And the beat goes on: writing a novel, the editing process & working with Alan Rinzler

Writing a novel takes a while; don’t let anyone tell you differently.  Even when you are moving along at what appears to be warp speed in the writing world, you’re invariably on the cusp of realizing you still have a long ways to go — which is a really good thing, believe it or not!

Besides having had an amazing and wonderful experience working on my novel with my two MFA mentors (Catherine Texier and Patricia Lear, you guys rock!), I’ve also had the privilege of working with one of the best editors in the biz, Alan Rinzler.  One of the great things about working with an editor who is up to his eyeballs with responsibilities is that he won’t sugarcoat anything for you.

After Alan read through the first [very rough] 77,163 words, he said, “The writing’s pretty good but there are a few core concept issues here,” and offered to help me fix them.  We talked on the phone for an hour which was ostensibly a preliminary consultation, possibly to find out how we’d work together, but more so that I could get a feel for what Alan thought was working and what wasn’t, not to mention what was needed.

We hung up, I trimmed away14,752 superfluous words and drafted a  new full-length outline of the book as I was imagining it and sent it to him a few weeks later.  In the mean time, I’d also written another new 11,698 words to bring my novel’s total word count back up to 74,109.

We’ve since touched base and he definitely gave it a thorough read through.  It’s always interesting to see what people who edit for a living spot that you have managed to miss throughout your umpteen number of drafts.  The most significant suggestion he had was to — and I think this is the part that breaks more sane people — start from page one and begin working on a new draft.  Actually, his suggestion was to reconstruct the outline and then start from page one.  This is not an uncommon practice.  My favorite writer, David Foster Wallace, was known as a 5 draft author; the first two full-length drafts, he’d actually write out by hand.

And because I love both challenges and masochism equally, I suggested to Alan that, since it has historically been my strongest P.O.V., why don’t I write my second draft from the first person?  He thought this was a really good idea and that was that; I began sketching out ideas on my outline for a 1st person P.O.V. narrative. I’m actually pretty excited about this, I think it’s going to be even better!

So what does that mean for my previous draft?  Well, I’m going to post sections of the old 3rd person draft right here on my website, of course!  I won’t be giving away the end, though.  I’ve just written a lot of pages that I think are good and I’d really like to get them in front of the eyes of an audience.  So without further ado, a new section from the first [now old] draft:

Friday, Omaha, NE, 8:56 A.M. CST

Bartleby, Barney, Barney and Co. Offices


“Doctor Heinzegger—how are you?”

“I’m fine Sawyer, but I suppose the more pertinent question at the moment would be, how are you?”

“Oh, man Doc, I really wish I could say for sure one way or the other.”

“Yes, your message just now sounded quite urgent, and I was honestly more than a little surprised to hear that it was your voice.  I mean, since you’d basically up and stopped coming to appointments all of a sudden.”

Yeah…”  Sawyer lets his voice trail off.

“I don’t typically take professional calls while I’m on vacation, but I could really hear a sense of urgency in your message.”

“I wish I could explain it, Doc.  I just—I don’t know—I feel like I’m going to crack.  Like, I need to make a really big decision and it could—and I’m just supposing here—have very undesirable consequences, once all is said and done.”

Mm hmm… Go on.”

“But thinking about this 24/7, I just feel like I’m going to implode—like the pressure’s just going to get to be too much.  But also, if I don’t say something—and I mean, like I said, this is big—then no one will…  And all that pressure that’s been building and building is just—it’s not gonna have anywhere to go, I can tell you that, and I’m going to have a meltdown.  I know I’m rambling, but does that make even a little sense?” Sawyer says, nearly out of breath.

“I see, and yes, it does.”

“And so then—so if I go ahead and clear my conscience, we’ll say—if I talk about what’s on my mind—well, some people might go to prison.  And by some people, that even possibly means me.  And to be perfectly honest, I really don’t want to go to prison.”

Dr. Heinzegger is silent on his end for what could have possibly been a few minutes.  Sawyer is unsure whether or not the doctor is using the time to mull over what he’s just been told, or whether his mind is just completely blown, or if he is even, in fact, still a participant in the present conversation on the other end of the line at all.

“Doc?” Sawyer prods.

“Yes,” he says finally, “I can definitely see your dilemma.”

“So what do you think?”

“I’m just curious Sawyer,” Dr. Heinzegger begins, then pauses: “Is there anything I should know about my investments with your firm?”

“Wait.  What?  Who said anything about the firm?”  Sawyer isn’t sure he heard Dr. Heinzegger correctly.

