wondering why I don’t just write the book and then send it to them. They spend a lot of time giving me comments on things that they pretty well know will end up on the cutting room floor. It’s a frustrating process for me, so I’m sure it is for them as well. Being the kind folks that they are, they don’t quibble with me about it because they know it’s how I work. Still, the guilt, well, it gnaws at me.
I’ve always written this way. I’m not a small-scale deleter. I don’t tend to take the axe to isolated, component parts of a story or novel. Instead, I burn the thing down, sift through the ashes for whatever is left, repurpose that in a new construct that might also get burned down, sifted through, repurposed.
When I left graduate school, I had a novel manuscript in hand, and I started off my first real-world year planning to do a quick polish and then send it off to agents and publishers. Instead, I spent a year staring at the thing, trying to figure out why I hated it so much. Finally, I opened a new document, and started the thing again. What I discovered was that the book wasn’t a novel at all. It was just a story. One story. And then, I looked back at the wreckage, and I saw another story. Not a chapter at all. I did this for two years, building something new using the detritus of the old, and I ended up finding a home for that collection of stories. Since then, large-scale, early draft deletion has been the rule rather than the exception for my writing.
I’m not advocating this method. I’m also not telling you to avoid it. Sometimes you need those ashes. Sometimes, when you burn the thing down, sift through, and find something beautiful that was spared the flame, you realize that the smoke and soot have given it a nice coloring. You realize that beforehand, it was a little too shiny. What it really needed was a little fire to cleanse it of all that newness.
Christopher Lowe is the author of Those Like Us: Stories (SFASU Press 2011). His fiction has appeared widely in journals including Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, Grist, and War, Literature, and the Arts. Originally from Mississippi, he now lives with his wife and daughter in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he teaches English and creative writing at McNeese State University. You can learn more about his work at http://christopherlowefiction.com/