Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part essay. Read part one.
Who among us doesn’t have a dead novel or memoir that resisted all CPR efforts? Who hasn’t wondered if some part of it couldn’t be saved or repurposed?
With that in mind, I’ll share a few lessons I learned from my experience doing a “page one rewrite” of my novel currently titled Annie and the Wolves.
1. Let that baby go stone cold.
Many times—a year later, two years later—I thought I might be able to revise Annie. But every time, I was imagining small structural and character arc changes. I had to let the thing fade—truly forget the book’s major incidents, voice, everything—before I could think about it again with total detachment.
2. Know what you did wrong the first time; be both merciless and tender.
It didn’t take me long to reach this stage. I knew exactly what I’d done wrong. Every novel will have its fatal flaws. My early draft’s problems included: 1) Relying too much on autobiography, trying to fashion characters from my experience and that of family members. 2) Having a writer as main character. Agents and readers cautioned me against this, yet I clung to it. I still think a narrator can be a writer, but in this case, it made her too passive. 3) Having a subplot—a story within a story—that was imaginary, even within the world of the book, meaning that it was low stakes, in a book that needed some real stakes to prime the pump. 4) Saving all the best parts for the end. (Oh, boy. Never works.) 5) Putting a road trip in the middle of it. 6. Plus, a specific POV issue involving an experiment with unreliable narration that did not work.
That’s my list. Your DOA novel has its own problems. Do you know precisely, without an inkling of doubt, what they are? Have you learned—as I had to learn—to distance yourself from the friend or spouse or even agent who says, I don’t know, these parts aren’t bad; I liked them, actually. Are you ready to be your toughest critic? And after that—this part’s even harder—are you ready to be your most tender ally? No, you are not dumb. No, you are not a failure. No, you have not wasted time. You are creative and part of being creative is experimenting and learning and most of all, enduring.
3. Don’t cut and paste.
It’s so tempting to try to save enormous chunks of your old novel and shoehorn them into place, to just change pronouns and names and verb tenses, to go from first person to third person, to change beginnings and endings. That’s all good editing, but that’s not what a page one rewrite is. If you’re really starting over, let the old novel exist only as a fading dream or smoky vision in your mind, not something you keep re-opening to read or pilfer entire chapters from. (Some lines may sneak in. It all depends.) In any case, start with a clean page. Let that white space carry you away from your old dead prose.
4. Interrogate your original motivations.
Ask yourself: What was the main thing you were trying to accomplish in the first place? Not “what was the plot,” but “what was your purpose?” Maybe you were trying to depict a realistic marriage, or the problems of twenty-somethings today, or what life will really be like in 2100. Maybe you were trying to ask a philosophical question, or write with humor, or thrill the reader on every page. Maybe you were penning an homage to your favorite author or book, creating an intertextual conversation of some kind. Maybe you were writing a love letter to a particular place or time period, trying to get it just right, while populating it with interesting people and their urgent problems. Find the deepest, truest thing in that old manuscript and hold tightly to that. Trust the DNA of that foundational urge. Let new life spring from the old.
5. Find a way to play again.
Oh, this was hard. Because once this new novel got going, I wanted it to work. I didn’t want to waste yet more time. When I hit the most difficult stage again—manuscript three-quarters done but not yet singing—I was ready to throw in the towel. My family couldn’t believe it. Another whole novel (almost) finished and I was going to kill this one, too?
Those were dark times. I had to tell my family—and myself—that yes, maybe I would let this new book go to the unpublished novel graveyard as well. I had to insist on my right to take chances, to spend time, to perhaps—change of metaphors—sink the boat. Again. Writing a completely new novel would have been easier. But I was doing this for reasons other than ease. And yet, I could work hard and still play. I had to find the moments that gave me joy. I had to keep taking risks. I had to be ready to sacrifice or save the damned thing, every month, according to my gut. Either way.
My story has a happy ending, which doesn’t mean I’m all done tossing out manuscripts. Many of us toss as much as we keep.
Still, I learned something. If you’ve read this far, I hope it’s because you have that itchy-twitchy sensation that you, too, could dig out an old project and find new life in it. Give it a try.
P.S. If you want guidance along the resuscitation road, check out my 49 Writers course that starts this Saturday: IT’S ALIVE! Radically Rewrite or Repurpose Abandoned Drafts into Something New with Andromeda Romano-Lax.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a 49 Writers co-founder, creative writing teacher, book coach and the author of four novels including PLUM RAINS, recently selected for Canada’s Sunburst Award for speculative fiction. www.romanolax.com.