On Finishing a Novel, Softly

So I haven’t been posting anything of late as I’ve been plunged into my own writing—specifically, finishing a novel.
I’m usually amused at depictions of writers in movies, how cornball they often are: Usually the writer begins a novel by sitting an old-fashioned typewriter (do they even exist anymore?) and typing “Chapter One.” After a lot of hijinks involving wives, girlfriends, or ex-wives, the (somehow triumphant) writer then gets to the final page, types, “The End,” and that’s that. Then he or she is on to cashing fat advances and being obnoxious at cocktail parties. Wouldn’t that be nice.
My own experience with writing novels, and from what I know of others, is much more angst-ridden, demanding, draining, soul-searching, and creative. Starting out on the daunting task of writing a novel often begins gradually, with an image or anecdote, or with writing a short story and then realizing it didn’t do the story in your head justice. My new novel, The Bird Saviors, began with both: I heard an anecdote about a young woman whose boyfriend broke up with her, then demanded the expensive engagement ring back. I also wrote a story about an ornithologist, set in the near-future, titled “On the Decline of Sparrows,” published a few years ago in The Antioch Review. I wrote a quick first draft the summer of 2006, and kept meaning to back it up somewhere, as it was only on my laptop harddrive, but I was busy and my daughter was being born and . . . .
The harddrive crashed. Novel gone.
Back to the drawing board. I basically rewrote it from memory, and of course (believe) I improved it, starting with the line, “Officer Israel James did not like motels.” (That’s not the beginning, but is what I remembered most clearly.) It was much work, and this time I backed up the laptop often enough. I even had one harddrive crash during the process, but had the whole thing retrieved in good shape.
Now, five years later, it’s done. More or less. My editor is reading it now, and will no doubt have suggestions for me. But I completed it today with two sentences describing one of the characters drinking a glass of water. It’s actually an important detail. You’ll have to read it to know why.
So know I’ve reached the end game: Both Susan Orlean and Kent Haruf told me this year how they usually hate their books by the end of the editing process, after seeing the pages so much. It gets repetitive, seeing the same thing over and over again. Hopefully, it’s all worth it, in the end.

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