Re-writing is your Friend

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People often ask me how many times I re-wrote my first novel, Ultra.  Trust me when I say, YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW.

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I wrote the first version waaaaaay back, in the summer of 2008.  It was 20,000 words long, and it swallowed two months of my life.  Back then, it was titled “Quinn and the 100 Mile Race.”

I finished the second draft a month later.  By Christmas I’d rewritten it a third time, and then I sent it out.

I sent it to an agent and also a publisher.  The publisher said some nice things about it.  She said the narration was lovely and warm; perhaps too lovely and warm.  She explained that the warm tone made it hard to believe that the central character was living on top of a calamity.  Which was why she was going to take a pass.

The agent didn’t reply.

I wasn’t too upset about it.  I’ve written lots of stuff over the years that never got published.   That’s the writer’s life.  I stuffed the manuscript in a drawer and forgot about it.

Two years later, I picked it up again.  I re-wrote it for…let’s see…the fourth time.

After 5 months of work, I pitched it 50 agents.  49 of them said, “Thanks but no thanks.”

The fiftieth agent (the brilliant Scott Waxman who represents some of the finest sports writers, including the legendary John L. Parker) called me on the phone.  When I saw the 212 area code on the display, I knew something was up.  Scott told me that he liked my story.  He said, however, that he wasn’t quite ready to offer representation just yet.  There were a few things I ought to think about – if, that is, I was “willing to re-write the manuscript.”   

I thought about the improvements that Scott suggested.  I thought about them for all of ten seconds.

Once again, I started re-writing.  When I finished that re-write I did another.

And then another.

And then another.

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After six months of re-writing, Scott Waxman accepted my novel.  I received an “Offer to Represent” in the mail.

Cue the champagne corks!  Cue the s’mores!

A couple of months later, the novel sold to Scholastic Canada.

MORE champagne!  MORE s’mores!

In the year or so since I signed with Scholastic, I’ve done three more rewrites.  The first took 3 months, the second took one month, the third took a week.

That makes eleven re-writes in all.

I know that sounds like a lot of work, but listen: with every single re-write the book got better!

Lesson learned:

Writing a book, and running 100 miles, are similar in two distinct ways.

(1) Both involve a TON of pain.

and (2) The finish line is incredibly sweet.

Writing is my AEIOU and Sometimes Y

Note to self: kids are really smart.

Case in point.  The other day I got interviewed by a grade 10 student.  He needed to dissect a living writer for a class project, and somehow, poor guy, he got saddled with me.  We went for a coffee, and then I dragged him into a radio studio  (the same studio, I should add, where the fabled literary broadcaster, Eleanor Wachtel, conducts all of her interviews).  The student pulled out his iPhone, pressed record, and placed it on the desk between us. He asked me some very good questions – about writing, working in the field of journalism, how much education is needed to get a job in broadcasting, and how to build a career as a fiction writer.

He gave me a real grilling.  And then, near the end of our discussion, he asked me this: “Knowing what you know now, if you had to go back and do it all over again, would you still set out to be a fiction writer?”

OMG.  He had me.  I froze.

As a seasoned interviewer, I usually love moments like this.  The moment when a question hits the bulls-eye, and you can see your guest squirming, because he or she has secretly been asking him or herself the exact same question – possibly for years.

What to do, what to do... (1)

If I had to go back and do it again, would I still set out to become a fiction writer?  I had to hand it to the student – his random drilling had hit a geyser.

“Do you want me to be completely honest?” I asked.

The student grinned from ear to ear.  “Of course,” he said.

No way, I thought to myself, I’d avoid writing like the plague.  It’s nothing but an endless road of pain!  

Want proof?  I wrote my first novella more than 2 decades ago.  It never got published.  Neither did the two novels I wrote after that.   And of the 100+ short stories I composed after that, only a handful made it to print.

NO, DAVE.  BE HONEST.  3 GOT PUBLISHED.  ONLY 3.  And the money I earned from them didn’t even cover the cost of the printer ink and stamps!

If someone had sat me down back in 1990 and done the calculus; if they’d explained how hard I’d have to work, how many hours of sleep I’d lose, how much my arteries would harden, how awkward I’d feel each time a friend asked how my book was coming along…  If someone had told me all that two decades ago, would I still have gone into writing?  No, probably not.  You’d have to be crazy to embrace a career like that.

It’s one of the great mercies of the universe that I didn’t know the odds I was facing when I started out.  This isn’t limited to writing.  If any of us truly knew how much heartache was in store for us, we’d never do anything.  If we knew how hard it would be to maintain relationships, we’d never allow ourselves to fall in love.  If my parents had warned me about the skinned knees I’d get while learning to ride a bike, I never would’ve let them take my training wheels off.

Signs of spring

I still hadn’t answered the student’s  question.  Sensing my difficulty, he shifted gears.  “How about this,” he said at last,  “what has writing given you?”

The question was a relief, and I was flooded with good memories.  I started rhyming off the list: writing gave me a purpose in life, it gave me the career I now enjoy, it helps pay my mortgage, it stills my mind during stressful times.

Writing is my sun and my moon.  It is my breakfast, lunch and dinner.  It is my AEIOU and sometimes Y.

And in spite of all those rejections I mentioned earlier, writing eventually did make my dream come true.

Ultra cover

Coming Soon – My New Novel About Running

Ultra cover

The 100 mile race is a harsh and hostile immensity, and to take it on is to enter a war.

ULTRA is the story of Quinn’s war.  A war against fatigue, despair, dehydration, wild animals, hallucinations, and a dangerous family secret.

It’ll be published by Scholastic in September.

Ultra

DNF, or How Pain = Learning

Warning: a graphic picture of my feet appears in this post.

