Essays > Published on September 17th, 2011

Nuts and Bolts -- The Horizontal Versus the Vertical

The first draft of Diary wasn't called Diary.  It was called Period Revival, and it wasn't even about a character.  It was about a house.  Actually, the first-first title of the book was Dream Home.

In that book, a wealthy couple would flee their hectic city life in search of a quiet place to live in the country.  They'd be driving down some rural road when they got a flat tire and stopped to fix it.  Near the road was a stone wall, in the wall, a rusted, elaborate gate.  Curious, they climbed the gate - wrought iron and scrolled with bars and fancy curls of iron - and walked up a private drive, almost hidden by weeds and fallen leaves.  At the top of this drive yawned a vast stone basement, half-filled with rubble and charred wood.  The view from the spot was - inspiring.  Half the state seemed to stretch out below them.  They'd found their perfect location.  The exact spot to build their dream home.

Cue the happy, excited music.

A quick title search showed the county owned the land, due to unpaid back taxes.  So the couple bought it and started planning.  No matter who they brought to the site: their architect, their relatives, their lawyers, everyone seemed to have the same idea for the kind of house the couple should build.  If given a pencil and paper, everyone would draw, window-by-window, the same house.  A piled-up mountain of porches and wings and chimneys, all of it rising from the original stone basement. 

The couple noticed this spooky coincidence - everyone drawing the same house - and they started to experiment.  The husband would close his eyes and draw, free-hand, letting his pencil go however his hand moved.  The wife did the same.  The resulting drawings made no sense to them - but their architects and engineers later recognized the drawings as perfect schematics for the wiring, plumbing, septic systems of this same colossal house.  And the floor plans.  All drawn by accident, blindly, by amateurs.  Spooky stuff.

Ignoring this, driven by their dream of creating an ideal country home - an ideal life -- the couple broke ground and started to build.  They imported their own contractors and workers.  They didn't trust the quality of local craftsmen.  This couple, they didn't want to mingle with the neighboring bumpkin rednecks.

Once the house was complete, looking like a dream... a mirage... a fantasy - their fantasy - the couple moved in.  At first, it was heaven.  Still, the house was a little too much to maintain so they advertised locally for a caretaker or maid.

Of course, the couple, they dismissed the old coot.  But their lives went to hell.  They fought.  They fucked around on each other.  Doing some research, they found their lives did seem to be echoing the lives of the last generation of Blah-Blahs - all of whom had died when the original mansion had burned to the ground.  Still, the couple refused to believe... until it was too late.  Then - you guessed it - history repeated itself.

In the last chapter, decades later, another couple gets a flat tire outside the same rusting, wrought-iron gates....

That was the first draft, written all the way through.  The original title, Period Revival, referred to the way builders re-interpret old styles of  architecture, thus using the mansion's design as a metaphor.

The idea had come in a flash, during dinner in a sushi restaurant with friends.  We'd been talking about the mistakes that people and cultures make, again and again, endlessly, throughout history.  No matter how "smart" we get, we still screw up in the same ways.  What kills us is what killed our ancestors.  But we still forge on, working toward the same flawed dreams.

It took me six months to write that first draft, but after my agent read it, something was very wrong.  It was too... complicated.  Yes, all that nesting stuff - the floor plans and carpet samples and paint colors - they were interesting.  But in a Discovery Channel way.  Like some home decorating show.

That said, I trashed the book.  My themes had to be more clear.  My "horses" had to have a more universal appeal.  "Art and Creativity" instead of just nesting.  The book had about three times too many characters.  So I started cutting it back to the bone.   The book was really about un-examined inspiration - the dreams of childhood, carried into adulthood --  and the disasters that happen when we're un-aware of the past. 

That first book looked like a big, bubbling disaster - until I saw how the house could become a person.  It could be a character who would be "rebuilt" each century, in order to generate the same un-resolved crises.

Dream Home became Period Revival became Diary.

