Roll another number

I guess the most surprising thing about the actual writing of “Losering” was how fast that part went. By the time I was putting words down, I had less than six months to finish and I was genuinely worried that wouldn’t be enough time. When I wrote a novel, “Off The Record,” it took three years just to finish the first draft, followed by another three years of editing (plus an unsuccessful go-round with a book agent) before it finally felt done.

Maybe I would have finished that one faster if I’d had a deadline to meet. And of course, there’s a big difference between writing fiction where you’re making it up out of whole cloth and a work of criticism/journalism, where events dictate content to a large extent. But still, there was intense deadline pressure. To finish on time, I needed to be generating 2,000 words a week, on top of writing for the paper (and whatever other extracurricular projects came up) plus tending to home and family matters. Nothing for it but to take a deep breath, jump in and start swimming.

I tried various openings, some so bad that the memory of them still make me wince. But I figured out pretty quickly that I should start, as they say, at the very beginning: the first time I interviewed Ryan, a night that’s become a fairly legendary piece of local-music lore. Ryan was one of four singer/songwriters performing at the Berkeley Cafe in Raleigh, a venerable bar/burger joint where I still have lunch every week with my pal Scott Huler (a brilliant writer whose books you should read, if you haven’t already). A drunk dude managed to talk his way onstage with disastrous results, but the fun was just beginning. As I was attempting to interview Ryan afterward, drunk dude went nuts and declared himself armed and ready to kill. Cops summoned, standoff ensued, interview wrecked, but what a hilarious story it’s been to tell over the years.

That all made a nice hook for the Preface. From there, I backed up a few years to cover Ryan’s pre-Whiskeytown days in Jacksonville and Raleigh. That led very naturally to splitting the book into three sections — “Before,” “During” and “After.” The middle “During” part covers the Whiskeytown epoch, and it makes up the bulk of the book because that’s when I had the best view and firsthand access.

I had both an abstract goal of telling the story, and a concrete one: 50,000 words. It wouldn’t come out to exactly that many words, of course. But word count was an easy metric for measuring progress, especially with MS Word handily giving that number in the lower left corner; yes, I wrote the whole thing in a single Word file, all 300KB of it, which probably was not a great idea (although I did e-mail backups every day). With 50,000 words as my goal line, I began marking how far along I was with cryptic Facebook and Twitter updates like this one from March 28, 2011:

10,370 down, 39,630 to go…

That was a good-sized chunk, more than one-fifth of the way there in less than a month. I was able to pick up the pace in April, passing the halfway point (25,622 words) by the end of the month. By the end of May, I was almost three-quarters there (39,435 words). And by June 26, 2011, I was somehow…done.

Or rather, done with the first draft, which came in at 54,668 words. But getting all the way to the end was a massive relief, even if it wasn’t the ultimate end. And accomplishing that in four months gave me a few months to tweak it before submission. I printed out a few copies, passed those out to some friends to get feedback and didn’t touch it for a couple of weeks. In mid-July, I started tinkering based on people’s suggestions; taking one last spin through it to tighten it up here and there. It was sort of like the final mix-down and mastering stage of a recording.

One hot August night, I put up the following status update:

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Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Roll another number

  1. Pingback: Onward through the fog: Peer review and other rituals « LoseringBook

  2. Pingback: Ben Folds Five: Chapel Hill, represent! « LoseringBook

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