The Frightening Reality of Revision

Yesterday was Halloween, which means today is Day One of National Novel Writing Month. Having completed the challenge last November and CampNaNo in April, I’m not participating this time around. Instead, I’m engaging in something perhaps even more terrifying than trying to write 50,000 words in a short month with a long weekend: I’m editing my first novel for the jillionth time.

I have been working on this novel since my five-year-old was this big:

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They say the first novel is one to throw out, but I’ve been encouraged to keep at this one, and I’m glad I am. I made a bunch of large-scale changes when I finally revised it in September. I felt good about them as I wrote, and I was thrilled that I finished before the stroke of midnight on October 1.

But as this month has passed, I’ve grown skeptical. I haven’t allowed myself a single peek at the revision in thirty-one days. What’s really in there? Did it work? Did it fail? What still needs reworking? Will I be able to see it?

Now, I dive back in. I’m nervous, but I’m reminded how far I’ve come over the last four and a half years of working on this thing. I have beta readers waiting for the revision December 1, and I’ve set myself the reward of ordering a 2016 planner when the new revision is complete.

So today, my thirty-day challenge begins. Once I’m in it, I think I’ll be more excited than scared. But I’m going to have a bowl of fun-size Kit Kats by my side, just in case.

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You Just Keep Coming Back

My calendar is making a shift back to prioritizing writing time. At times, this is exciting; at times, it’s almost scary. There are seasons in life, and I’m embarking on a new one, with the inspiration of a sister-in-law home from college for the summer and beyond enthusiastic about researching the options she’ll have once she has her degree in hand, in just a few more years.

 

Energy like hers is contagious (she’s a large part of the reason I ran a half marathon a few months back), and having a work buddy makes it easier to sit down and work regularly. Working regularly alleviates some of the self-imposed pressure of getting it right the first time because there doesn’t seem to be enough time.

 

The more I write, the more I am willing to rewrite, the more time I am willing to take to get it right, because I see that editing does make a difference. Time makes a difference. Reading more, thinking more, talking with trusted readers more adds layers and untangles tricky bits and makes the whole process more fulfilling.

 

I have experienced a certain fear that what I’m doing will not be good enough, that even when I edit, I might not recognize the errors in a first draft and then let them linger far too long. But that fear doesn’t make for a good attitude, and it doesn’t make for good writing.

 

If I’m willing to see what I’m capable of, then there’s no better place for me to be than in this chair, with my fingers to the keys.

 

 

Finish It

I played my share of Mortal Kombat as a child, so before I go any further, I want to make sure everyone’s reading the title of this post with the voice used to say, “Finish him!” at the end of the match. For those who aren’t familiar with the game, here’s a little help from Wikipedia on what this means (additions in brackets are mine):

A Fatality is a gameplay feature in the Mortal Kombat series of fighting games. It is a finishing move that can be used against one’s defeated opponent [in this case, my manuscript] at the end of the final match, after the boss character says “Finish Him/Her.” The Fatalities are usually lethal, featuring a brutal and morbid execution of the defenseless enemy character; however, some of them are actually non-violent and humorous, and some even result in the suicidal death of the losing character [oh, dear].

Every time I get notes on my full manuscript, I end up taking a few weeks to digest them before I dive into revisions. Some of this is because I need to wrap my head around the notes and consider where and how I’m going to make changes. The other part—the more influential part this time around—is because I’m afraid to jump back in. What if I don’t change enough? What if I can’t bring this manuscript up to the next level?

Last week, after much hemming, hawing, and explaining to anyone who asked about my book’s progress that I was stuck in a vortex of fear, I opened up the document, changed the file name to reflect the new draft, and got back to work. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad.

Maybe it’s because I’d spent enough time thinking about my edits that I was ready to go to town on it. Maybe it’s because I figured that if I don’t get it to where it needs to be this time, I’ll simply try again. Or maybe it’s because I’ve started applying this prayer—which, if you’re not religious, you can call a poem and still get something out of—to my writing.

Love and Fear

There are only two feelings. Love and fear.
There are only two languages. Love and fear.
There are only two activities. Love and fear.
There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks,
two results. Love and fear.
Love and fear.

—from “A Common Prayer” by Leunig

When I approach my writing with fear and anxiety, I’m not going to produce my best work. When I trust that I am capable of at least making my writing better with each pass, even if not perfect, my manuscript will continue to improve, and so will I, as a writer.

Is Being Published the Ultimate Goal?

As a writer who aspires to be traditionally published, my greatest challenge is in overcoming my own doubts. Putting the words on the page is (usually) fun. Even editing is enjoyable for me. What I struggle with is knowing that what I’ve done is good enough.

 

There are so many markers writers can use to measure our success. For those of us who haven’t yet been published, that seems like the ultimate goal. But at least some of those writers who have been published contest that it isn’t the end of the road.

 

A few years ago, I heard two-time Newbery- and two-time National Book Award-winner Katherine Paterson speak in an interview with Jon Scieszka, as he passed her the baton of National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Humble as she is, Paterson said that every time she finishes a book, she thinks that’s it, the last one. She never knows if she’ll be able to write something publishable again.

 

Seriously? Seriously.

