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.
M. Molly Backes
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