Well, I’ve done it at last.
A while ago, I mentioned that I was feeling revolutionary, that I wanted to throw away everything I’ve written on this novel and start again, that I wanted to make such drastic and dramatic changes to the book as to change the narrative structure, the POV, the purpose. I tried last week and it didn’t work, so I tried something else, and something else.
Then, at the very end of last week, I found it. My way in to the new draft, my voice.
And I have indeed chucked the old text, all 40,000 words of it, and started again with a new POV. And it just feels so RIGHT, gang! This, at last, is the book I’ve been trying to write for a year now. And (as with the first full draft of Hagridden), I can see the whole thing stretching out before me, just waiting to get written.
Which is why, for the first time in this year’s sort-of-NaNoWriMo posts, I’m going to share with you an excerpt.
Bear in mind, this is still a rough draft. Lord knows what changes are in store in revision. But this is the gist, folks, the general idea of the beginning of the book:
The sun hung low in the sky over the East Texas field and the cricketsong had just begun when of a sudden it ceased, and a crowd of grackles scattered from the widespread cedar elm at the edge of the shallow gully embanking the creek. No one outdoors to witness it when, through dry, unmown ryegrass and in the vast shadow of the elm, JW Coe highstepped slow and cautious down into the creek, stooped under the weight of a wide stone slab.
He was both thinner and fatter than in decades previous, with narrow shoulders and a hollow chest but with a taut paunch pushing against his shirt and vest, his wool coat unbuttoned because the buttons would no longer meet. But he wore the same brown hat he’d always worn, gone loose with age and stuffed with rolled newspaper to keep it snug over his thinning hair, long as usual but faded from the ashy blond of his youth to just ash. His heavy mustaches and long goatee still stained yellow with tobacco. If the occupants of the yonder house were still those he’d known three decades ago, they would doubtless recognize him, though for all he knew that family had long moved on and another family come to replace them, no part of the world empty for long.
He stopped every few paces to check his distance from the house up the slope and then behind him to Fulton, his old carthorse, uncarted and drop-hitched and chewing the rye. He wanted to know how active were the occupants of the farmhouse and how far he’d have to run if it came to that, but he saw no movement and he’d left Fulton the horse obscured enough. So on he labored, hauling the stone on his back.
[. . .]
Then with his eyes on his feet he paced out a length of land down into the gully, into a thicket of brush where the day’s last light had already died. Nearly every step he paused and set the stone down, held its top in one hand as with his other he lifted brambles and dry, fallen limbs as silently as he could manage, the journey only a dozen paces but taking him the better part of thirty minutes. With each cracked branch or small rock slipped down toward the vanished creek, he stopped and straightened and watched the house, though soon he was deep enough in shadow he was certain no one would see him.
The sun was long behind the house and nearing the earth when Coe reached the patch of earth he knew to be a grave.
[. . .]
He rammed the stone into the earth. The dull thud was soft enough but he turned toward the house anyway. He could not see it. He reached beneath his coat and drew a hunting knife and dug at the ground with it, careful not to scrape the stone for the sound it would make, and he gouged a grove into which sank the heavy slab. He worked for some minutes. Finally, he lifted one hand and then, slowly, the other, and when he saw the stone was fixed in the earth he kicked the loose dirt into the groove and packed it with his boot. Then he stepped away and beheld the stone.
[. . .]
A sound arrested him save his head, which he jerked toward the house. Wood clapped on wood, the sound of a door shutting, then boots on planks. Coe reached his hand to his knifehilt but left it there, the knife sheathed so the blade would catch no light. These habits so long unused but still there in his old muscles, in his hot blood. He studied his breath, let it come slow and even so it would make no sound. The boots at the house walked on, then disappeared though no sound of a door followed them. Coe waited. After several seconds he heard a fainter, more distant clap of wood and he stood, slowly, to peer up the creekbank. He could see nothing, not even the house, but he heard a distant, muffled song, the lyrics indecipherable but interrupted by grunts and what he recognized as happy curses. A man in the jakes on the other side of the house, away from the creek.
Frozen in the shadowy gully, the first stars pricking through the blue skin of the sky, he imagined what would happen, what had always happened. The man returning from the shithouse, the man spying the drifts of visible breath in the cold air like smoke wafting up through the liveoaks. The man realizing the presence of an intruder on his land, the man descended from the men Coe knew, a man who would know where Coe was and why. He would consider calling into the house for reinforcements, for arms, but he would not want to be called a fool. So the man would step down from the porch into the cold, damp earth, his boots soft in the grass. He would look in the last of the light, and Coe would have to answer, quiet and with a high-pitched voice, an imitation of a boy or, better, a calf if he could manage it. Something to draw the man in, and in the man would come, lured by the voice of something he could handle alone, something he could tell a story of later. And when he was close enough, Coe, even in his elder years, would rush unannounced from the trees, up the rise and out of the shadow, the knife out of the sheath and into the man’s neck in the same movement. The blood hot on Coe’s wrist and forearm, the man’s breath hot on his neck as he leaned in close to die in silence.
It all felt so familiar. It all felt so keen, so clear. Coe caught himself almost wishing for it to happen.
That first night I blazed through a thousand words in about half an hour and wanted to write on but it was late and I had work the next morning. Since then, my pace has been slower, partly because each time I sit down to the book, I’m revising the text before I carry on with the story, and (the past couple of days) partly because I’m sending characters into situations I need to check the details of against history. (Always researching, me.) Still, I’ve put together another 3,000 words this week, for a 4,200-word draft so far, and most of those words are pretty good, I think.
Not the frenzied drafting of a traditional NaNoWriMo, but this is it, gang. This is the beginning of my next novel. And, as a reader, I can’t wait to see how it turns out!
My first-ever attempt at NaNoWriMo resulted in the first draft of Hagridden, out this year from Columbus Press. You can order your copy from several online venues, or enter the Goodreads giveaway for a free, signed copy!