Revising the Novel: Crisis of Faith


Even when people tell you a particular challenge is perfectly normal, it can still feel like one heck of a rock-your-boat experience. I can certainly say as much for my fifth revision of the novel. While I’d received clear and helpful feedback from an editor I hired for a “one pass” reader’s response and I’d received positive encouragement from my writing friend across the river, little did I know that the hardest challenge still remained:

the crisis of faith.

I’m not talking about giving up on the novel. I’m not talking about not believing in it as a whole. I’m not even talking about writer’s block (which, as it happens, I don’t believe in). What I’m talking about is reaching that critical mass of realizations that knock on your subconscious so loudly that, despite determination and deadlines, you simply cannot continue on you current path of revision.

This is a difficult experience to gauge. Did I feel I had to stop the 5th revision in its tracks because I was just being lazy? Because I would rather be writing about bourbon? Because I booked my schedule too full for the next six months? Because we’ve had a series of financial setbacks? Because I’m newly married and thinking about “the big future” in really different ways? Because I don’t have the skills to write what needs to be written?

These are all questions that crept into my mind last week during my crises of faith. In the end, what I decided is that the real reason I had to stop the 5th revision in its tracks is because of a craft issue. This card, “the craft issue card,” is the ultimate trump–meaning that, above all else, when you play this card, you really know you’re heading into game-changing territory.

The game-changer for me has to do largely with the Afghan narrative thread of my novel. Even though I’d written my most recent draft as deftly and tightly as I felt I could by May 1st (to hand it over to the editor), just five or six short weeks later and I’m already seeing where major chunks of the story and character arcs come up short. That’s a good thing and also slightly terrifying. But try as I might, the longer I ignored the realizations that were stacking up, the harder and harder it became to make any revisions with true heart. Another way to say that is that my heart wasn’t in it, and when I asked myself “why,” I could only accept the truth: The changes needed in the Afghan narrative are so pervasive, revising on the “old path” of insights I’d been working with seemed moot. I might have added 10,000 new words to my manuscript in the last four weeks, but if I kept going, I feared I’d make a bigger mess in the end.

To be clear, I do not take this decision lightly. After all, I’m a big fan of pushing through the tough stuff and writing your way through the mess (and even making things messier). This is because, as all writers know, it’s often those messy moments that crack something open for us, revealing what we’ve been trying to say all along. If we never allow ourselves to write those messes, we’ll never discover the gems.

This crisis was something different, though–something fundamental. I’m reading Lisa Cron’s craft book Wired for Story and, like Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook before this, it’s proving persuasive. I feel empowered by Cron’s book, if not also a bit overwhelmed. But at least she’s helping me map a way forward. In the coming weeks, I hope to be able to share specific character arc and plot issues her book has helped me identify, as well as how I intend to address those issues. I’m still articulating it all for myself, but rest assured that once I can put my finger on the precise issues, I’ll name them here and share whatever learning I can. Meantime, back to “revising”–which right now means reading Wired for Story, freewriting in my journal every morning, and trying to be patient with my imagination.

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