Three Things Island Apart Taught Me About Writing
For thirty years, I’ve made my living as a food writer (which you probably know if you love barbecue). But I always wanted to write fiction. Last month, Forge Books (Macmillan) published my first novel, Island Apart. I wish I could say it came ease, but while I completed my first draft in six months, it took me fifteen years to get around to writing that first draft and five years to turn it into the story you read today. Starting today and in the future, I’ll tell you some of the lessons I learned about writing. Food writers take note: fiction has definitely helped me write better cookbooks.
1. Writing requires both inspiration and endurance. (Perhaps even more of the latter than the former.) Novels are hard work and part of that hard work is keeping yourself in a chair long enough to crank out the 300, 500, or 1000 pages that will eventually become your story. It’s supposed to be hard work. If it were easy, everyone would write a novel instead of talking about it.
2. Savor the “whew” moment when you finish your first draft. It very likely won’t last. You just might not realize it at the moment. When I finished the first version of Island Apart (entitled The Hermit of Chappaquiddick at the time), I believed I had written the proverbial great American novel. Seven figure advance offers would soon flood my in-box. I wrote and scrapped an additional 700 pages in the nine revisions that followed to end up with the 288 pages that comprise the final book book.
3. The first chapter—or even the first 200 pages you write (to paraphrase Tolstoy)—may not be the beginning of your ultimate story. My first draft of Island Apart opened with a trip from New York City to Martha’s Vineyard. I wanted to take the reader on the same journey I’ve made so often—waiting in traffic to cross the Bourne Bridge; lining up with all the other cars at Steamship Authority Ferry Terminal in Woods Hole; driving up the rickety ramp onto the boat; feeling the sea breeze in your hair crossing Vineyard Sound; and finally, the surreal calm you experience on arriving on Chappaquiddick. There was just one problem: The guy whose journey I chronicled was one of my secondary characters and I wasted sixty pages to get to my protagonist and the real story. Once I cut the first two chapters, the book took off.