The Long Dark Writing-Time of Deb Molly’s Soul

I wrote the first draft of The Princesses of Iowa in a very methodical way: I made a chapter-by-chapter outline, listing one or two plot points per chapter, and then gave myself something like two weeks to write each chapter. Easy, right?

Well, sort of.

The problem was that I knew what was coming, and what was coming was big: there was a chapter, about two-thirds of the way through the book, that was going to be really, really awful for my protagonist. And I had no idea how to write it.

I was completely terrified. Not only was it a terrible, wrenching scene, and not only would it put my protagonist through hell, but also I was pretty sure I wasn’t a good enough writer to write the scene. It needed to be powerful and terrible without being melodramatic or even cheesy. I didn’t want it to sound like an After School Special. And with every chapter I finished, I grew more terrified, because I was that much closer to The Chapter. Like Grover, I wanted to nail the pages together so I’d never get there.

And then I got there.

So naturally, I got all kinds of crazy about writing. I did everything I could to avoid writing the chapter (I can’t possibly write until I’ve hand-washed every square inch of the kitchen floor!) until finally I got tired of myself and my procrastinating brain. Labor Day was coming up, and I made a deal with myself: I could do whatever I wanted until then, but over the three-day Labor Day weekend I would lock myself in my house and I wouldn’t come out until the chapter was written.

At the time, I lived in this weird little house in the mountains outside Albuquerque, with just my dog for company. I stocked up on the essentials: beer, this particular green chile dip that you can’t get outside New Mexico, apples, ice cream. I turned off my cell phone, lit some candles, cranked up the music, stretched out on my gorgeous little loveseat, annnnnnd… I wrote.

It was hard going, for sure, and it took me all night (literally — I think I finished at 5 or 6 in the morning), but I did it. In less than my allotted three days, even! I have this very clear memory of meeting up with some friends to go to the zoo that Monday, and I felt so accomplished and proud of myself that I may as well have successfully run a marathon.

The most amazing thing about that chapter is that it exists, nearly unchanged, in the final version of the book. I re-wrote every other chapter a million times, but the only changes I ever made to that chapter were for continuity purposes — as I changed the book around it, I had to tweak some details of the chapter to match. And even now, when I read it, I think of that long night alone in my little mountain house, with my candlelight and my folk music and my determination.

And even now, I’m proud of myself.

12 Replies to “The Long Dark Writing-Time of Deb Molly’s Soul”

  1. Yay, you!

    Sometimes you just have to bash yourself against that wall, and keep writing until you break it down. That takes courage, and you have it. 🙂

  2. I think the most amazing part of this story (besides frankly why, well-stocked with beer, chile dip and doggie, you EVER left your house!) is that the scene didn’t go through any significant revisions. THAT is remarkable.

    And I love that you made the After-School Special comparison–I do that too! (Although the joke with me is that my endings can get too “Scooby-Doo” in early drafts) It can be so hard to get to the core of a scene, to draw out that emotional center, without going full-on cheez. And that you nailed it out of the gate is truly fantastic.

    1. Right? I think that’s just a fluke, really. But even more amazing is the fact that I still like it!

      (And yes, let’s be honest: locking myself in my house wasn’t exactly a grueling punishment!)

      1. I read an interview with Andre Dubus that he had to write a scene where one of his characters dies. He loved the character and really didn’t want her to go. He tried writing the scene with every other possible outcome and it just didn’t work. He even put the WIP in the drawer for a long time just to avoid that scene. He said he had to gather the courage to do the deed and kill off this character. Amazing how so many of us go through this, right?!

        BTW – I just love the cover! It draws me right in.

    1. Thanks, Joanne! I hope that by the time you get to the scene, you’ll be so wrapped up in the story you’ll have forgotten to be looking for it. 🙂

  3. I never get more work done on my be-an-adult-dammit chores than when I have a project I don’t want to write! Very cool that the scene stayed unchanged. Say, does this mean that you’ll be on that shelf of almuni author works down in the little room in the basement of Burling Library?

    1. Oh, maybe! I only ever went to the basement to read the graffiti on the bathroom walls (& add my own, of course), so I’m not sure I remember that shelf. I *do* remember a similar shelf in the bookstore though! In both cases: YES! Put my book on the fancy shelf!

  4. I LOVE this story – and the ‘supplies’ you stocked up with to tackle that tough scene. That’s the hardest part of any emotional scene, isn’t it — making sure you don’t sound melodramatic or cheesy or After-School-Speciali-ish. Thanks for sharing. You SHOULD be proud!

    1. Thanks, Melissa! Yeah, I always used to joke about how I’d answer when teenagers asked me about writing a novel. “Well, first you need beer….”

  5. This is really interesting, but it doesn’t totally surprise me that your hardest scene stayed in tact. It sounds like you gave that scene more energy and attention than any other aspect of the story. It was so deliberate so of course you nailed it! I am SO excited to get my copy!

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