My point?  Get past your first draft.  Don't be so in love with it that you can't see ways to improve it.  Don't be stopped dead by the flaws and shittiness of it - but don't be blinded by the strong points.

Last week, my agent arranged for actors to read through the play I'd written this winter.  It sucked.  It sucked so bad I sat in the Burbank airport for three hours, afterward, counting the songs they played on the Muzak system, and trying to remember the longest string of song titles possible.  After about sixteen songs, my memory started to fall apart, but anything was better than remembering how badly the play had sounded.

The actors were great - including Zack, who played the "boss" in Fight Club - but the play...  Maybe it didn't SUCK-suck, people still laughed.  But when the funny first half got dark and darker, people kept laughing.  Even when it became a tragedy, they laughed.

It was the best I could do - and it didn't work.  What's worse is I didn't know how to fix it. 

The premise is strong.  The structure is there.  It just needs... more.  It should be at least a half hour longer, and the pace needs to vary more, with smaller scenes or asides to buffer between the acts.  This, I see now.  But in the Burbank airport I never wanted to see the play again.  It was bad enough that the actors had heard it.  Had READ it, aloud. 

The next week, my editor, Gerry, called to say he'd read a copy I'd sent.  On the page, it was funny.  Gerry said it had at least twenty laugh-out-loud moments.  God bless Gerry.  Looking at it, again, I can start to see how to fix it.

What's on the page now is the "horizontal" story:  the plot of physical events from start to resolution.

What's still missing is the "vertical" story:  the depth or emotional journey. 

In a way, my first draft is always very "head-based" as I'm calculating like a mouse in a maze, trying to escape the situation I've created.  My second or third or fourth draft is more "heart-based."  Only then does any emotion occur, characters fill out, and themes get refined to their real core.

In his workshop, Tom Spanbauer calls the act of writing the first draft: "Shitting out the lump of coal."  According to Tom's metaphor, you need to create the raw story before you can refine it.  Ideally, into a diamond.  It's a struggle, and it's frightening.  You have no idea IF this thing will resolve itself in a way that justifies your time and effort.  But once it's out, you can relax and enjoy the rewrite.  You can look at the overall shape of the whole thing.  You can carry around a printed, hard copy and line edit the details.

This is why I tend to shave my head before the final draft - to remind myself that nothing on the page is sacred.  Better ideas will come, the way hair always seems to grow back.  After the original "horizontal" story is on the page, set it aside if you have to.  For six weeks or months.  But then, look for ways to present the themes better.  Eliminate characters.  Re-read that draft, looking for dropped elements.  Then, find ways to develop them.

For now, my play is still a lump of coal.  It's closer to Dream Home than Diary, but it's some place to start.  The "horizontal journey" is on the page.  That's better than nothing.  For now, that's good enough.

If you're working on a first draft... don't get it perfect - get it DONE.  Push through it until the horizontal journey is complete.  Shit out your lump of coal, scene by physical scene, until you see how it resolves itself.

If you're done with that first draft, consider setting it aside for a few weeks, until you can see the flaws.  If you see nothing but flaws, set it aside longer until you can see how to fix it.

As of today, I've answered all the overseas and Canadian letters.  What's left are domestic letters, most of them postmarked on November 30th, which I'll answer before March.

The "advanced reader copies" of Haunted are being distributed by Random House.  Called "ARC's," these are the paper-bound early versions of the book, typeset but filled with typos that won't be corrected until the actual book is ready on May 17th.  These ARC's go to book stores and journalists, to drum up early interest.  This is pretty standard procedure for launching a book:  It gets listed in the publishing house's catalogue six months before publication (so book stores can order it); the ARC's go out about three months before publication (so media can review it); then, the author goes out to tour on the official publication date.

On this spring's tour, I'll be editing a printed copy of the play, making the most of those trapped moments in airports.  I encourage you to have a first draft ready to print by the time the weather improves and you want to head outdoors.

And again, thank you for reading my work.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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