 

Likewise, in his article “30 things that every writer should know” from The Telegraph, author Matt Haig writes,

 

– Having my name on a book never makes me more confident.

 

And here,

 

– Being published doesn’t make you happy. It just swaps your old neuroses for new ones. (I should have gone to Oxbridge! Why wasn’t I invited to Hay? Am I not Granta enough? I wish I was Jonathan Franzen!)

 

And again,

 

– The joy of writing never changes, however many books you have published. It is not always a joy. It is only a joy for a fraction of the time, but it is worth it, just for that fraction. And much of that joy comes from being that misfit kid grown up, leading readers and yourself to the wildest parts of your imagination.

 

As I prepare to jump back into my agented manuscript for a revision (that I’m admittedly scared of not doing well enough!), it’s oddly calming to know that achieving my goal of publication is not going to bring about a great change on a deeper level. It will only mean I have the chance to keep on creating with a larger audience.

 

As with so many other things in life, it’s not the doing that matters as much as doing it well. And that is something I have plenty of control over.

 

Great Enough: Thoughts on Self-Publishing

Recently, I mentioned that I don’t intend to self-publish my work. (For the sake of this post, I define self-publishing as hiring my own editor, copyeditor, and perhaps designer; printing copies to sell, or setting up an ebook or print-on-demand structure; and marketing and selling the book on my own.) I’ve said before that everyone’s work has its place, and I mean that. For me, I don’t think that place is self-publishing, and today I want to explain why.

I admit there have been a couple points at which I have considered self-publishing. No matter what stage I was at in the process, all these moments had something in common: I was discouraged.

When I was still writing, I didn’t know if the manuscript was strong enough to get an agent. Now that I have an agent, her revisions show me the places where my writing is not yet strong enough to put its best foot forward to publishers. I will always have a lot of work to do. Sometimes I just wish it were over, that I could push a button and my book would be out in the world. Would it be perfect? No. But maybe it would be good enough for at least someone to read. Friends and family say they want to read it, anyway.

I’ve been the reader at an agency and a publishing house, and I’ve seen what comes through the door. Some of it is fantastic. Some of it is not. A lot of the agented material is good, but so often there is more work that could have been done prior to submission. For me, self-publishing would be a way to circumvent the challenge of constantly improving my work.

If my work is submitted to a publisher and deemed not strong enough for publication, I hope, hope, hope I have the humility to say, “Okay, what can I do to make it stronger?” I know from having worked with agents and editors that yes, they are the gatekeepers of published authorship, but it’s because they know what they’re doing. If those who are among the ranks of my former colleagues say I’m not finished yet, then I’m going to keep working until I get there. I don’t want to check out before I’ve given it everything.

It might take a long time. I might write a couple of books that never see the light of day. While I’m getting there, I welcome constructive criticism as a guide, lighting the way to achieving my goal: writing a book great enough to be sold to a traditional publisher.

Why would you self-publish? Or why wouldn’t you? Have you? What’s the experience been like? Would you do it again?

Cure for Doubt

doubt (noun): one of writers’ greatest enemies.

 

Last month I started to work on a new project. I’d had the idea for this novel for some time, and had begun it a couple of different ways, whenever the mood struck. Who doesn’t love a spontaneous and fruitful burst of creativity? The words were coming easily and I was looking forward to devoting more time to it. My writers’ group kept me moving after that initial rush.

 

Currently, I am three chapters in and have written a synopsis of all I think will happen thus far. Sounds good, right?

 

Unfortunately, I have almost no motivation to write more. I’m not as excited about it as I want to be. Add to that the minor tailspin that my recent notes for revision sent me into, and I am fighting a case of Doubt with a capital D.

 

This new piece is in the same genre as my first, and it’s one that I’m not totally convinced is salable. Of course, that is not the whole picture. Writing my first novel provided my invaluable insight into the worlds of writing and editing. Likewise, whether it’s publishable or not, I can see myself returning to this new project at some point in the future.

 

But for now, I am thinking seriously about traditional publication. I want to write something I enjoy and something I think offers something worthwhile to the marketplace. In other words, something that can sell. If I’m not excited about this new work-in-progress, why in the world would anyone else be?

 

The solution: Time. Time to put both projects aside and consider what motivates me. What inspires me. What excites me.

 

What can I create that will offer greater perspective? What’s not out there that I can add to the canon of contemporary American literature? Ultimately, what do I want to spend my time on?

 

Taking the time to let go of my current pieces and the desire to get something out to publishers as soon as possible is opening up the doors of my creativity. I have yet another new concept in mind—not one that’s ready to find paper quite yet, but one that has my brain and my heart moving.

 

I know I need to be writing for the right reasons to produce anything worthwhile. It’s hard to force that when the prospect of publication could be right around the corner—or not. That’s something I need to let go of this week. In its stead, I’ll have a  fresh notebook, a new story to consider, and a chance to let my imagination do its thing.

 

The more excited I get about this new idea, the more motivated I am to go back and finish my revision. Maybe I am capable of writing something worth publishing. Then again, maybe not. But either way, I can choose to write something I enjoy, something that makes me a better writer and a more thoughtful and compassionate person.

 

The cure for writerly doubt is hope. And published or not, I can have that whenever I want.