Revising the Novel: Out of the Drawer

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I put the novel “in a drawer” for almost six months, April through September. With the exception of one single night in Ontario when, amongst writing friends who wanted to share current projects, that document had not been opened on my computer until last week. On September 10th, my first day back at it, I still did not re-open the document. Rather, I started with a new document and blinking cursor in Word; Hemingway’s “white bull,” as he was known to call the blank page. I wrote that way for three mornings, working on scenes never before rendered–although a few had been hinted at in the old draft. An editor I hired last spring had convinced me that I needed to rework the timeframe, starting a few days earlier than my old draft, so at least that much was decided for me. Whether or not that starting point will stick is beside the point. Her suggestion helped me find a way back in; invaluable.

Working for 2 1/2 to 3 hours each morning, I was able to write 700-800 words per sitting. This felt slow enough to assure myself I was working deeply, but not so slow as to feel discouraging. After three mornings, I had two chapters with content never before written in this story, but content that felt true and right to my characters all the same. Many more minutes were spent staring at the screen than actually typing, but each time my fingers quieted across the keyboard I tried to be patient with myself. It’s not easy to create an entire world from scratch, my inner voice reminded me. There’s no advantage to rushing.

On the fourth morning, my new scenes reached a point in which I knew I needed to pull something from the old draft and re-work it into the present. But even at this juncture, I did not allow myself to cut and paste. I knew I wanted to look at the scene of Nathan home on leave, when he takes his wife Tenley to Micaville Park…but I couldn’t remember where I’d placed this in the old draft. Rather than re-read the old draft (which would have influenced all voice and content decisions moving forward with the new draft–something I’m expressly avoiding), I used Word’s “Find” function and typed in “Micaville Park.” Within seconds, I located the exact paragraph I needed, all without getting wrapped up in “the old stuff.”

Next, I re-read the scene, kept the document open on my screen, then overlayed the new draft document on top so I could rewrite the scene word-by-word, toggling back and forth between docs. Some lines are nearly the same. Many are not. But what I lost in time but not cutting and pasting, I gained tenfold in new material and more precise rendering and understanding of my characters on the page. Hardly a loss at all. Such confidence, however short-lived (or even accurate), came as a balm. After six months of uncertainty–Would I have anything to write when September rolled around? Would I be able to see anything new, anything different?–a few good mornings at the desk were better than any kind of therapy (chocolate therapy, psychotherapy, or otherwise).

This week, I put two more mornings in, generating 1,000 new words during one session and re-working several thousand more words (from the old draft) on another session. The morning that yielded several thousand words, by the way, actually feels like the least developed part of the story. The words moved quickly because I was re-working a lengthy scene from the old draft that simply has to be in the new draft. But the wiser part of me knows those pages need more attention because I have a different understanding of my main character now. How the scene will change, I’m still not sure, but I’m setting it aside for the weekend to let my subconscious do its job. And as for precisely what I know about my main character that I didn’t know before–well, that’s got my tongue tied, too. I guess it’s time to do more digging.

Even still: I have four chapters and almost 30 pages now, and will meet with an author mentor this evening to discuss our new work. Each day forward feels teetering, scary, and exhilarating all at once. I don’t know if what I’m writing is well-written and I certainly don’t know how much of it will actually make it to a final draft…but I do know that I’m writing again, and in the moment of creation, that’s something I can believe in.

Time and distance, those greatest of teachers for any writer, will yield more clarity. Meantime, discipline is my old and faithful best friend. For now, what that means is at least 4 mornings a week will be spent on the novel, from roughly 7:30-11am or until I get 700-1000 new words in each sitting. Anything above and beyond is bonus, and if the author mentor and I find we’re a good fit for each other’s current creative needs and queries, perhaps I’ll even have the benefit of weekly consolation, criticism, feedback, and camaraderie.

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