Revising the Novel: Don’t Look Back

If you missed my spotlight on The Camille Conte Show, here’s the archived access. The interview begins ten minutes into this streaming link.

Other than finishing the novel and finding a publisher, there’s nothing I want to do more right now than go back and start revising it from the beginning. I take this as a good sign, though I’m not giving in to the desire. I’ve ciphered a few reasons for this.

For a bit of perspective, consider: I began writing the novel at Interlochen in July 2012 and finished the first A to Z run-through at the close of my Emerging Writer faculty fellowship at Randolph College in March 2013. I put it away until summertime, during which I briefly re-read my draft and made minor changes to the best of my ability. I could not, at that point in time, see the weak spots in the narrative. I knew they existed, but so limited in my technical imagination was I that I didn’t even have names for what was missing. For the first time in my life, I hired a pricey, professional editor for a critique and received feedback by mid-August.

The feedback was unprofessional, unspecific, harmful, angry, and written as though it had been penned by a dry drunk with a bone to pick. I’m reasonable and have a pretty good head on my shoulders when it comes to feedback, but the writing mentors I showed my “critiqued” manuscript to all agreed–I’d been rammed into a wall without kind words and with a harshness beyond anything having to do with me. This guy was a bully. The number of hours I had to spend sifting through his B.S. are not hours I’ll ever get back…and when all the sifting was done, what remained was a three-point list of things to consider. Three points for $900 and a lot of someone else’s ego and schtick. Creatively, it took months to recover from this, although I know it has made me stronger. Lots of long, processing conversations with writing friends (including one who had hired the same expensive editor and, I later learned, was equally verbally chewed out). With the bulk of the book tour coming to a close by the first week of November, I finally felt enough time had passed and enough of my traveling was under my belt that I could look at the work again.

I tend to write compressed, so early revision involves adding.

This time, I knew something had changed from the inside out and that whatever it was, was a good thing. I’d done my best to assimilate the three tendrils of actual concrete advice the expensive editor had given me. I’d extrapolated from that and discovered other problems with my narrative–both in terms of structure and character development. Through studying the works of others and thinking critically, I had finally managed to grow just enough that my own work looked a bit foreign in my hands. That’s the best time to revise, and as hard as the work has been I know it’s a golden opportunity of perspective so I’ve been doing my best this winter to work with it. These revisions are what I’m calling my first pass through the body of the novel and it’s the first time I feel confident–not at every turn, but frequently enough–that I’m actually making changes for the better.

That confidence didn’t come immediately. November was treacherous, sometimes yielding only 200-400 words after four hours. Doubt reigned. December was a clusterf*ck of schedules and holidays and I read more than I wrote, pondering and fretting all the while. January came like a rush and finally, I could feel a pulse in the work. There was some slowly building sense of momentum with the pages I had written and I took confidence in that. By the third week of January, I had a handle on the structural issues I was facing and approached problems one at a time as they came at me, more patiently addressing things. If it took several days of thinking and reading, so be it. The writing would eventually break through, often in a rush, and I was fine with that. Even the ruts were followed by peaks, so it all seemed worthwhile…

Of course, now that I know where I’m headed and the kind of character I’m working to make Nathan become, I can guess the flaws in what I wrote back in November, even though those words felt right at the time. The urge to go back is powerful. I’m refusing it because this forward momentum has been hard earned and I’ve got to solidify my baseline, my main foundation, before it makes sense to go back and nitpick. While Chapter One beckons, onward I go into Chapter Eight and 150 pages into the work. The goal now is to finish this first pass before February 26th, then take time on the road to brainstorm, list, and map the novel’s future needs.

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