When I began the first version of this novel a few years ago, I thought it was about one man, a character I named Sergeant Tom Cleaver. My mother-in-law had sent me a book of obscure Texas histories and real-life wild characters, and I read about one crazed man so violent and so charismatic that I wondered what he must have been like in real life, and I set out to write that man’s story in the guise of my Sergeant Tom.
When I tossed out that first draft and began again a couple of years ago, I did so because I’d realized that such a character as Sergeant Tom — a legend in his own mind, a fiction of his own making — could only accurately be described in multiple facets, from multiple perspectives, and I needed to write a larger, more expansive novel that was as much about the times that Sergeant Tom lived in and the people that gravitated to him as it was about the man himself.
When I tossed out that draft and began again, I did so because I had gotten lost in the din of those multiple voices and realized I needed to know these characters — and Sergeant Tom especially — more intimately. I wrote quite a bit of a draft focused on Sergeant Tom’s inner life, his background, his childhood even. I wrote almost 100 pages and I hadn’t gotten past Sergeant Tom’s mid-teens, and I realized I’d lost sight of the novel I had originally set out to write.
This year — these past few weeks, in fact — I have discovered a new truth: I’m not writing about Sergeant Tom at all. I’m not writing about his grandiosity or the fools that gathered around him. The real story — the story I should have been telling all along — is about JW Coe, the one man who finally saw through that grandiose leader, that braggadocious tyrant, and, in Coe’s waning years, sought to to amend for the violence he committed on Sergeant Tom’s behalf.
The plot of the book largely remains intact, though I have thrown out all the old scenes and rewritten them with this new purpose, not as rowdy Western action sequences but as JW Coe’s memories and regrets. In that sense, while the plot might be more or less the same, the story is radically different, changing sometimes before my eyes as I discover the words on the page. I also have restructured the novel entirely, with a new driving motion, new locations, new history to explore and unveil. The characters I tried on in the second draft are mostly still here, though they have become radically different people as I consider them through Coe’s memory and as the story changes in the writing of it.
As of this morning, I have written 41,156 words on this new story. And as I near the 50k mark for NaNoWriMo, I am more aware than ever that this novel is going to be dozens of thousands of words longer than the 50k I’ve nearly achieved. This was a realization I had in the second and third drafts, and the remaining length made me nervous then — it’s one reason I set the book aside in those drafts and eventually decided to start over. I prefer a shorter novel, a tighter book, and I wanted to keep this novel better reined in. But now, resting in the heart and mind of JW Coe, I have become more comfortable with letting this book unfold itself into a longer story.
This is something that Allen Weir told me last year at Sewanee, to let the book tell itself and give it the space and the time it needed, and while I understood back then, in an intellectual way, what he was getting at, I am beginning to see now what he must have seen then: the expanse of this story, and the time it will take to excavate it.
Over this Thanksgiving week and weekend, when I took a break from the book to focus on family and food, my wife asked me how the book was coming. It wasn’t a casual question, it was a sincere inquiry about my process, because she knows how many times I’ve set this book aside, how difficult it’s been to find the right story in it. And I told her it was coming along okay, but that I had a lot more work to do. And I realized as I spoke that while I was nearing the finish line for NaNoWriMo, I still have a lot of work left to do, and I told her I would probably carry on this project well beyond November 30. I hope to finish a draft before the year is out, but I’m not putting any hard deadlines on it. Because what I’m seeing unfold is JW Coe’s journey of discovery — of recovery, really — and that kind of journey takes time. So I’m just going to sit with the book and hear it out, let Coe tell his story and Sergeant Tom’s story and all the other stories he has to wrestle with until he finds his peace, and shares it with me.