Head­er pho­to cred­it­ed to Drew Coff­man.

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.