It’s been a while since I have posted, just over three months to be exact, and as one might imagine, the reason is because my writing moving forward at a snail’s pace. I’m not going to be analyzing all the reasons for that right now. My current situation is what it is, and I hope it isn’t always this way, but I’m not going to add extra stress by worrying about it. At least not at this time.
All that being said, I have been doing some writing. Specifically, I have been finishing the second draft of the first chapter in my novel, With the Beast. My expectation for this second draft is to have each chapter polished until I can find no more errors in them. For the first draft I just wanted to get everything down, and in my third draft I intend to focus on structure and character, making sure that all of the arcs are coherent and satisfying. In other words, draft two is focused on the micro of each individual paragraph and chapter reading well, whereas draft three will be more macro, focused on the interrelationship of each chapter.
And so, doing this first chapter of the second draft came with a major question for me: can I ever actually polish my writing to the point that I won’t have anything more to change? Admittedly, I’ve never before carried my polishing phase to its natural conclusion. In my work as a teenager, and in this blog’s short stories, I’ve only made one or two or three passes and stopped there, and in every one of those passes I’ve continued to find a great deal to change. Would I continue to find a great deal to change in the ninth and tenth and eleventh passes as well? Would this become a never-ending chase for unattainable perfection?
Well, now I’ve carried the experiment to its end, and I’m relieved to state that I did, in fact, eventually reach a point of stability. It took considerably longer than I expected, and with many more passes, but yes, I started seeing less and less typos until I wasn’t seeing any at all. I could finally read from start to finish without being disrupted by any poorly constructed phrases or logical contradictions.
I do not claim to have written a piece of perfection, I do not imagine to myself that there are absolutely zero errors within it, but I can say that it is the most polished chapter I have ever made, polished to the point that it is past my personal ability to continue identifying mistakes.
Ande this was a happy and reassuring place to get to. A common experience in reading my old material has been to wince at every mistake I see and wonder how I could have possibly missed that. Now, for the first time, I really do think I can reach a point where I will be able to read my entire novel from start to finish and have a smooth experience the whole way through.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. I don’t expect to be sharing every chapter of my book on this blog, but I have already posted the first draft of the first chapter, so I’ll go ahead and share the second draft of it as well. You can see the difference for yourself, and if you feel motivated to point out any lingering issues that I was blind to, please feel free to.
Now and again, an echo of the past takes you back there. It happens when you see a field of grain, taste the salt in the sea, or hear the low whistle of the wind between your arms. It comes upon you late at night, when the distractions of the day are stilled, and your thoughts feel their way to old memories. It comes in moments of silent yearning, when the heart longs for what it felt once before. And when those stirrings begin, a trance comes over you, the world vanishes away, like a curtain swiftly receding, and you become transported back to that fateful island.
So it happens in this moment, and now, in your mind’s eye, the old scene materializes into view. You see at your feet a scrawling coastline, the golden sun reflecting dully upon the water. You see the tide washing back and forth, lazy enough for large bubbles to rise to the surface. The cawing of gulls reverberates for miles as they glide home from an evening feed. Raising your gaze, you find that what you stand on now is but only a sandbar. A hundred yards of shallow water extend before you, and then comes the island proper.
That landmass is a hulking green rock, a mountain clothed in a forest, with a solitary peak on the right giving the whole thing a lopsided appearance, as though it might unbalance at any moment and tip back into the sea! Coming down from that pinnacle, the greenery extends for three-quarters of a mile, then is skirted by a crest of black igneous rock which quickly spills downward in a cliff-face. Straggly birds’ nests and thick tufts of grass fill that pockmarked face as it descends, until it buries itself in the sandy beach.
And there, upon that beach, you finally settle your gaze upon a small boat, tipped to one side, with a stray furl of sail whipping in the breeze. Its owners are disembarking from the craft now, and though they are far off you recognize their silhouettes immediately. Two men, a woman, and a young girl: the family Whit. At the sight of them an old ache rises within you, one of longing and regret.
Why is it that you have returned to this place? You have traced these paths so many times already, must you do so yet again? Each time you follow the same footprints, overhear the same hopes and dreams, break the same bones…. It never changes. Is peering into the sweetness of their faces now worth the agony that follows after?
But, you have arrived, and to begin a memory is already to slip onward to its conclusion. It must be seen through now, and so you step forward, splashing your way through the shallow water. It never rises more than halfway to your knees, sloshing pleasantly against your skin until you return to crunching sand. You approach the explorers cautiously, careful not to disturb them, even though they are only memories and cannot perceive you.
These four individuals are more familiar than family, beings that live within, and you see their inner thoughts and feelings just as plainly as their faces.
Nearest at hand is John Whit, his gray mane tucked behind wide ears, exposing his long, bald forehead and leathery, copper skin. He is the sure and steady patriarch of the clan, a dignified man of a dignified heritage. Indeed, it was for his own father’s service that this island was gifted to the Whit family many years ago.
At this moment, John is crouched beside the boat, systematically packing away their charts and wayfinding instruments. Every compass and sextant has its proper place in his satchel, and he carefully cleans each one before putting it away. When he finishes packing the instruments, he rises to his feet, and turns to face the sea he has just led his family across. He charted their course well and saw them through with a careful hand. Indeed, he hopes to chart them rightly still, for he sees in this land an opportunity to build upon the foundation established by his ancestors. He wishes to take that which he was given and prove he was worthy of it by adding something more.
