It feels like cheating to use a quote as the title for a blog post – especially the first blog post for my first blog. But the line, which some – probably most – of you will recognise from The Four Quartets*, and specifically as the first line of “East Coker,” has been running around loose in my head and I’m hoping that if I pin it down here it might go away.
I finished the first draft of my first novel, The Inventors of Evil – a historical mystery set in Southwark, 1603 — sometime back in September 2014. Being a good reader and follower of all the “how to write a novel” books and blogs, I duly set it aside and tried to do Other Things for two to four weeks … but trying to leave it alone was about as successful as trying to not peel the dead skin off a sunburn. I did manage to my grubby mitts off the keyboard for awhile, but the thing wouldn’t stay out of my head and it was with much relief that after three weeks I gave up and started the project of hacking away at The Second Draft.
Darlings were slaughtered with all the consideration of a fox in a chicken-coop. The first draft topped out at a door-stopping 180,000 words. I got it down to 120,000 and gave it to The Ideal Reader (Stephen King’s phrase, and in my case, my endlessly patient husband) who found much in it confusing. 10,000 new words were put back in the form of explanations, and The Third Draft was given back to the Ideal Reader. Who was less confused (I think).
Fast forward to February 2015. Now it is a problem of not wanting to let the thing go. It is back down to 125,000 words, where it seems to have settled (hefty, but hopefully not flabby).
But the drafts are breeding like rabbits. I thought the sixth draft was going to be It, the first three chapters of which would be sent off to agents. And so they were, together with the dreaded Synopsis. Prepared to wait for weeks and months, I sat on my hands so as not to dash off a Seventh Draft.
I was astounded to get my first rejection notice within 48 hours.
The ruthless efficiency with which this was delivered made me go back and re-examine my first three chapters, and lo and behold! Yes! I could see it all!
“In my beginning is my end.”
Oh my god, oh my god … nooooooooooooooo!!!
The beginning of my novel sucks.
The rest of the novel, yes, I think it’s probably more or less all right. But in the harsh fluorescent light of that first rejection, I could see with omniscient clarity: my first three chapters Suck. Big time.
And so the past two weeks have been spent slashing and burning the living s!*t out of those unfortunate first three chapters. I rip out the last vestiges of back-story, without anaesthetic. My cherished opening line – gone. My sole surviving darlings: nothing remains of them but blood on the pavement.
Another rejection arrives – this one, paradoxically, is much less unsettling. The poor man had been another recipient of the First Original Three Chapters Which Sucked Big Time, and so upon reading his kind, only-one-line-but-still-personal email, I am thankful for his time in reading what I sent to him, and grateful to him for sending me an email on a Sunday night. I picture the poor man, slogging through his slush pile at home before having to go back to do Real Agent-ing Work on behalf of Real Authors on Monday morning. I picture the poor man’s wife telling him to leave it and come to bed. I am pathetically grateful for his even looking at my Original Old-And-Unimproved-Submission Which Sucked Big Time. I resist the temptation to send him a gushing note expressing my heartfelt appreciation for his lovely and merciful rejection.
But now, the new-and-much-improved First Three Chapters – and especially, a new and much improved opening three pages – are off to the next agents on my shortlist. And here is Mr Eliot again, knocking upon my consciousness: “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing…”
“East Coker” again. It goes on, of course, line after line of exquisitely bittersweet verse, nothing less than redemption in black and white. The state of waiting for an agent’s reply is no dark night of the soul, and I am vaguely embarrassed to even suggest the comparison. Nonetheless, now, again, I am waiting, and trying (not too successfully) not to hope for agents to knock each other over in the rush to sign me (“for that would be hope for the wrong thing”). Instead, I am trying (but even less successfully) to “wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.” I hug to my insecure fledgling-writer’s bosom the poem’s next line, “So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
And slap my hands each time they are tempted to look at my new-and-improved first three chapters, for fear that I will see with god-like clarity, that They Too Suck. And Suck Big Time.
Here’s hoping. (In the end is my beginning.)
*Eliot, T.S. The Four Quartets. London: Faber & Faber, 2000.