Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A First Draft Is Born

I’m sorry to worry you: I’ve seen all the messages asking where I’ve been, all the speculation about my absence, all the posts clamoring for my return, and — what’s that, you say? You haven’t written any?
Yeah, I know. What’s up with that? I disappear for a month and no one misses me?
I’d be awfully demoralized by that, except that I’m feeling good — despite the unravelling of the West and the curious lack of clamor for my opinion about it — because I’ve been gone for a good reason. I’ve spent the past month working from dawn to dusk on the book formerly known as Brave Old World: Europe in the Age of Trump. It is now called Stitch by Stitch: The Unraveling of the West. 
At last, the first draft is complete.
I live at a northern latitude, and the Solstice has just passed, so when I say “dawn to dusk,” I’m describing a very long work day: I’ve done nothing but work on this book for days and days, barely even emerging to eat.
Parenthetically, I owe this, I think, to what’s come to be called Seasonal Affective Disorder, although I don’t know that it’s really a “disorder.” I have a great deal of creative and almost obsessive energy in the summer, when the days are long. Psychiatrists might call this mania, or hypomania, but since I use this energy to write books — rather than go on wild spending sprees, crash the stock market, or pose for naked photos while wrapped in an albino boa constrictor — I don’t think it needs to be pathologized. I might differ if you ask me again in the dead of winter, when I go into near-hibernation and can scarcely be roused from my depressed torpor, but in the summer, my mood is bright enough to accept with equanimity that this is the rhythm of my year, and I need to make good use of it.
Anyway, the point is that I’ve written the first draft. Many of you contributed, generously, to the book campaign, so I wanted to give you an update. It’s about 100,000 words, and it still needs a lot of filling-in. Some chapters are still skeletal. And of course, it needs massive revision; it’s still very far from being polished and readable. But that’s normal. All of my books began as drafts like this, and from here on, I know what to do with it. 
The first draft is by far the hardest part. Or it is for me, anyway. I’ve heard some writers love the blank page, but I don’t. The first draft is a nightmare of confusion, false starts, and self-doubt. But once I’ve got something to work with — as I now do — I can begin the part I like: refining the argument, fixing deficiencies of logic, supporting the argument with examples, re-writing every sentence, over and over, and getting rid of the boring stuff. From here on, it’s work I enjoy.
I could not have written any of this, and could not continue to write this, without your financial support. You — entirely — made this possible. From dawn to dusk, literally, I feel grateful to everyone of you who contributed, and every single contribution has helped. Some of you sent me sweet notes when you contributed, apologizing for “only” chipping in five or ten dollars. Believe me, ten dollars is not “only” ten dollars when that’s exactly the amount you’re short on the electricity bill. You’ve kept me afloat, and you’ve given me the chance to do something I simply could not have done otherwise.
This 100,000-word draft could easily become a 300,000-word book. I can see how that happened to Gibbon. The theme is so broad, and the story so complex, that telling it properly seems to require writing at length. But I’m not Gibbon, so I have to figure out how much of what I’m writing is actually worth saying, and whether it’s worth making such a huge demand of my readers: Asking them to commit to a book that’s much longer than most on the market is perhaps asking too much..
I’m hesitant about suggesting this, but I’m going to suggest it anyway. Would any of you who contributed to the campaign like to read the draft? It is almost at the place where it could benefit from editorial scrutiny, and since it’s your money that’s supporting this project, it seems to me you’re entitled to know what’s happening to it.
Also, I’m hoping that seeing evidence that this book is really being written might prompt some of you to contribute again. On GoFundMe, it shows that I’m halfway toward the goal — but I’m actually much closer, because some of you (my Super-Patrons, and you know who you are) sent money directly to my bank account. So I’m in fact two-thirds of the way to the goal — even slightly above that. 
The goal was based on my estimate of the expenses I’d incur writing the book, and that estimate has so far been accurate. I’m not sure I can stretch out the amount I’ve got until the finish line, so once again I’m passing around the cup. Some of you have, perhaps, now seen me ask for funding so many times that you’ve come to wonder if this book will ever be finished. Reading the draft will show you that it’s well on the way, and (I hope) worthy of your support. I’d be delighted to send it to anyone who’s on the fence about sending more money. If reading a whole first draft sounds daunting, I can send a chapter, instead. Just send me a message with your email address.
I’m hesitant about suggesting this, though, for two reasons. The first is that I don’t want to be demoralized by criticism — yet. That wouldn’t be helpful — yet. There’s a lot to criticize, still, and I’m well aware of it. The best time for editorial criticism would be when I’ve revised it to the point that I can no longer easily see, by myself, what’s wrong with it.
Second, I don’t want to be corrupted by criticism — yet. The point of raising money like this was to give myself the editorial freedom to write what I think is true, without the obligation to conform to anyone else’s idea of a bestseller. I’ve realized, though, that self-publishing only liberates you from those constraints to a certain extent. If you don’t like this book, you won’t support the next one.
If I know too much about what you want to hear, my desire for your money might cause me to focus overmuch on pleasing you.
What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Writing is a job, like any other. You can’t disregard what your customers want.
Yes, I agree. But paradoxically, if you try too hard to anticipate or reinforce your readers’ opinions, you’re no longer writing a book — you’re engaging in a marketing exercise. Since one of the themes of the book is that our intellectual life has been corrupted by this impulse — to the point that we’re destroying everything that has made Western societies the world’s most successful — I’m not sure it’s a good idea to show the draft around: I’m as easily corrupted as anyone.
Still, on balance, I think if I’m asking for financial support, it makes perfect sense for you to say, “For what, exactly? What have you done with it so far?”
So if you’d like to see it, just drop me a note. I might ask that you hold not offering criticism or advice for the time being — the time will come when that will be very helpful, but that time isn’t quite now. But if you think seeing what I’m doing would help you decide whether your money has been well-spent, or whether spending more would be a good idea, I’d be delighted to show it to you.

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