Corner Post: “Getting Through the Dark Hours”

The thing about novel writing is that the old cliché about rolling with the punches is absolutely true.  Flash fiction and short stories can be quick things, written in one sitting.  Not that time isn’t needed afterward to revise and revise—it is.  Just as time is needed between revisions to build perspective, to be able to come back to a story with fresh eyes.  But novel writing requires an everyday attention that can last two, three, four years.  When you go into it, you have to go into it with commitment.

There will be an initial burst that carries the writing to about page 50, but pages 50-100 are the most difficult.  During this stage, the initial organization of the plot changes to fit the main character’s journey, and it’s a struggle to find grounding on the new path.  During this writing, the real voice of the narrative takes shape, becomes clear and fuller.  But at some point in the struggle, you will find yourself in the novel’s flow without realizing it has happened.  Once there, it’s as if you are being pulled toward the novel’s end.  A slow pull that might take years, but one you’ll trust because you have your routine to rely on.

Writing a novel is the most consuming thing for me, and at a certain point I have to shut my world down.  This is when my communication with friends and family wanes.  This is when I don’t get to the store as often.

Over the summer I was in the last stretch of a novel.  Classes ended in spring and began in late August, but the time between the stopping and starting of classes felt as if it never existed.  I took two vacations but they weren’t vacations.  All I did was write on the novel or think of writing on the novel, playing back scenes I had just completed, trying to figure out what my characters were about to do.

There are days when I couldn’t get to the novel like I wanted, when I had other obligations, but the good thing was, I was in rhythm.  Once you’ve been writing consistently for a long time, even when you have to forfeit your writing to other commitments, you are able to get up the next day and keep going.  In fact, it’s like you haven’t missed a day at all.

Part of it is time.  Writing a novel skews time.  You literally lose your sense of an hour, of how the sun and moon work together.  Looking back, I realize I gave up time in this world to live in the time of the novel.  And when I wasn’t writing, it was like a persistent backache, a nagging soreness from somewhere I couldn’t get rid of until I was at the computer or looking over printed pages of a draft, anchored in the work again.

When I finished the novel in June I was euphoric.  I texted friends, my children, my parents.  It’s done, I said.  Just a few revisions, I said.  Next day I was back at it, ready to get those few revisions taken care of.  Turns out those revisions took the rest of the summer and all of September and the first week of October.

What I remember most about this last stretch was how I always thought I was a week away from being truly done, and how another part of me knew otherwise.  That second part, the smart part, said the novel would get done eventually, just not on the timeline I wanted.  Which is the other important thing to know—novels have their own timeline.  And that struggle between yours and theirs is one you are bound to lose.  Which is okay.  Novel writing is about acceptance of your limits.  Only so much writing can take place in a day before the brain is fried.  So sleep, eat, exercise, don’t drink too much.  Get the mind in the right space so you can wake up and work the next day.  Then the next.

There were times, though, when I thought I’d never finish.  The dark hours, which came late in the summer after two readers came back to me with suggestions for revision.   Turns out, I needed to rewrite the first thirty pages.

I remember waking up and fumbling through those early chapters, tearing down sentences, trying to tear that early rhythm apart and make new sentences with new connections that joined with the rhythm of the rest of the novel.  It was like joining a dry creek to a river, so hard going from writing five good pages a day to five pages in a week and a half that still didn’t work.

During this time, my mind conjured the most awful scenarios.  The whole project is crap—that’s what one part of my mind kept telling the other.  But I just never believed my own apocalyptical predictions.  I never stopped until I got those pages right.  I kept getting up and writing cause I was in rhythm.  That was in the end the key, that rhythm, every day.

And one other thing.  There are lots of good reasons for getting lost in the world of the novel, but maybe the biggest reason of all is that when you’re in that world, you’re not thinking about the act of writing, about failure, about the bullshit, about the many distractions around you.  You are in a place where you don’t exist.  And you have to be in that place if you’re going to write about it.

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James Braziel

About James Braziel

James Braziel is the author of the novels Birmingham, 35 Miles and Snakeskin Road. His work has appeared in journals and newspapers including the New York Times. Currently, he teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.