But first, a very pleasant image:

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A bunch of baby bats, wrapped up in little blankets.  I don’t know why they’re wrapped up like that.  Maybe they were cold and wet.  Just like me, last September…

***

I already mentioned that I run 100-mile races, right?  That once or twice a year I go to some remote forest, line up with a bunch of crazy people, and run without sleeping for 24+ hours.

It’s a weird sport called ultra-running.  I’ve run a dozen or so of these ultra-marathons in the last five years.

Every single time, I finished successfully.  Until last September.  When I ultra-failed.

The Haliburton Forest Trail Run is held at the Haliburton Wildlife Reserve; a sustainable forest tucked into the armpit of Algonquin Park.  You run 25 miles out into the heart of the forest, then you turn around and run 25 miles back.  And then you do the whole thing OVER AGAIN.  The race took place last September 8, which, in case you’ve forgotten, was a rainy day.

Very rainy, come to think of it.  It rained for eighteen hours before the race began, and then, for good measure, it rained another 12 hours while the race was happening.  This created a lot of mud.

Here I am at the 50 mile turnaround:

David Haliburton 2012

I look happy, don’t I?  Don’t be fooled.  I’d been running for ten hours, and I was far from happy.  I was…what’s the word….oh yeah – UNHAPPY!

Everyone was in pain out there.  At mile 54, I caught up with a young guy named Pablo.  Pablo was having trouble with his hip, and he squinted with every step he took.  He wasn’t giving up, though.   “Pain equals learning,” he told me.  “If you aren’t feeling any pain, then you’re not learning anything.”

The rain finally stopped, and darkness fell.  At the 68-mile checkpoint I pulled on my headlamp.  I ran for two miles, then noticed that the light was flickering.  Cheap Dollar Store batteries!  I ran two miles back to the aid station and picked up my spares.  These worked fine, but I’d had to run four miles out of my way.

(2nd warning – that picture of my feet is coming soon!)

I reached the 75-mile checkpoint by 11pm, which meant I still had a shot at finishing the race in 24 hours.  Shawna surprised me at the aid station.  She fed me yogurt-covered raisins and salted yams, and told me that I looked surprisingly good, considering the circumstances.

Luckily, she didn’t ask to see my feet.

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Those are the tops of my feet.  Believe me, you don’t want to see the bottoms.

Remember, I’d been running through muddy oil-slicks for 17 hours straight.  I probably should have changed shoes and socks and greased my feet with Vaseline, but that would have taken an extra twenty minutes (it takes a lot of time to perform these seemingly simple manoeuvres when you’re wet and cold from 17 hours of running).

I ran on.  I made it to the 85 mile checkpoint, but then things started to fall apart.  At the top of a hill, I saw a two-storey marble sculpture of a rabbit.  I ran closer and realized it wasn’t a marble sculpture at all, but a tree.  I became dizzy.  My feet were SCREAMING with pain.  So was the chafing on my, er, undercarriage.  I slowed down to a walk.  And then, without the heat generated from the running, my body temperature plummeted.

I was wearing three layers of clothes, plus a running jacket and tights, but it wasn’t enough.  The temperature dipped down to 5 degrees, and I began shivering uncontrollably.  I could barely hike the hills I’d pranced up earlier in the day.  A germ of an idea took root in my mind.  You don’t have to finish if you don’t want to, it said.

It’s called a DNF, and it stands for Did Not Finish.  I’d never DNF’d in my life.

But the pain in my feet was getting worse and it felt like my butt cheeks were being ripped to shreds with every step.  The germ solidified in my mind.

And so, at 3 a.m., after running 89 miles (which was actually 93 if you count the extra miles I ran to get my spare batteries), I did something truly crazy.  At the intersection of Ben’s Trail and Krista Trail, right near the makeshift Shrine which was the inspiration for a VERY IMPORTANT SCENE in my soon-to-be-published novel (“ULTRA,” Scholastic, Fall 2013), I intentionally walked off the trail.

“This is how it feels to DNF,” I told myself, stepping over the line of orange and pink flags.

And you know what?

It felt GREAT.

Mind you, after leaving the course, I still had to bushwhack two more miles through the forest before I stumbled upon a logging road.  And then I had to wait until a car came along and mercifully picked me up.  So in the end I figured I covered 95 miles.

Which wasn’t enough.

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23 people finished that race.  31 DNF’d.

Pablo, that guy I’d chatted with during the race, was one of the successful ones.  I cheered as he crossed the finish line.  When he saw me, he beamed.

“How did you do?” he asked.

“I DNF’d,” I admitted.  “I couldn’t handle the mud.”

“What?  No!  You were looking so good out there!”

It took a while to convince him that this was good, that this was my decision, and I was comfortable with it.  I’ve had plenty of successful races before, and I wanted to see how failure played out.  There is a cult around winning, around success, completion.  But there is a wintry beauty in its opposite – in failure, chances lost.

“Pain equals learning,” I reminded Pablo.

He grinned, leaned down and rubbed his hip.  “Then we must be geniuses now,” he said.

* * *

One last thought on pain and learning.

rejection letter

This is a standard rejection letter, from one of those highbrow literary journals that almost all writers dream of getting published in, but that very few people actually read.  I’ve got millions of these forms lying around, from all the lousy short stories I sent out over the years.

Every one of those letters stung.   But as Pablo pointed out in the race, pain can be instructive.

If you’re going to be a writer, you’ll have to deal with rejection at some point.  But you can view these rejections in one of two ways:

1) You can see them as stop signs.  As brick walls.

2) Or you can see them as an invitation to keep pushing.

If you’re suffering from hypothermia, or excruciating chafing, by all means, take some time off to recover.  Otherwise, keep writing.  The finish line is out there – somewhere.