novels

The Cleaver and the Needle

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Revising can be messy. It’s all well and good to kill your darlings, but it’s often the case that the darlings need reshaping rather than killing.

Ghosts of the Old City has required some particularly bloody revising. After going through my alpha draft, I realized that almost a third of the book was in the wrong order. Some scenes—and most of two chapters—featured characters spinning their metaphorical wheels, waiting for the next thing to happen. (Really, it was the author waiting to figure out what happened next.) The disappointing thing is that those scenes were not even good character development. I had glossed over some things that should have been interesting challenges for the characters, and I had zoomed in on some moments that turned out to be insignificant.

Starting to implement the necessary fixes has made me feel like a Civil War era surgeon, operating with butchers’ tools and booze for anaesthetic. There’s little delicacy for me at this stage. I ginned up sixteen new chapter files in Scrivener on a fresh storyboard. Most of those will use some existing text. Some will be new. One will require only moderate changes to reflect the altered flow of the plot. “Cut and paste” feels like chop-and-paste, or chop and throw into a bucket for later reattachment. It is brutal and unsubtle stuff.

I find this a little ironic because one of the things that I appreciate about the revision process is the craftsmanship of it. When I’m drafting, I’m chasing the story. I’m discovering things. I am, when things are working well, a damn wizard, conjuring something out of nothing. The revision process, as I was describing it to somebody a few weeks ago, is more like engineering. My friend (who is a research scientist) nodded sagely and said that it’s an iterative process, where you can try things out and see what works. I like that kind of work as much as I do the wilder stuff of creating. There’s something satisfying about each step getting you closer to the beautiful (or functional, or both) thing that you’re working on. I just tend to imagine it like bonsai or playing with Lego.

This time it has inspired the above analogies to butcher work. It’s my first novel, and I think much of the difficulty in revising has been adjusting to the scale. If you’re writing an essay or a short story, you may have to move a few pages around, rewrite a stretch of paragraphs. Even a third of your work isn’t that much. With a novel, there’s just more of everything. There’s more room for things to go wrong. It’s more important to sustain reader interest. I don’t want Ghosts to be one of those novels that sucks people in through the first three chapters then loses them by the seventh. I particularly want to avoid that because I think the home stretch of the novel includes some of the best writing I’ve ever done. (I’m sure my beta readers will explain to me where it isn’t as good as I think it is.)

I want the first half of the book to be worthy of the second. I also want the first half to build correctly to the second, which is why the hatchet job was necessary. Plot relies on conflict. Usually—and in this way my novel is nothing unusual—that conflict should build gradually. In the first-and-a-half draft of Ghosts, the conflict is just kind of there. Drafting it, I had antagonists in mind, but I hadn’t thought of exactly what they wanted or how they were going about their business. Now I know what needs to happen, and it’s not there.

Yet.

I’ve gotten through the most brutal parts of the corrective surgery. I can put down the cleaver. The next step is to pick up the needle and stitch it all back together with everything in the right place. One of the fun things about being a writer is that if you’re doing your job, your story won’t even show the scars.

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Quitting Not Quitting

“Winners never quit and quitters never win.” —Vince Lombardi

This gentleman has little nice to say about quitters.

This gentleman had nothing nice to say about quitters.

A caveat: What follows is a messier intersection of thoughts on writing and thoughts on postac than I usually feature here. Since making a tacit commitment to be more upfront with my thoughts on #postac a few weeks ago, my posts have generally stuck with writing or postac. This one is both. It might be a miraculous chocolate plus peanut butter moment. It might just be as opaque as the title.

Technically, I didn’t quit. Sometimes I remind myself of that as a bit of self-boosterism: I finished my damn doctorate. I earned that title. Sometimes it’s self-castigation: why didn’t I just quit when I finished my coursework and school stopped being fun? I’d be several years farther down the road to whatever “what’s next” I’m currently fumbling toward. But I didn’t quit. I finished.