“I just get the feeling…”

You get the feeling?  Doc, we’re not talking about you right now, we’re talking about a very realistic scenario where I might have a complete nervous breakdown based on either of two unappealing choices I’m considering making, which is a real catch-twenty-fucking-two here.  So please, pardon my saying this, Doctor Heinzegger, but fuck your feelings!”  Sawyer is rapidly gulping in air at this point, chest heaving.

“Sawyer, I honestly don’t think this conversation is very healthy for you—not like this, on the phone.  Would you like me to meet you at my office?  I can make a special arrangement.  I can even come to you—honestly, whatever works,” Dr. Heinzegger says, becoming a great deal more helpful all of a sudden, which, Sawyer decides, is too late since he’s shown his hand and Sawyer doesn’t at all like the cards the doctor is holding.

After a minute or two, Sawyer finally say something: “You want an investing tip?  I think now is a good time to go all in.  I really do—no question.  I mean, shit, they can just tack on my feeding you insider trading information to the prison sentence I’ll no doubt receive.”

“Sawyer, I just—”

“It’s drugs, Doc.  That’s what it always seems to be with me,” Sawyer lies.  “That’s what all their files say—dirty piss tests.  I’m not reliable anymore, but they know it’s not just me, so yeah—go all it, buy it all, whatever shares you have now are about to double, at least.  Call Frank Pelizotti, tell him you just got a good feeling!  He’ll be glad to help, he always is.”

Before Dr. Heinzegger has a chance to respond, Sawyer pushes the “end call” button on his BlackBerry.  He isn’t 100 percent sure why he just told his (now former) therapist to buy a shitload of shares of mostly nonexistent funds with a company that won’t be worth the puny megabytes of data that’ll be used to complete the transaction—but he’s at least 99 percent sure, he knows that last part.  Let the green-eyed monster have a crack at him, Sawyer thinks.  Since time immemorial, it’s been greed that truly eats the rich.

And so that is pretty much that as far as Sawyer is concerned.  The decision’s ostensibly begun to make itself for him.  For once he’s going to be a significant player in the narrative productive of his own life.  For far too many nights now, he’s woken up from the same recurring dream, vivid, the dream where he is on the outside—always on the outside—of a giant ice skating or hockey rink—an arena, extremely large.  Every person he’s ever known and even more people he’s never met, all out there, skating on the ice, participating, everyone—he alone remains is in the stands, observing from behind the safety glass.  In these dreams, Sawyer simply only ever stands and walks—just lingers there—on the perimeter, only ever watching—watching what he knows is (but is never told is) life, his life, playing out in front of him on the ice, he himself utterly lacking a desire to participate, to venture forth from behind the safety glass onto the ice where everything and everyone is, forging parts of their own narratives and welding them to the infinitely expansive wall that surrounds the ice, never taking notice of the sole figure watching from behind the glass, merely staking their claims around the massive skating rink as proof that they were there, really there.

Sawyer is not there, not really.  He isn’t anywhere.  He prefers not to be.

He prefers only to observe and cogitate, trying to make meaning from the infinite variety and combinations that can be synthesized together whenever two ice skaters’ lives meet and then coalesce.  Brave or inquisitive souls swish their sharpened blades under foot, their momentum carrying them effortlessly to the edge, to the perimeter—his perimeter—and the safety glass behind which stands Sawyer, always observing.  Every so often in this dream, some of the people, usually people whom he doesn’t recognize, will skate over to the edge, to the perimeter, likely noticing him for the first time, standing behind the glass—those people from the ice, from life—they’ll approach him, speak to him, make various attempts at communication, but Sawyer unfailingly becomes overwhelmed with anxiety and feels completely unsure of how to respond to them in a manner they’ll feel is appropriate.  The people from the ice reassuringly invite him to join them on the other side, but he gives them only a boyish smile and tells them he does not know how to skate and, thus, does not know how to live life the way they do—because he has never learned—but that he enjoys very much watching them skate and is perfectly content to remain doing so from his preferred vantage behind the safety glass.  They tell him things like, everyone knows how and don’t be silly, it’s just like breathing…to which Sawyer replies that he is very clearly not every-one and that it’s difficult really to say whether or not he is, in fact, even really any-one, at all.

This rejoinder, Sawyer deduces, is never the appropriate response that the ice skaters are hoping for, whom then simply look at one another and shrug before flitting off to rejoin the rest of the people skating, living—the every-one who skates around life’s icy rink as naturally as if it were an ultimately predetermined circumstance that should just simply be so—automated.

