Going Back To Death Valley

Going back to Death Valley

My novel THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO is back on my desk. It went briefly out into the world, but the magic that I’d heard in it didn’t quite resonate. I think I knew on some level that it was slightly out of tune, which is why I couldn’t become invested in a new novel-length project. Over the summer, I wrote a couple of long short stories while I waited for a new cast of characters to show up at my imagination’s doorstep, wanting a place to stay. But no one did, and so I decided to invite Clara and her Blüthner piano, Greg and John, Katya and Bruce and Mikhail to come back for a visit.

It’s not easy to read your own work and notice only the flaws. I thought I was done with it, thought it was done with me. I wanted to move on, because that’s what I do, I go forward. At least that’s what I once thought.

When I wrote WHISPER HOLLOW and thought it was finished, I had no idea that I would write that book almost from the beginning three more times before an editor fell in love with it. (And even after that, she read the whole thing to me aloud of a period of three days, inspiring yet another round or two of edits.) The published edition is 400 pages long. There are at least twice that many pages that were written and then cut.

After I re-read TWoaP, I spent a long weekend in mourning, reciting to myself the same old litany of sorrows:

I can’t do it.

I don’t know how to fix it.

I don’t want to lose all that work.

If I take it all apart, I won’t know how to put it back together.

Why did I ever think I could tell this story anyway?

I worried over those woes non-stop until I was tired of them. There they are again, I thought, just like they were with all my other books. Those same fears, the same petulance. And eventually, like after a good cry, something emerged, shimmering, from the fatigue. A deep breath. Resignation. Then, determination and motivation and a set of melodic ideas that urged me back to my desk.

I gathered my talismans for inspiration: my mug from Death Valley National Park, the candle that’s shaped like a can of auto enamel, the tiny piano/pencil sharpener that I took with me to the park so I could mimic Greg and Clara’s journey with her full-size upright Blüthner.

Here I am, days into a new draft, carried away by the company of these characters. They’re telling me details of their lives that didn’t make it onto the page the first time. They whisper encouraging words into my ears:

You can do it, you can fix it. You won’t lose the work and you’ll know how to put it back together, because you’re telling our story more fully.

Writing a story that serves the characters, that satisfies the reader, and that I love is not going to happen in a single draft. Probably not even in three. But if I go back and back for as many weeks or months or years as it takes, then I might—just might—end up with a novel that is euphonic and satisfying, the best version of itself.

Then and only then can I move on to the next.