These days, I’ve been doing a lot of revising. Right after the New Year, I pulled out the draft of the novel I wrote last spring and summer. Taking another look at it has been teaching me a lot.
I loved writing this book. It started out as a short story that I wrote in response to a contest prompt. One of the contest’s judges commented that they thought it should be a book, and they hoped I would try writing it. I’d never based a novel on a story before (although I’m going to try it again, pretty soon), and had no outline or plans.
Jumping in and winging it, figuring out my main character and his life as I went, was hugely fun. I often put a lot of pressure on drafts. (“If you’re going to spend this much time writing, it’d better be good!”) This time, I had no expectations going in. It was all about seeing what shook out, and it was wonderful.
When I finished the draft, I was really excited. The story had taken on all kinds of layers. I adored my main character. Putting the project aside was really difficult, because I wanted to keep hanging out in that world.
Looking at it now, with a little more distance, I can see how many corners I cut. When I didn’t know what to do, I’d put something down and plow ahead. I didn’t think too hard about precision or fine-tuning. Now I’m finding entire placeholder sections, and other parts that feel like scaffolding without masonry. There’s lots of sloppy language, and lots of “clunkers,” as I call them: awkward transitions, extra verbiage to trip over.
About a third of the way through, I hit a chapter that left me thinking good lord, what a snore! As I slogged through, trying to see how to fix it, I wondered if, really, I’d come up with much of anything workable in this book at all. Maybe I’d tried to do too much with all those layers, and it was like mixing too many colors of paint: you didn’t end up with a rainbow, just a sludgy mess.
I’ve stuck with it, mainly because I do still love this character, and hanging out with him feels like solid ground underfoot. I don’t know if this story will ultimately shape up into anything that it feels right to share. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the revision now, and when it’s done, it’s probably going to go back into a folder for a while. Sometime later, I might take it out again and look at those spots where I know something still isn’t right.
With my first two books, especially To Love A Stranger, I felt a lot of pressure to finish-and-publish. What else would justify all that time? This time, it feels okay to put in these hours dickering with a puzzle. In revision, I love figuring out where the problems are and how to smooth them out. Every one of them teaches me something I can keep in mind for next time. This story took a bunch of risks, and uses some devices that maybe, ultimately, can’t work. That feels okay too. If I can’t fix them, I can still learn from them.
This experience is reminding me why, at the end of the day, I do this work even when no results are guaranteed. Storytelling always just feels right. Doing it keeps me grounded in who I am. Every project has some kind of joy in it, a motive power that keeps me coming back.
One of these days, maybe this current main character really will make his way into the world, whether in a version of this book or in some different story. That might be a while from now. Meanwhile, he makes me smile, and I’ll enjoy the time I can spend with him.