Every time the dream is the same.  And each time, Sawyer has never learned or ever had a desire to learn to skate, which he finds sort of odd that he doesn’t find it odd at all.  Always the lone wolf.  In his “real” life, he’s always found himself thrown into groups where—though there hasn’t been other options offered—he’s still always sought his own council, and wondered to himself, why hasn’t anyone ever stopped to think that perhaps not everyone fucking likes ice skating?

So then presently in his office, Sawyer can only stare at the towering stack of folders.  Manila on top of manila on top of manila—stacks of bound eight and a half by eleven sheets—interminable, indefatigable.  For every adjustment he makes, taking the figures from the red and restoring them to the green—because investors and shareholders have conniptions when pecuniary figures are in the red—for every individual transaction he adjusts, two more transactions occur somewhere, dipping the readjusted green figures back into the red, which in turn creates another manila folder of documentation in need of balancing that will invariably make its way on to his never-ending stack.

In fact, he’ll ostensibly be altering—sorry, adjusting—new figures while the boys from the SEC audit the old ones, simultaneously—he’ll practically be handing the doctored folder right to them: Here you guys go, hot off the fuckin Xerox!

Probably the worst forms at B.B.B. & Co. in need of adjusting are the 1120, 990, 940 and 942 IRS tax forms that Sawyer has to run through a practically ancient IBM Selectric typewriter, a true anachronism in the digital age, that produces hardcopy documented records that have no digital footprint—on his computer, the Black Box or otherwise.  It’s a painstaking process and one that’s always made him very uneasy, which is putting it extremely mildly.

Sawyer pauses to look around his office, taking things in he’d never really taken in before.  Besides the exceedingly posh office furniture, there’s nothing truly remarkable about his office.  Nothing remarkable, that is, not in the sense that it isn’t an absolutely prime professional work space—of course it is—with its exterior windows nearly floor-to-ceiling, offering fantastic view of downtown Omaha, it’s positively professional-çç [1] to the nines.  No, there’s nothing remarkable in the sense that there is ostensibly not a single distinguishable characteristic within the entire space, no defining features that would identify this as the Office of Sawyer Deramore, as opposed to any other urban professional anywhere else across America’s metropolitan areas.  There’s nothing at all that shows he, personally, was here.

His life has seemingly become nothing more than a boutique flavor of vanilla—it doesn’t matter how refined it is, becomes, it’s still unremarkable and always will be—his life, his office—nothing more than a box inside a box inside still larger box—basically a Russian doll with an underwhelming, wholly anticlimactic dividend at its core that isn’t worth the adumbration for a rainy day.

How’d he somehow nearly manage to see his 30th birthday without recognizing this fact?  The epiphany is pretty staggering and he has trouble catching his breath.  Really, what has he been doing?  Why has he been doing it?  As Sawyer sits in his unremarkable office chair staring at his unremarkable office walls, he truly begins to comprehend the gravity of the past three decades—the gravity with respect to himself that is not exclusive to himself—which is that he has never, in nearly 30 years, even once been allowed to fail—truly fail—never faced a consequence that couldn’t be bought off or politicked away by his parents.  Basically, he sees now he has never been in charge of his own life, ever.  Someone—namely his parents, either one or both—has/have always been there to catch him well before he falls.



So many applicable absolutes.

They told him (his parents had) that they’d long ago taken off his training wheels and he’d simply never bothered to look down to make sure, always only ever—more absolutes—taking them at their word—unfailingly trusting, unquestioning.

The biggest, most significant reason he’s only now realizing the degree to which this reality is true—has always been true—is because he’s now approaching a definitive situation, approaching a decision that has consequences that will fall—irrespective of any extenuating circumstances—squarely on his shoulders, consequences that can’t be bought off or politicked away, no matter the amount of capital or clout that gets thrown at them, the consequences.

But now he was going to make the decision and he alone was going to face the ramifications.

However, there is an odd sense of repose that comes with making a pivotal, autonomous decision.  You know that on whichever side the chips fall, it was your autonomy and independence as a thinker and an individual that brought about the outcome.  If the first 29 years of his life had been unremarkable, this decision he’s all but already made is going to efface all of that posterior obscure ambiguity that he felt had once defined him.  If riding on the laurels of your upper-class family heritage and strict, WASP upbringing somehow paved the way to leading a life of comfortable, yet ordinary banality, then blowing the whistle on one of the largest, longest-running and undetected ponzi schemes in American history will certainly provide an express pass to notoriety—not for notoriety’s sake but for the ability to leave your indelible mark on the world in a manner that is truly beneficent by intention, by making a decision that is not congruent with your once traditional and self-serving M.O.

[1] The kind of chic that is so chic it requires unnecessary áççèñt marks to illustrate its ultimate ççness.

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