I’ve never been a good polisher. The fun part for me is always the research and the first draft. I like to think of it like a military campaign -- something I write about often, although I’ve never served: you create your battle plan, you go over the details, and then you send out the troops. Sooner or later, of course, it’s time to get down in the mud and face the enemy. For me, as a writer, this is called ‘re-writing’. The mud is built out of my sentences, and the enemy is perfection.
My current novel has turned into a bit of a bear. It began as a (relatively) simple story of a pair of young Polish immigrants, brother and sister, both Jewish, and what happens to them when they cross paths with the swath of German provocation and anti-Semitism brewing in pre-World War II Paris. Specifically, it is a fictional retelling of the story of Herschel Grynszpan, the teenager who assassinated a German embassy official there in 1938.
But when I finished my draft – my fifth draft, we’ll get to that in a minute – I discovered, to my delight and also perturbation, that the story wasn’t finished yet. My hero, Adam Kaminski, wasn’t ready to stop at what I thought was the ending. An entire second part of the novel opened up before me. I let Adam lead, and he took me to London, and the first year of the war. I compiled my usual outline, spent a month researching the time and the city (I needed a second notebook, as my research for the other half of the novel filled my first one), and then raced to complete a first draft.
In my current version, ‘Adam Kaminski,’ as my book is now titled, comes in at a little more than 80,000 words; this is by far the longest book I have ever written. And, of course, that means it is the longest re-writing project I have ever attempted.
As I said, the first half of this story, when it was called ‘The Ox on the Roof’ (named after a famous gay bar in Paris) went through five drafts before revealing itself to me as incomplete. I’ve now finished two drafts of the second half, and I find myself wondering out loud (and to you, dear reader) what happens next.
The entire book covers two weeks – seven days in Paris in 1938, and seven more in London in 1940. Do I tackle each day, one at a time, like separate short stories? Do I re-do my outline and look to see which chapters are too short, missing information, unjustified, or badly explained? Do I run the whole thing over and over through Spellcheck and fix the grammar, typos, strange translations, and obscure foreign phrases? Full confession: I’ve already done all those things, as I do for all my previous books. But with nearly 400 pages and dozens of named characters, I feel like something is eluding me.
I could crawl through the manuscript like a scientist, working to make each sentence perfect, as if a collection of 8,000 perfect sentences will, by some alchemy, thereby produce a perfect book. I could search for readers. This has the advantage of giving me a new perspective on what I’ve written. It also can produce contradictory or nullifying information, the kind that creates doubt and ends up having me change one word ten times.
Part of my impatience with the work of re-writing comes from the fact that I am a generally impatient person in the first place. I would no sooner spend ten years working on one book, like an itinerant James Joyce, than I would spend ten hours at a dinner party: both strategies strike me as running out the justification for their existence at, perhaps, a fifth of that time.
Nor am I a great believer in the ‘put it away and it will all make sense when you take it out again’ school of writing. For me, that’s like giving up on a picture puzzle when the last one hundred pieces are missing and starting a Lego project instead. You end up with two unfinished works instead of one.
No, the only solution I can come up with is a variation of the one I started with, my metaphor of war. I have never fought in a war, and I hope to never be caught in one, but I find the history of wartime endlessly fertile ground for my stories. Five of my eight novels (so far) have taken place in a war zone or at a time of war. And in order to stay true to my characters, I must give them military attention and military strength.
That means re-writing is a full-fledged campaign consisting of continual combing through all the possibilities I mentioned above and any others that occur to me. I am constantly expanding sections with new information, either about my characters or their homes, jobs, streets, neighborhoods, cities, and nations. I cut things and replace them, or re-locate them, or put them back, as if I was editing a film and not a book. I read sections aloud when I can. I draw pictures of my main characters in pastel or colored pencil. I retrace memories of my own life, conjure the emotions they instilled in me, and assign them. Most of all, I write.
I began ‘Adam Kaminski’ nearly one year ago, when I first read about Herschel Grynszpyn and wondered how it would feel to be so angry and lost as to fundamentally throw my life away in revenge. I thought I would tell his story, but I couldn’t find my way in. Then I got the idea of telling Herschel’s story through the eyes of an outsider, a Jewish young man sympathetic but nowhere near as much of a victim. From there, Adam’s friends, family, and lovers popped up like flowers in the Jardin des Plantes. And then in Kensington Gardens.
How will it end? I know, but I’m not telling. And I might change my mind.
If you really want to find out, you’ll have to ask Adam. Hopefully, you’ll meet him soon enough.