Just a few paces beyond John is his son, William Whit. William is pulling jars out of the boat, each filled with samples of seed and dirt, and tumbling them into a large sack that he slings over his shoulder. He rises to his feet as well, but he faces toward the heart of the island. Ruffling his close, dark beard with his hand he penetrates its terrain with deep-set eyes.
William has lived comfortably and well, so evidenced by the rotund belly that his folded arms rest upon. All he has ever lacked was a proper opportunity to make his own mark, a chance to give expression to the ambitions that churn within his heart. And here, upon these untamed wilds, William sees the possibility for all those dreams to finally be made a reality. In his mind’s eye are bridges and statues, ports and shops, mills and factories. He sees the land rich and giving and can hardly wait to plumb its secrets.
Down at William’s knees, young Clara Whit prattles to her doll. She is like a delicate, porcelain figurine herself, with yellow curls and ivory arms and skin as smooth as flower petals. She holds her toy aloft as she speaks breathlessly to it of the infiniteness of the ocean and how as they sailed across it she felt that they would remain motionless in its eternities forever!
Now and again her eyes stray away from the doll to the hulking mountain ahead. There is a wariness of the unknown in her face, and she mutters something to her doll about how these forests and mountains are much more “real” than she had expected! Indeed, to one that has only seen such sights in the sketches of storybooks, the living and breathing wild seems almost too real and too big to be believed! She slowly crosses the sand to her mother’s skirts and buries her face in their familiar closeness.
Eleanor Whit gently strokes her daughter’s hair with a hand thin and wiry. Her own auburn hair is drawn back in a snug bun, the better to not get in the way of her vision. The angular features of her face frame the large, alert eyes with which she makes her own examination. Unlike the others, though, she is not surveying the mountain or the sea; she is surveying her family.
She sees the stoic resolve in John, the exuberant ambition in William, and the curious apprehension in Clara. Far more interesting to her than the work that this family will do upon the island is the work that the island will do upon this family. It is an isolated place, and they will have none to rely upon for their great undertaking but their very own selves. Such a weight is sure to test them, to reveal to themselves who they really are.
Eleanor has no intention of preventing this crucible, though. Having gone through several such trials in her own life, she knows that they are inevitable. Her situation as a youth was difficult and hard-earned, and while she hopes the other members of the family won’t have to struggle so much as she did, she knows that some struggling is necessary to grow. It is the only way for them to become the people they are destined to be. Eleanor sees all of this, and she gives this moment the solemn consideration that it is due. Of all the duties and concerns that she bears, the safe guidance of the family through this test is her highest priority.
All the Whits remain a moment longer in their silent reverie, until John gives himself a little shake and returns to the matter at hand. He reaches back into the boat and pulls out the equipment that they will need for their camp and distributes it into three packs, one for each of the adults. The rest of their provisions remain safely stowed in the bottom of the boat for them to fetch later.
“How does it look, William?” he asks as he hands the first pack to him.
“Good, good,” William nods enthusiastically as he pulls his mind back to the present moment. “Seems like an abundance of natural resources. Wood, stone, and quite possibly all manner of precious minerals! The climate is also markedly different here, almost tropical, so I’m sure we could grow things that are hard to get on the mainland. And to top it all off, that bay we saw along the northern coast should be more than big enough for a port!”
“That all sounds promising,” Eleanor smiles, stepping forward to take her pack from John. “What do we do next?”
“Well, we need to make camp first of all,” John slings the final pack over his own shoulders. “Somewhere we can keep dry and have a nearby source of fresh water.” He gestures to the rocky overhang at the back of the beach. “That means finding our way on top of there, somehow… Hmm, we’re going to need more rope.” He pulls some extra lengths from the boat.
William surveys the cliff in question. “Yes, that would be good for getting a better look at the rest of the island, too. What about over there?” He points to the northern end of the beach, where the cliff face extends into the water and has been broken by the waves’ erosion into a gentler upward slope. “It looks like easier going.”
Eleanor follows William’s gaze and gives an involuntary shudder. It isn’t much, but with a frame as slight as hers it cannot be hidden.
“What do you think, Eleanor?” John asks with concern in his voice. “Are you up for that?”
But before Eleanor can answer, Clara tugs at her sleeve. She has followed the grownups’ conversation and her eyes are wide with apprehension.
“I don’t want to, Mother.”
Eleanor tuts at John. “Of course, I’ll be fine.” Then, turning to her daughter, “And there’s not a thing to worry about, darling. You’ll be safe with me the whole way.”
John and William look meaningfully to one another, deciding if they should press the matter further.
“Well, what are we waiting for, then?” Eleanor asks briskly. “Hadn’t we better get going?”
“Yes,” John concedes. “The sooner the better.” And with that the family turn their backs and go along their way. Four abreast they walk down the shore: John and William on either end, with Clara clutching her mother’s hand in the middle. Four embers reaching out into this new world, hoping for something to catch their spark.
And so they were.
Btw, re. your question, “Can I ever actually polish my writing to the point that I won’t have anything more to change?” The answer is no, you can’t. But you can (and must) reach a point when you’re willing to submit your not-perfect manuscript (for me it’s around draft 4 or 5) to agents and/or publishers. The trick is to know the difference between not-ready-to submit and not-perfect. The former type of submissions are quickly rejected. The latter type are published and win Nobel prizes every year.
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Mitch, thank you for that. That is a very encouraging message. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a real writing process for about a year now. I am hoping I’ll be able to get back to it before long.