I know I said I wasn’t planning on writing much during my residency, but this topic came to mind and I couldn’t pass it up. I have some free time between events at the moment, and as much as I’d love to keep revising this story, if I look at it again I’m going to chuck my computer out my window. So. Let’s take a break, and write a blog post about it, shall we?
I’m not talking about a post saying how to revise, or what the best strategies are for cutting unnecessary words from your novel/short story/memoir/etc. I don’t feel I’m in any position right now to do that, and I’d only be parroting what I heard guest lecturer Alex Mindt say from a few days ago anyway. (Alex is capable of taking anything I would say, and doing such ten times better. Seriously. Click his name there and go buy his book. I’m not kidding. Find a copy, find a way.)
What I’m talking about is how revision affects you.
Now, there’s a lot of talk in my program about how you have to have a pretty thick skin to deal with the kind of rejection and criticism that writers get on a day to day basis. This is entirely true, and over the past year, I’ve gotten significantly better. I can write stories that deal intimately with my life and my struggles, and watch people rip it apart and tell me my characters are unrealistic without so much as a tear. This is how we get people. People are constructive on top of their destruction – and sometimes, the only way to build up is to do it on the rubble of everything that came first.
A few of our speakers over the past few days have stressed that “the first draft of anything is shit.” I believe this to be true. I’ve looked at some of my first drafts. They’re terrible. I can’t believe I ever let anyone read them – and it’s even harder to believe that anyone ever thought they were any good. (I apologize every time I think about the fact that my dear uncle had to read the first draft of my first novel. I’m sorry, Guy. I’m sorry I wasted your time. Thank you for humoring your brother’s poor stupid child.)
But that doesn’t mean that some times it still gets to be too much.
I’ve been working on a short story based very closely on actual events in my life, dealing with how I met R, an amazing young man who I am lucky to have a relationship with. They’re a good set of stories, chronicling how we met, and I’m very fond of them – both from a literary standpoint, and as events that have happened to me. The first set of edits went perfectly well, and last night I sat down and polished up a second draft.
That one garnered even more critique.
And for what ever reason, this time it was bothering me. They wanted me to shift things around. Told me I didn’t know my characters well enough. Asked me if I could insert new events or new people to bring out something else in the characters. Wondered if I was telling the story from the right perspective. (This being said, the story is told from R’s perspective, not mine. From my perspective, it’s a roller coaster that would make Holden Caulfield jealous of my linear storytelling. I’m not fond of the idea.) They were all entirely valid suggestions – but the story with their edits…wasn’t one I knew how to tell. It wasn’t the story as I knew it. I didn’t know how to take all their critique and still make it useable.
It hurt. I loved this story. I wanted to share it. How could I do that, if I wasn’t doing it right?
They liked the story, and wanted me to keep working on it, but I didn’t know how. In the end, I got a few key words that I thought I could work with, but I was left shaken. I sent a message to R, letting him know how it went. He knows I’m writing the story, and assured me that if I knew how the story was to be told, then I should ignore them and write it. Take the good, burn the chaff, as it were. I tried to hold onto that.
Later, at lunch, we were discussing our manuscripts, and a good friend of mine asked if I was sure I wanted to keep my current novel as my manuscript project. I assured her that of course I did; why did she ask? “Well, it’s just so long… You’re going to have to cut things to make it fit the page count.”
“I’ve been told not to worry,” I assured her. The assistant to our program and I had spoken about my concerns, and she’d assured me that something would be arranged, no matter what happened. I passed as much as I could on to my friend.
She wasn’t convinced. I was assured that the rules were the rules and I was certainly going to have problems if I didn’t meet them. I’d have to cut chunks of my book, or break it up into parts – neither of which I’m keen on doing.
I didn’t have an answer for her. I was determined; this was the book I needed to be working on. No other book was going to easily fit in the guidelines, no matter how hard I tried. Even if I started a new one, it wasn’t going to be any easier to trim down – and if I started new, I’d never be done in the allotted space we all have as students. It’s taken me four years to get this novel to where it is. I don’t have four more years.
By the time I came back to my room, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t look at my work, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t focus. I put silly YouTube videos about sex on the computer screen and ate Swedish Fish. I crawled into the shell of Rion and didn’t come out. About an hour later, I remembered that I needed to prepare something for the reading I’m giving tomorrow, and dragged myself together enough to read through it and time it. I need to add more description, I thought to myself, penning in a few words. It was the main critique from my mentor: that I don’t paint the scene enough. I needed more description. I stared at the words, hating how forced it felt. The character wouldn’t see this much. He’s not paying attention. It’s just a church.
But it struck me. That’s it. I can show his character development through his descriptions – and have them grow throughout the book. I scribbled a note to ask my mentor about it, feeling a weight lift off of my chest. It makes perfect sense. It was the best idea I’d had all day; I was entirely inspired.
And this blog post came to mind.
Revision can be hard. Critique can be painful. But somewhere in there, you know what your story needs. And yes, some times you’re going to go through six terrible drafts that make you bleed all over your keyboard or notebook or whatever you write in, and you’re going to feel lightheaded and nauseous – and then you’ll have to do it all over again. But you know your characters. The answers are there.
So I’m going to tackle that short story again, tonight or tomorrow probably. And I’ll tear it down, and rebuild the new version on top of it. Some pieces can stay, other from the first draft can come back, and some chunks will be entirely new. And that one will be just a little more sturdy than the last one. Maybe it won’t be the last draft. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be the last draft. But it’ll be a better one – a new one. And that’s the point of revision.
Eventually, you’ll find the thread that lifts the weight off of your chest, and lets you breathe again. And that’s when you know you’re doing it right.