We all know there is no single way to write a novel. There are quick-drafters and slow-revisers, people who sweat every word but are basically done when they reach the end, and people who need to get to the end to have the first clue about what they really were trying to say all along, in order to turn around and say it much better. The hardest part for any writer, I think, is figuring out one’s own best process.
Inbetween my first novel and forthcoming “second” novel were several manuscripts that have never made it into print, including one complete novel I tried to revise several times before making peace with its fate as a not-meant-to-be-published work. I don’t believe in wasting more time or creative energy just to make up for past losses. Everything we write teaches us essential lessons and those are lessons we keep, regardless of what happens with all our messy pages. So I was relieved to finally set that novel aside for good more than two years ago and turn to something fresh and more joyful to write, a slimmer and simpler novel aligned with my own interests and obsessions. (That project, which I started with no assumptions that it would be publishable, became THE DISCUS THROWER, forthcoming in 2012 from Soho Press; it bears noting that the projects I’ve imagined were less marketable were the ones purchased and the ones I thought were sure bets have languished.)
Still, the old “inbetween” novel continues to revisit my subsconscious, like an old friend or lover who shows up via email, inviting second thoughts and backward glances. Past projects, like past loves, invite one to entertain dangerous thoughts: Would it be better this time around? Have I learned enough to make it work? Have circumstances changed or am I just deluding myself?
In the case of this particular manuscript, I am absolutely certain now what my earliest mistakes were. A few readers and even an agent pointed to issues of plot or subject matter, those obvious culprits, and in one case the questioning of my plot put me on the defensive. (A question was raised about having my main character be homosexual — although that word never appears in this historical novel — noting that fiction with gay characters is a hard sell; that offended me enough that it fogged my vision about what the project’s true weaknesses were. Another question was raised that my subject matter was too intellectual. Yet another red herring.)
After four years of reading and study, I am astonished to realize that I didn’t see the true problem from the beginning: not a problem of plot (or sexual politics), but POV. I chose the wrong character as narrator. And I chose the wrong distance, staying removed from the events and outside of all the characters’ heads. (What seems intellectual or bloodless may seem that way only because we don’t have access to character emotions to balance information being presented). I know also why I did this: because I was reading, for several years, books written in a time period when that kind of more removed omniscience and objectivity were common. My role models included one famous Edwardian author whose minor books have been nearly forgotten, yet I was using those same minor novels, trying to channel a voice that appealed to me and, I thought at the time, matched my subject matter, setting, and time period perfectly. The result felt right to me, but not right to the few modern readers who had an opportunity to pass judgment.
The more I write even this simple blogpost, the more revved-up I get, thinking “Of course — the time is right. I can make a go of it now. Dig out that old manuscript!” But I’m still wary, because awareness and new knowledge are not the only issues. Energy is. And I’m not sure one can summon the same kind of fresh energy to rework something that has already been reworked. I convinced myself long ago that I’d already spoiled the broth with too much stirring, boiling, and overseasoning.
This week, by chance, I read about two authors who did benefit from deep, long-term, multiple revisions of the kind I’m discussing. One was Henry James. Since I’ve already gotten myself into a bit of trouble by emulating long-dead authors, I’ll leave out the James anecdotes for now (including his multiple revisions focused on POV issues) and mention instead someone still alive and beloved and about to re-enter the literary spotlight: Jeffrey Eugenides. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Middlesex, a favorite of mine, was also a keynote speaker at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference about five years ago. He has a new much-awaited novel, The Marriage Plot, due out later this year.
Eugenides refuses to rush his work. He told the Kachemak Bay crowd that his agent had to practically tear Middlesex from his hands. Eager readers have waited eight years for The Marriage Plot. And even when his own publisher interviewed him about the forthcoming novel, Eugenides insisted on staying mostly mum about it. But he did share this:
“Awhile ago, I was writing a book about a family throwing a debutante party. As I followed one of the characters, her story began to swell until I finally realized that I had two different books on my hands. I then had to surgically separate the two books, like conjoined twins, hoping that each retained sufficient major organs to survive. I’ve put the first book in a drawer for the time being, working on the second.”
Note the willingness to set aside one of those twins — for the time being.
And also a willingness to keep trying on a plot or theme that hasn’t quite clicked. In the same interview, Eugenides says that parts of this new novel take place in India, inspired by his own college travels. He tried multiple times over the years to write about a young character volunteering for Mother Teresa.
I tried in my twenties and then I tried again in my thirties. But I never published anything on the subject except for a small nonfiction piece. Well, in the new book, I’m trying yet again, and we’ll get to see if I’m getting any better at it.
Willing to revisit and recycle, Eugenides seems equally comfortable with letting go. He mentions a significant subplot in Middlesex that never made the final cut, as well as an entire second early version of the novel seen by his publisher, which Eugenides chose to jettison.
So which should it be: keep trying again? Reconcile and redraft? Give up and never look back? I’m not sure yet, but perhaps in another year, I’ll let you know. If any of you have similar success (or regrets) trying to radically revise a long work, share those thoughts here.