I have spent some time tonight working out the prologue, trying to envision which scene should begin the book. How much should I show? How far backward should I go?
It is much more difficult than I thought it would be, and now it is easy to see why.
I began this project in the spring of 1999, almost exactly ten years ago. When it began, it was a short story, maybe ten or fifteen pages. When I applied to graduate programs I revised the piece, polished it as best I knew how and sent it off in five different directions along with a short story about a woman who eats a rat. These were two of the three complete stories I had at the time, and to me they seemed pretty good.
The rat story I put away as soon as I’d sent it off. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best, and when I was accepted to three schools, I thought I’d achieved something. Yes, being accepted was an achievement, but it was a much larger achievement to have written something that others deemed good, or at least good enough. My work was validated and it was then that I began to see myself, truly, as a writer.
But grad school was intimidating and I had no other stories in my pocket when I arrived. I began writing stories about June, and they came out of me without much hesitation. But to work on them meant I had to abandon Unplanted. And I missed Unplanted. I missed Mattie and Joe dearly. So I asked my advisor if I could workshop something I’d submitted with my application and we agreed that it would be a total revision. I dreamed of writing something wonderful.
I faced the page, opened the story and saw my darlings before me. I was in love with my story. I was in love of the sentences. I was in love with my successes and I did not want to mar them. So I tried to preserve the story I had as much as I could. There was much to trim, but there was much to keep as well. The characters remained exactly the same. The story remained exactly the same. The only difference was that I was beginning with a skeleton and adding muscle and flesh.
This is a dangerous thing for me to do. It has taken me this long to learn that. I reread the draft I submitted as a portion of my thesis and I can clearly see the short story still there. I could literally go in and cut away chunks of prose and eventually I would be left with much of what I’d written a few years before, nearly verbatim. My darlings, intact.
Tonight I tried to draft the prologue. I tried to use the same process: start with what’s already there, trim prose, add prose. I failed again.
So I find myself struggling with process, with revision. I am struggling because I know this is not a project to revise, but rather to be rewritten. The frame of the house is strong, yes, but it must come down in order for the house to be what I want it to be.
(I hate it when I speak in metaphor.)
In the most recent draft, I can see that the narrative moves too quickly. As I said last night, I am driving Mattie to her own death and it is very clear that I wrote purely for the payoff. I remember being told that I was bold to kill my protagonist so early in the book. I remember thinking that I would do something new, that I could pull it off and my method would be not only innovative, but successful. And besides, I couldn’t not kill Mattie. I knew what had to happen for her. It was the ending I’d created when the story first came to me and I could not let go of it.
Bravado, mixed with fear.
Now there is only fear. I look at a blank page and I have no idea where to begin. My process for this project will have to be considerably different from what I used before. The June stories were written linearly, more or less, and that worked pretty well. The stories are solid and well structured.
With Unplanted I still reach to the early draft as a crutch. I think, if only I could just carve away the purple prose and the unnecessary scenes I could begin to rebuild it. But what is already on the page is only a part of the story that needs to be written. So much happens before the orchard, before the motel room, before the shard of a mirror pierces Mattie’s arm. Much happens after that scene as well.
I look at my handwritten journal entries and I can see a great deal of confidence there. It is all notes, scrawled out character sketches and relationship building and attempts at plot lines, but the notes are strong and they will be very useful. I can see that, rather than laboring over the prologue, I should look to those notes and let them become the outline. There is much to work with. There is even more to work on.