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Writing Toward the Exit
I’m doing another Mini 1000. Six days, simple, scaled down letters, no Slack, limited social media, August 7-12. You can sign up here.
I’m firmly past the 50,000-word threshold with my book and I’ve outlined (most of) the rest of it and so everything feels real and substantial now. There is a heft to it. These characters have already begun to grow and change and are well on their way to all the things that will someday happen to them. I am excited every day to work on the book, though intimidated by the amount of work I have to do — but also this is how I make my living, so I get over that feeling real fast.
I started this book a little more than a year ago, so I was thinking a lot last week about how we find our way into books, in particular those first chapters we write as the entry point. All I want and need from a first chapter is a simple expression of themes, the establishment of a relationship between two people and a hint of stakes to come. Rough, intriguing stuff. A start.
But those first chapters I write, for the most part, never end up being the first chapters in the final version of the book. Sometimes they show up as the second chapter or the fifth. But they always serve a purpose, no matter where they land.
In fact, the chapter that I’m revising right now was the first chapter I wrote in 2021, and it’s now the tenth chapter. I’ve since added 40,000 words to precede it, two entire decades of living for all the characters. (In my crankier moments I think, why couldn’t this first chapter have turned out to be the second chapter instead — it would have saved so much time.) Still, the same thing has been happening in this chapter, all this time, the same actions, a lot of the same conversation even, with slight variations, between two people. They talk, they take a walk, they see something they weren’t meant to see. Always I return to these core actions.
But also, during the process, I’ve added and cut characters six characters, created outside scenarios referred to from afar, and then just trimmed things down to have it exist between those same two people. Again and again, I’ve thrown things at these two characters to see how they would respond, and then those things have ended up forcing me to create earlier chapters. Rather than have them live in the backstory during this chapter, I’ve simply given the backstory its own life.
I mean, it’s one way to write a book.
Last night, I went out with my friend Brooke, who is a visual artist and loves to talk about process. (Conversations about process between artists across genre are a treasure in my life.) She asked me if I thought this chapter was the heart of the book, and I said no, because I was thinking about what happens in the chapter, the actual events of it, which were so simple, or felt so simple because they’ve been so rigorously edited at this point.
But this morning I am thinking that she was right: it might be the heart.
I realize today I need to look at this chapter differently, figure out why it needs to exist, why I’m so fascinated with it, why I can’t ever finalize what’s really happening here. What I know is this: it lets me let characters say things that need to be said, and it exists as a moment when the two people in it become closer and bonded for unexpected reasons. It has to act as a pivot point for the rest of the book, too. If it’s the heart, then it’s the center. Everything I’ve written so far leads up to this moment, but I can see so clearly how everything extends from it, too.
So now I’m writing toward the exit. That’s the only way I can look at it right now. This chapter is both the entrance and the exit. Somehow I got in the door, I walked around and saw everything behind it, and now I’ve got to find the way out. I hope to make it there by the end of the year.
What are your chapters doing for you? Maybe they’re a pivot point or a bridge to somewhere new, or maybe they’re just a place to stop for a while. Do they serve a purpose not just in the telling of the story in the moment but in the broader context of the book? Have you thought about your entrances and exits lately?
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to New Orleans Abortion Fund.