Not to horn in on Dorothy Parker’s territory too much, but if you want to hear about the gratifying joys of revision, go sit by someone else. If you want to hear about my torturous, tedious and ridiculous attempts this week of revising my novel in the North Woods of Wisconsin, come sit by me.
Well, it WAS beautiful up there by Lake Namakagen. I was extremely lucky to have five days to myself at the cottage to dig into my novel, which my agent has not been able to sell, and which I hadn’t read in awhile. But folks, a 285 page novel is a lot to try to revise in a week. I worked mornings, afternoons, and evenings, and the more I did, the more I needed to do. At least I could go out in the 75 degree sunny weather occasionally, with red and yellow leaves falling all around me, and throw a tennis ball like a normal person for the dawg. I felt like I was chasing a ball myself at my computer all the time. Fetch, return, fetch, return….
Okay, for starters I felt confused about which draft of the novel on my computer was the latest one. How this could be, I can’t explain, nor did the helpful Word date that magically pops up clarify matters. I thought I had the latest version, but then I’d sort of remember having made some changes earlier (but I wasn’t sure) and they weren’t in the draft I thought was the most recent. I’ve had so many drafts, and named them all more or less the same thing, the title of the novel, with some catchy variation (like “old,” “new,” “revised,” “latest”) and have modified them enough to keep changing the dates. I found myself constantly switching back and forth between two older versions in confusion as I built yet a new draft—called, cleverly, “Answer revised fall 2011.” Sometimes I’d copy and paste a chapter from one draft into the wrong draft of another version and then be mystified about where it had gone. Did I actually have the IQ to revise a novel?
I was further mystified about why I had so much of the novel in present tense, when in fact I now saw it needed to be in past tense. Is there anything more tedious than changing a few thousand “says” into “saids”? Plus all that tiny mousing made my right elbow ache and my forearm burn. I know about find and replace, but I’ve made big messes of things before, when the computer will change words that contain the find letters and replace them in the midst of some different (longer) word, thus creating totally new, incomprehensible words. But beyond the time consuming chore of changing the tenses, I wondered why I had felt at one time that present tense worked. What had changed in me, to see it differently now? It hadn’t been seven years (or had it?) so all my cells hadn’t been replaced. What had seemed so “right” about present tense earlier that now seemed so “wrong”? Would I be changing it all to future tense next round?
But the really teeth grinding thing was that I was amazed…if that is not putting too positive a spin on it…at the things I had thought “worked” in the last draft and which I now saw clearly weren’t cutting it. Readers, I was embarrassed. I had sent the novel to my agent in that shape, and she had supposedly loved it (but how can you trust an agent’s opinion after Lionel Shriver’s experience…) and editors had read it (and rejected it–rightly so I suddenly saw). But now, as if I had gotten glasses after squinting at the board for years, I saw that major things—pretty darn major things—were wrong. I had thought I was finished with the thing. How does this happen? How can you be “finished” with something and then a few months later, discover how much work it still needs? How can you see clearly what you couldn’t see at all before? It’s one of the great mysteries of writing, of which in my opinion there are way too many.
I plunged in. Chapter One I pretty much left alone (because I didn’t know what to do with it); Chapter Two I split into two chapters, 2 and 4 (don’t ask me why); Chapter Three appeared as if someone had cut it up with scissors and then pasted it back randomly… On I trudged. I would occasionally get a break, when a chapter would actually seem okay to me, and I would actually enjoy reading it. Oh happy day. But then along came Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen, where it hit me that the plot had become untenable; no one would possibly believe what I was trying to put over on them. It kept me awake at night. I thought of novels I had read recently where I didn’t buy what the author was trying to get away with either. But I didn’t feel I had the balls or the license of successful bestselling authors to run roughshod over logic.
Meanwhile, I realized I had forgotten to bring a flash drive, and there was no computer access at the cabin. I am so accustomed to wonderful Carbonite backing up everything automatically on line (I can’t recommend it enough), plus I have an external hard drive, just to be sure. But here I was in the North Woods NAKED, so to speak. All the revisions I was doing were not being backed up and I didn’t have a printer. This nerve wracking development led me to drive daily to the Loon Saloon and sit in the parking lot with my laptop and tap into their wi fi. I should have been up on their deck swigging beer and saying to hell with revision and hey, while we’re at it, writing too!
Do you need a good cliché? I’m your gal. I’m full of them. If someone’s heart was pounding like a jackhammer…I wrote it. I seemed to feel that when it doubt, have someone cry. Tears were big, which is curious, because I hardly ever cry myself. Except when I was reading my novel. How many times can someone “freeze” when they’re afraid? And all this while I was reading Lionel Shriver’s brilliant writing—I kid you not, but more on that in a later post—in We Have to Talk about Kevin. Luckily the dock at the cabin had been taken in for the winter, so I was prevented from throwing myself off it.
You’ve seen those rodeo riders who are hanging onto a bucking bull for dear life? Well that was me trying to hang onto my plot. I had had some vague idea (never again) about wanting to keep the reader turning the page but where did I get the notion that that meant inventing some incongruous, implausible, melodramatic turn of events on just about every page. The thing bucked, reared, leaped, and tried to throw me into the dirt and then stomp on me. Nothing was too farfetched, no human motivation too obvious, no emotion too false, no sentence too pedestrian, and that was the good stuff.
Reader, it was a hard week. But occasionally I’d come upon something I almost liked. A rare event, I admit, but when it happened, I would be released for a few moments from myself as struggling, doubting…okay, self-loathing writer. I’d get caught up in the characters , lose myself for a bit in the story, see a few sentences that pleased me and which I had actually managed to write at some time or other. I’d find myself, every now and then, actually enjoying toying with a description or ripping into a chapter and restructuring it completely. I was gratified when I was able to ground a scene in plausibility, not just wishful thinking.
Then along about chapter Twenty or so, I found myself just reading. Reading a good story, actually. I wanted to see what would happen, and I didn’t see any revisions that needed to be done. I felt moved by the ending. I felt moved that I had gotten to the end of revising.
No one asked me to be a writer. It’s a privilege to get to try. And it’s ungracious to bitch and moan about what I choose to do. I could always give up if I really wanted to. It can be hard, frustrating, disappointing, confusing, maddening, but it can also be incredible. It’s an amazing experience to write a novel, even a bad one. I get to contribute my own little tributary to the great ocean of literature, to be a part of something bigger than myself. I get to grow and learn. I get to create, imagine, move myself and maybe others, laugh out loud at my writing sometimes (and myself), find out things about the world and human nature that I might miss if I weren’t a writer. I even get to revise!
All in all it was a great week.