Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Guest Blogger Julie Maloney on Finishing the First Draft of a First Novel

I met Julie Maloney, a fellow New Jersey writer, about five years ago. Although I was already completely entrenched in the writing community of the low residency MFA program I was attending, I wanted to enlarge my local writing community. I attended a one-day workshop sponsored by Women Reading Aloud, the non-profit organization Julie founded and directs. I came away with a clutch of new writer acquaintances (now friends), as well as a sense of gratitude for Julie's gifts to the writing community.

Julie's book of poems,
Private Landscape, details her journey through breast cancer. In addition to workshops and a Writing Wellness Day, she also offers a three-day Writers Weekend Retreat on the New Jersey shoreline. Through Mango Press, Julie also designs and sells a line of stationery and writing journals.

Please welcome Julie Maloney.

"Six years ago, I discovered a character in response to a writing exercise. Four of us sat near a lake in the heat of a July afternoon and wrote to different prompts each had brought along with the watermelon. I remember it well because it was then and there that a character entered my life so defiantly she wouldn’t let go.

What choice did I have but to listen? So I decided to write a novel. The decision was easy. I'm not partial to one genre, although people tell me I'm a poet. I write memoir and have written a column for a magazine for years. I had not even dreamed of writing a novel.

I wrote the final words of the first draft on June 15, 2010. I walked around close to tears most of the following day. I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and worse, I couldn’t name it. If it was a twenty-four hour virus, the flu, or an intestinal screw-up, I could have anticipated some kind of closure but I knew it was none of the above. It was fear. Fear that when I revise, edit, and delete, I might not have the same insatiable writing experience.

Bottom line is that I was scared I had poured everything into the draft. Okay, I know that’s not really true because I have pages of notes in giant notebooks referencing scenes to revisit and stating why. My favorite word in the margins is “fix.” I have files of research, notes written on yellow post-its and stacks of papers on the floor all around my writing room. One lone pad sits on my night table by my bed with fragments and questions written in an almost
unrecognizable scrawl.

But now it was time to stop. I wasn't sure how.

I remember meeting my characters for the first time. Sometimes, I shouted a big yes over their entrance onto the page. Other times, I tried keeping the door shut but they came in anyway. One mysterious woman refused to give me her name but I kept her alive all the way to the end. I loved getting to know them. I want them all to come to my house for Thanksgiving dinner. Even the not-so-pretty ones.

And now? Now, friends and writing colleagues are telling me to put the manuscript away for two or three weeks. You mean walk out on them? I want to scream.

A friend came to my rescue this week and passed along a quote by Truman Capote about how revising is the time to discover the “inner music.” After reading this, I calmed a bit and my stomach problems disappeared. I’m still pretty darn scared that I’ve let my characters down, maybe gave them troubles they didn’t need or asked them to reveal things they’d rather not. But I did allow myself a glass of sparkling Prosecco on June 15th and thanked them for sticking with me all this time. Never abandoning me when I left them to write poetry and they were stuck mid-sentence for weeks (sometimes months) at a time. Always, they welcomed me back to the page like friends waiting for me to pick them up at the train station.

So now, I’m going to listen as hard as I can to get that musical thread of the novel just right. And when I get scared, I’ll do what I always do. Put one foot in front of the other. Only this time, I’m hoping to find that inner music of the novel to help me waltz through my separation anxiety."

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