March 17, 2021
Sunday Letter: Finishing “The Addict”
The past few months of writing have been the most intense since I focused on fiction. The journey has taken me from the summits of success into the valleys of despair. Which is a fancy way of saying “I’ve been busy”... and also quiet on here.
A few months ago I spoke of “serious edits” and how The Traveler series really wanted to be a novel. At the time, I felt I was starting to climb out of the slump.
Silly me, I had further to go.
Before I get into that, this story has a happy ending. The Addict will be published tomorrow. And as you find out below, there’s a lot of story. I hope you find it worth the wait.
When drafting The Addict, I started with two scenes I cut from the end of The Banker. I decided those scenes deserved their own story, and after I removed them, The Banker could stand alone as the end of the first act. The story I planned to follow was supposed to be the conclusion.
In other words, I had a beginning to the story and an end, but no middle. Oops.
Had I realized in the beginning that The Addict would become the middle act of the story, I might have written things differently. Instead, it became my hard-earned lesson in planning and character development.
That might sound like an interesting behind-the-scenes story, but it’s not the one I want to tell today. The Addict is over 8500 words, organized into nine scenes that have been re-written at least four times, over six different drafts. I struggled with this story.
Even after six drafts, I’m not satisfied I have the best version of the story, but I’m publishing it anyway. In the middle of the fifth draft, I nearly lost my taste for completing the series. I was done.
Today I want to tell you how I came back from walking away.
Do you ever take a photo and afterwards think: “This will look great after some edits?” Something’s off and you think you can fix it in post. The colors don’t pop, or maybe it’s underexposed. This happens to me a lot.
The result is always the same. I fool with it, yanking on sliders in my photo editor and trying every trick in the book to magically transform it into a great shot. I’m never happy with it. I try and I try, only to realize it just wasn’t a good photo after all.
No amount of editing can hide that fact.
This the point I reached during the fifth draft of The Addict. I kept trying until eventually I had to be honest with myself.
“The story isn’t very good.”
It took five drafts to admit it. The notion snuck up on me, after repeated attempts to fix problematic areas in the narrative. It wasn’t a good feeling.
The bottom fell out during a long weekend of vacation. I had marked that date as the time when I would “finish” the story, and get it ready to publish. I was down to a single scene where I wasn’t happy. The dialogue felt wooden, and the words wouldn’t come. But if I leaned into it—dammit—I could be done.
I couldn’t. And I became so frustrated I couldn’t stand to read any of it. I hated it. The entire story.
Two weeks before that vacation, another manager on my team setup a remote conference with a guest speaker. She was there to talk about storytelling. It was a great talk, and afterwards I felt energized to finish. This was exactly what I needed.
Among her talking points was an overview of an older episode of Scriptnotes—a fantastic podcast on writing by John August and Craig Mazin. The episode went deep into Mazin’s concept of the Central Dramatic Argument.
That evening after the talk, I grabbed my notebook and scratched out the phrase “You help yourself by helping others”. That is Gertrude’s theme, and also Hammersmith’s theme. It was my dramatic argument for The Traveler series. From there I concentrated on conflict and resolution to develop my two central characters.
It didn’t take long to realize my second act was hollow.
This is the momentum I carried into the long weekend of vacation. But by the time I sat down to focus, I was too frustrated to write anything. I was stuck, and convinced myself the story was going nowhere.
Disheartened, I was ready to quit.
Fortunately, I didn’t quit. I decided to take a break the next week and consult some fellow writers for advice. A good friend quickly diagnosed my issue: my writing had become too precious.
In engineering projects it’s often said that “perfect is the enemy of done”. So it goes with writing fiction. My pursuit of the perfect narrative brought me too close and I lost perspective. Worse even, I had paralyzed my progress so I wouldn’t publish something terrible. If I did, I feared that would invalidate me as a real writer.
It sounds dramatic. You have to put yourself out there to write fiction. That kind of exposure creates a sense of vulnerability.
I had to look past that feeling and take a chance. In the end, I told myself that I write for me. To learn, and to get better. But most important, I write because I have stories to tell.
Finishing The Addict has taught me several lessons. The perspective I’ve gained will influence my storytelling from here on out. I have a better understanding for how to write character driven stories.
Thanks for reading this update—and your patience—as I’ve quietly worked through The Addict. It’s a large story, which brings the characters to the brink. I hope you enjoy it.
See you tomorrow.