All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org
I am spending the month revising one specific thread of my novel. When I mention revision, people often ask me: How many times have you revised it? Or, Which draft is this? These people are not usually writers, though a few writers have surprised me with variations on this question. My answer? How the heck should I know? Who are these people who keep track of revisions the way a runner counts laps on a track? Probably the same people who use outlines and know the ending of their novel before they sit down to write the first sentence. You know, those people.
I am (sadly) not one of those people. I don’t start at the beginning and write to the end. I often think that’s what I’m doing, but then I’ll discover that the third chapter is actually the first chapter. That scene in the fifth chapter? It doesn’t even belong in the manuscript. And that character that inspired me to start writing this whole mess? I hate her. I might kill her off out of spite.
All of this happens as I write, so even my first draft gets revised and rewritten many times. Before I figure out how the story will end, I revise and revise and revise. Once I do figure out an ending, a whole new set of revision becomes necessary. You see what I’m saying, right? If I kept count, I would quit.
Surely if I were any good at this writing thing, I wouldn’t have to keep correcting myself. Surely I would manage to get something right the first time around. So I don’t count. I can’t. I don’t know how many times I’ve revised this novel. I don’t want to know. Here, in no particular order, are a few other things that I don’t know:
1. I don’t know when it’s finished. Is it ever finished? Couldn’t we all just go on picking and revising forever? Nothing is perfect, right?
2. I don’t know how to read my own work objectively. Thank goodness for writing workshops and willing readers.
3. I don’t know how to effectively describe my book in one sentence. Or three sentences. I don’t know how to do the elevator pitch. I don’t care for elevators. I’d rather take the stairs.
4. I don’t know how to turn off my inner critic. You know what I’m talking about. I write in the morning. In the morning, I feel optimistic about my work. “Hey, that’s not bad,” I say. But then I go off for a run and to do work that earns money and, BAM, my inner critic arrives. She shows up at about suppertime and nags me through the night. She tells me that everything I did that day was a waste of time. She is mean.
5. I don’t know how write a synopsis. I was asked to write one once and it was awful. I suspect I could write a cracking synopsis of someone else’s book, but I am incapable of drilling down to the essence of my own work in any sort of compelling way.
6. I don’t know why it’s so difficult to write the characters who are most like me. I like quirky characters and I write plenty of them, but it’s the ordinary character that leaves me stumped. The more a character has in common with me, the less interesting that character is on the page. I suspect this says more about me as a person than I’d like to admit.
7. I don’t know how to write without coffee. This morning, the electricity in our house went out just moments after I turned on the coffee maker. I stared at the pot and nearly cried. Fortunately it was just a momentary glitch. The electricity was restored. Crisis averted.
8. I don’t know how to keep my mind from wandering as I write. This is particularly vexing during the revision process. I spend a lot of time staring at paragraphs, moving sentences around, taking words out and putting them back in, trying to decide if there’s a better way to say something or if it needs to be said at all. This is not compelling. I find myself wondering about mundane things. Should I paint my toenails before the weekend? Is it really going to be 97 degrees this afternoon? What will we eat for supper? Do Olympic divers feel exposed walking around in those eensy, weensy suits? Is something interesting happening on the Facebook? Should I check? No. No, I should not check! Maybe just a quick peek? No!
9. I don’t know how to stop comparing my work to others. I went to the Grand Lake retreat this year and it was wonderful, inspiring and restorative. Each night we read small bits from what we were working on and every reading seemed better than the last. If there is this much talent in one little writing community in Colorado, how am I supposed to compete in the wider world? It’s daunting.
10. I don’t know how to stop writing. Despite numerous failures, setbacks, disappointments, frustrations, false starts and bad endings, I just keep writing. I’ve tried to talk myself out of it. “You gave it a good effort,” I tell myself. “Nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s time to move on.” But I don’t move on. These characters keep popping up in my head and demanding some time on the page. Let’s face it, if I’m just arguing with imaginary people and NOT writing about them, I’m crazy. Better to be a writer than a crazy person. In my case, there may not be much difference.