The Beast was—is—the first draft of my literary/mainstream WIP. Working without an outline, I researched and wrote the manuscript over a period of three years, my passionate belief in my story and characters sustaining me past all the trap doors I encountered along the way. After typing “The End,” I dutifully tucked my flash drive into a drawer. Three months later, I printed the pages and read them.
I had expected the draft to be a mess, but to my horror, it revealed itself to be a Beast—a fat, hulking Beast, with matted fur the colors of a bruise, jagged fangs and extra limbs that poked out from random places on its body. It was a bloated, reeking behemoth, and it bore no resemblance to what I’d set out to create.
The worst part was that one of my two primary characters simply didn’t work. She needed to carry the narrative from beginning to end, and she was flat. She had as much appeal as a rote recitation of the name of every beast that has ever inhabited the earth’s animal kingdom, from amoeba to zebra, and everything that’s ever lived in between.
By the time I finished reading The Beast, it had crushed me. Weeks later, when I finally managed to crawl to my computer, gasping for breath, The Beast refused to let me write. It deposited a nasty little anti-muse on my shoulder, one that hissed and spit epithets into my ear when I tried to think of ways to redraw my character. “She sucks because you can’t write,” it said. “You are a fraud, a joke. You are only playing at what real writers do.”
And I believed it.
I could see this character in my head so well. I understood her. I knew her motivations, empathized with her longings and felt her frustrations at being unable to attain her objectives. Why hadn’t this come through in the draft? Who could help me fix her so that others could perceive her as clearly as I could? The irony was that I’d written her so badly that no one could see what I was aiming for, so no one could help me get there.
Except, I realized, for one person: the other main character in the book.
On the advice of writer friends and my extremely patient husband, I forced myself to read The Beast again. This time, I glimpsed healthy muscle peeking out beneath the knots of hair and limbs. To my surprise, my other main character popped right off the page. I cared about what happened to him through every part of the manuscript. He had motivation, he had flaws, he had depth. He was real.
He could help.
I sat down at my laptop and opened a blank Word document. “Colin,” I said aloud. “This is just you and me talking now. No one else will read this. You know this person better than anyone. Tell me about her.”
Then an amazing thing happened: he did.
He began with a few paragraphs of drivel, but then he started telling me the reasons he’d noticed this young woman when he first met her. He described her recoil at being touched, even casually, that went so far beyond any ordinary aversion. He shared her obsessions, her routines, the oddities of her running habits. (“I’m pretty sure the sweat ran in pre-ordered rivulets down her shirt.”) He kept talking and as he did, I learned more about her vulnerabilities and how they manifested themselves—things I hadn’t known even after writing a beastly six-hundred-page first draft. I suddenly realized a key to her character arc I’d never seen before.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve still got a lot of work to do. My new assistant laughed when I asked him to help with a plot hole, and he walked right out of the room when I posed a major structural problem. The Beast still sits before me, dangling that anti-muse from its stinky, rotting teeth, threatening to rake me again with its claws.
The Beast nearly scared the life out of me, and it may do so again when I read draft number two. But even though that draft may also be a Beast, I know now that a weapon may be hidden within in it, a way to step outside of the fear it brings so that I can find a new path back into writing my characters and their story. I’ve learned that if I look hard enough, I can find a way to tame The Beast.
Photo courtesy Deviant Art’s nJoo.