Notes from the Driveway


The vast majority of accidents happen within a few miles of home.  This was an argument often heard while a nation was slowly changing its culture to include the automatic fastening of seat belts upon getting in a car.

My father understood this long before Detroit did, buying packaged seat belts and installing them himself on our family car as far back as our 50s-era Ford station wagon.  Back then they were called safety belts, and “fasten your safety belt” was the travel mantra of my family. We were routinely buckled up in belts that look like the airline seat restraints of today even before we left our driveway in what was then the very sleepy town of Danville, California.  East of San Francisco, the entire area is today covered with upscale houses, one of which is the home of Captain Sullenberger of the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

But I digress.  When that ad campaign first came out, it seemed to imply that the drive between home and grocery store was for some reason more laden with potential to kill and maim than hurtling down a freeway, or driving the switchbacks of a gravel cliff road in the Andes.  This purported menace doesn’t make any sense until we realize that on every trip we take, whatever its length, we pass through our own neighborhood twice, once going and once coming back.  We’re within a few miles of home more often than we’re anyplace else in our car, so of course the odds favor that will be where an accident will occur.

So what does this have to do with writing?  I’ve reached the end of the first section of my new novel–roughly the 100 page mark.  I can’t really call this the first draft because I’ve been working and reworking the material since day one, and I still need to go back through it a few more times now that I know my characters, plot, and settings better.

Once I’ve polished, tweaked, added, subtracted, and refined in numerous big and small ways, I’ll send the manuscript off to some carefully chosen first readers and while I am waiting for feedback, I’ll start doing some focused research and planning for part two.  A few months from now, when I am at the end of part two, I’ll revise parts one and two again.  This circling back through the manuscript will happen until the book is complete.  Because writing a book is an additive process, this means that the first ten pages will get revised countless times because they’ve been around the longest, page eleven to fifty will be looked at almost as often, the first hundred quite a bit, and so on.

But what about page four hundred?  By that point everything is usually really humming.  There’s less to go back and fill in or change, since I already know the world of the book so well. But even if that weren’t the case, it would be unlikely the final pages would ever receive the kind of repeated attention the beginning got.

It’s funny how rarely this reduced attention is apparent in published books, but I wonder whether perhaps those books that disappoint, the ones that seem to lose steam and/or focus toward the end, are impacted by the pattern I describe.

The first section of a book is like the patch of road closest to home, the one traveled again and again. When we reach an entirely new destination three to four hundred miles–or pages–later, we don’t experience every curve, every bump in the road so thoroughly.  But then we don’t need to, since every mile, every page, adds to our experience, our ability to navigate well through whatever lies ahead. We manage to get to the end one way or another even if we’re dog tired and the road is not a familiar one.

And don’t forget–most accidents really do happen close to home. Fasten your safety belt, everyone!