Margot Singer has been blogging for the Visiting Scribe series this week about her debut novel, Underground Fugue. In her final post, she gives us a look into the process of novel-writing, explaining what happens when first (and second) drafts go south – and how she got out of her writing rut.
In the fall of 2006, I won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and traded the money for the following semester’s leave from teaching. I’d just completed a collection of linked short stories (The Pale of Settlement) and was excited about the prospect of tackling a novel. I had a gift of fifteen weeks. If I wrote roughly three to five pages a day, I figured, I should easily be able write a couple hundred pages — a first draft. People were cranking out entire novels in the month of November during NaNoWriMo. Hell, high schoolers were doing it! I was sure that I could too.
On January 3, 2007, I took my laptop to the faculty common room at the college where I work — a pretty, quiet space equipped with a coffee machine and lots of natural light. From then on, I went there every day. Before long, I’d accumulated a folder on my desktop filled with dozens of Word documents, each file named by different date. I had 45 files in the folder and a 50-page draft completed by the middle of March. But something — I wasn’t sure exactly what — didn’t feel right. So after spring break, I started over. At the end of May, I’d produced a second, different, 50-page draft. I shared it with a writer friend. Her smart and generous feedback confirmed what I already knew: I was stuck.
“Everybody writes shitty first drafts,” I routinely assure my students. But I hadn’t written a shitty first draft at the level of technique. There was nothing much wrong with my sentences or scenes. It was the story that I couldn’t figure out. What was I supposed to do about that? “Take all the furniture out of the room and put it back in again one piece at a time,” a friend recommended. I made lists of questions. Start earlier? Switch point of view? Where do they live? What do they do? I spent weeks reading for inspiration, doing research. I cut out clippings of articles on neuroscience and urban exploration and the Holocaust. I free wrote. I drew diagrams. I sketched out scenes.
One thing I kept coming back to was a story I’d heard on the radio about a man who’d turned up on a beach on the southern coast of England late one night in April 2005, soaking wet, dressed in a formal suit. He carried no identifying marks or papers; even the labels had been cut out of all is clothes. The man couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak, but played the piano like a pro. A bulletin was put out on the Missing Persons Helpline and thousands of people from around the world had called in, thinking they recognized him, but to no avail.
The image of the lost man fascinated me, but it wasn’t even really a story. Where the story should have been, there was nothing but an empty space.
I took few more desultory runs at my draft that summer and following year and then gave up. I felt awful. I’d spent my NEA grant money and an entire semester’s worth of time off from teaching and accumulated well over a hundred pages — but I had nothing to send out, nothing to show for all my work.
In October 2011, on sabbatical, I spent two weeks at a writer’s residency in Wyoming and gave myself permission to start again. The new draft opened with the image of that unidentified stranger wandering along the beach. It still felt like the same project — but virtually everything had changed: the characters, the events, the point of view. Most importantly, I’d found a structure in sections narrated from four alternating third person perspectives. Slowly, the pieces of a new draft started to fall into place. Slowly, images coalesced into patterns. Slowly, the characters began to come to life.
Now, looking back, the idea of a man without an identity — without a story — feels like a metaphor for my own struggle to find the novel’s plot.
My novel, Underground Fugue, asks what happens when you leave a life behind. Who do you become when you flee across a border? How does the memory of what’s been lost shape the experience of the present time? How do you forge human connections in a new language, culture, place?
On the first page of my oldest notebook, dated August 2006, I find a simple scribbled list of words: borders, history, memory, journey – return. Connections — how we yearn for human connection, how we fail. Almost none of the material I wrote in those early years made it into the final draft. But the themes were all there, as it turns out, right from the start.
Margot Singer’s Underground Fugue is the 2017 Edward Lewis Wallant Prize winnter. Her story collection, The Pale of Settlement won the Flannery O’Connor Award, the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, and the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers. Her work has been featured on NPR, the Kenyon Review, among other publications. She is a professor of English at Denison University.