I’ve been a quitter twice. In high school, I quit the track team for a few weeks my junior year of high school. Abruptly. I was freaking out about my solo for district solo and ensemble and generally being an overstressed, depressed teenager. (I went back before the season was done after profuse apologies to the coaches.) The second time was a similar whirlpool of overcommitment and depression, and came my freshman year of college. After a ridiculously easy fall semester, spring semester turned out to be, well, college. I was still trying to treat it like high school, where I’d done everything. By February, I had simply run out of time and energy. I quit the school weekly and scaled back my participation in several of the organizations I was part of. That time, I didn’t go back. I had been doing too much. Quitting was the right call.

Even a year out from my decision, I’m not sure whether my departure from the Academy counts as quitting. In some ways, it feels like I just never properly started. I spent one year seriously pursuing the job market. When the time came to fish or cut bait with the secondary market in the spring, I cut bait. That doesn’t negate the adjunct jobs I had while ABD, but the decision to leave is still one I’ll only ever be 95% sure about. Maybe the secondary market would have been the kind of stepping stone it’s marketed as…but that’s a skinny maybe.

I’m pretty sure imaginary Vince Lombardi would call it quitting. It was my dream or a close facsimile thereof, and I stopped chasing it. I stopped chasing it because I woke up, but quitting for a good reason is still quitting.

Quitting has been on my mind because I’m a little terrified of doing it again. I have two thirds of a novel written. I’m a few pieces of plot from being able to write the rest of it. This is an easy place to quit, a point where rationalizations come quickly. I hit a similar point with my dissertation. I hit it with just about every academic paper I ever wrote: “I know how it goes. I could finish it if I want to.”

That “if” works better as the German “wenn,” which has a bit of “if” and a bit of “whenever.” I could finish whenever I wanted to, you know, if I wanted to, and if I had the time. It would be automatic. With academic papers, I resented having to actually write out the remaining parts once I had figured out the line of the argument and structure of the paper. With my dissertation, I felt like most of the work had been done and the only reason there was still stuff left to do was that I’d picked a project that was too big. In both cases, the problem is that the exciting bit is done. What’s left is mostly work. I’d have the feeling that I had proven to myself that I could do what I set out to do and the rest was just window dressing. Window dressing is trivial. Something you take care of “whenever.” If you want to. Like washing the last few dishes.

And this “whenever” is where I am at with my novel, only I have not been able to make the time lately. Part of that is the stickiness of the last two plot bits. More relates to a string of work and family obligations. I’m working five days a week. With responsibility for lesson plans and assessments, I use my planning/conference period for…work. There was a wedding. There was the Baha’i month of fasting. The “whenever” has seemed much more like “if.”

Combine that with the pseudo-accomplishment of being “mostly” done, and quitting starts to look easy. A novel isn’t like an academic paper, either. I don’t get to just hand it off and stop thinking about it. It will need the unflinching eye of an editor. It will need revision. It will need, eventually, publishing and promotion. No matter how mostly done I am, that is still work, and work fraught with chances for rejection. I like my draft a lot. There are problems with it, some of which I recognize. There will be others that I don’t and will happily fix. There will be still others, though, that are in the troublesome category of things-I-think-are-cool-and-how-could-you-possibly-call-that-a-problem.

When I hit this point with my dissertation, I had already turned the corner from “make it awesome” to “get the committee to sign.” (That was a kind of quitting in itself, but I haven’t met many PhDs who haven’t made that capitulation at some point late in the dissertating process.) I also had a quirk of scheduling that gave me the two months before my defense “off,” which allowed me to focus on loose ends.

My hope is that I don’t get similar time off this go-round. There’s no substitute teaching work in the summer, but I expect to have at least a medium-term plan in operation by then. I’d rather have income than open-ended time to write. (Never mind that I’d rather have income from writing, and never mind that the summer will involve full time parenting if I’m not working.) What I am working on instead is carving out the time around my other obligations, trying to push Ghosts of the Old City toward completion.

Quitting would be easy. If nothing else, though, graduate school proved that I’m bad at quitting…or maybe just bad at easy.