Revising a Novel: Early Reflections

I’m going to be completely honest here: revising the novel has been slow going. I got home around October 19th, flew out again 10 days later, and finally exhaled on November 3rd knowing that I wouldn’t get on a plane again until the end of February. The next morning, November 4th, I began my 6am waking ritual and set out to devote 5 mornings a week to working on the novel. (More on that ritual here, in my Avenue Varietal interview.) Some mornings, I put a few hours in at the keyboard and had only a few hundred words to show for it. Others, I read more than I wrote because I was desperately trying to teach myself how to address the craft issues I’m facing by studying how the pros do it. At the end of November, I had devoted 17 out of the 20 designated mornings to the novel but revised only 3 chapters, adding just 9 pages (and of course, cutting/editing others).

The first week of December, the pressure finally broke. I had two major insights. First, I realized that there was no way my creative pace could match the pace I maintained while writing Flashes of War. I’m not revising the novel at an artist residency. I’m revising a novel while fully supporting myself financially through my teaching, public speaking, editing, freelancing, and mentoring skills. While it’s still absolutely crucial to set aside the time to write, I’m also going to be faced with interrupting that momentum every day in order to do the “other” work–writing-related work that I love, but that indeed breaks the creative rhythm I’m working so hard to nurse along.

Second, I reminded myself
that I’m writing in a form that I have read very little of and never formally studied: the novel. I still sit down to the keyboard and find myself asking: What is a novel, anyway? I’m learning as I go, and that learning is taking place very slowly. It’s striking a deep chord within me, I can tell, but there’s simply no speeding up this process. This is work that I must do to gain knowledge (and then experience–through writing) necessary for the rest of my writing life. A letter from friend and mentor Jack Driscoll arrived in the mail yesterday that so kindly sums up this experience. Remember, he told me, what Saint Augustine said: “Patience is the companion of wisdom.”

And so December is over halfway through. I kept my goal to work on the novel in the mornings for only one week this month. Other mornings went to taking on two extra paid writing jobs to help cover my expenses from the book tour, as well as about 20 hours sorting belongings in my parents’ attic that I could sell (also to pay off the book tour). I viewed these asides as necessary and valid work. I had to pay those bills and that’s a reality. The good news? I paid them, on time and in full. The bad news? The little rhythm I’d fostered again was lost to me.

Speaking about this last night with mentor and friend Anne-Marie Oomen, we both agreed that in the bigger picture of things, even a few weeks lost on the novel is not that big of a deal. Since May 27th, I’ve had 37 public events for the book and over half a dozen radio interviews. That’s thrilling and exhausting. It also meant that for months at a time, I didn’t take time off. If that time off is happening now, around the holidays with the ones I love, I can’t imagine a more fulfilling thing. (For tips on writing through the holidays, check out this awesome post by poet Mendy Knott.) The heart must be filled before it can give out again to the characters on the page. Slow and steady, I’m rejuvenating my creative output. Slow and steady, I’ll get there. And of course, by the first week of January, I’ll have the edits I’ve committed to paper on Chapter 4 typed into the computer. I’ll be zeroing in on Chapter 5 by the middle of the month. And onward we go…

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