Every night after I finish work, I sit down to write this essay, and every night I fail. And failure, believe it or not, is one of the best things that can happen to a writer. Trying to write and then coming up short is all part of the process. It means that the writing hasn't measured up. It means the work can be better and this goal of something better is what's important.
One of the best tips I've received on talking about my work is to give the reader something they cannot find in the pages of my novels. So let's start there. I failed myself when I started down the path to what would become my second novel, The Carrion Birds. I had false starts. I had scenes that didn't go anywhere, characters that didn't seem real enough, even 20,000-word sections that didn't measure up. So I held onto it, believing the good writing — the writing The Carrion Birds deserved — would come.
For a long time I struggled over this essay because what I was writing didn't seem like something from my own mouth. It seemed like something in the voice of one of my characters, violent and tough — and perhaps I could have fooled you into thinking this is who I really am, but it wouldn't have satisfied me. It would have felt false and I couldn't live with that. A real life based on a false choice.
In the end, The Carrion Birds was a year past deadline because my own personal sense of what the novel was didn't measure up to what I believed it could be.
The Carrion Birds is a violent book. It's the story of a hit man name Ray Lamar, after spending years away, coming home to see the 12-year-old son he left behind. The challenge of all this is trying to make a warm-blooded human out of a man who kills for a living. In some sense, the struggle has always been about creating a sympathetic character for the reader, as well as creating a sympathetic character for Ray's son. Part of that is facing up to the fact that sometimes what is on the page isn't good enough.
Hemingway wrote 47 endings to his novel A Farewell to Arms, and in the most recent edition of this old classic, they all appear. It's a fascinating way to look at what could have been. And to be honest, it's something that I'm glad you can't see in my own work. I'm much happier to keep my castaways marooned on their very own island in my head. Banded together there, they create a sort of support group only I have access to.
All of this is a way of saying I'm learning. I'm getting better. I'm trying to be the best writer I can be. I read back over my first novel, The Terror of Living, and I see things that I wouldn't do now, or things I wish I was doing now on my current project. It's all subjective. It comes down to what makes me happy and who I want to be in that moment.
Looking back over the last few weeks of essays started then tossed aside, I know I have not been happy. And looking back over this essay, trying to talk about what was, and what eventually developed, I know I have been honest with you. I have tried to be the best version of myself I can be.
Like this essay, much has changed in The Carrion Birds from one version to the next. The author I am now probably wouldn't like the author I was at the beginning, barreling along without considering the repercussions of the story, or how in the start every one of these characters, from Ray to the county sheriff, Edna Kelly, seemed like caricatures of themselves. Stuck in some archetype of their title, either killer, sheriff, or, in the case of Ray's son, forgotten.
I'm not perfect. I've learned I have a dark side that always seems to want to put a gun in the character's hand and have them pull the trigger. But I've also learned that there is a balance, and any character with a gun in his hand has to have another side, like any person does. And that other side is what makes the best story. Those desires for the future — those hopes for what might be. That becomes the real story and the one I'm always searching for.