Monday, June 06, 2011
As previously reported, I've now revised and rewritten portions of my three-hundred-page manuscript several times. Last night, settling down to the latest onslaught, I entered a bunch of revisions and then descended into a funk. The book had too many characters, and their stories were too complicated -- not to mention preposterous -- and the whole thing was emotionally inauthentic, and I hated it. Too much happened. Not enough of it mattered.
This sounds exactly like feedback I've given various of my writing students, so I gave myself the same advice I give them: Simplify. Focus less on plot mechanics and more on emotion. Figure out why this story should matter to the reader.
That's never easy advice to hear, of course. I gnashed my teeth, cried for a while, fumed, paced, and sat down to try to find the emotional core of the book.
When I was in college, I wrote a long paper on one of my favorite poems, William Butler Yeats' The Circus Animals' Desertion. It begins, "I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,/I sought it daily for six weeks or so" -- a sentiment to which any writer can relate -- and ends with the lines, "I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart." Last night, I tried to descend into the rag and bone shop.
Well, I got someplace, and it's a destination I couldn't have reached without the latest round of revisions (which is some comfort, since it means all that work wasn't wasted). Near the end of the current draft, a newly introduced character has one scene lasting a page or two. Turns out she's a main character. Turns out she's essential to the core of the book. Turns out the story's largely about her and her relationship with somebody who's been a main character since Day One.
Most writers can relate to that, too. Minor characters, once you start paying attention to them, have a way of saying, "Hey, this story's about me." We ignore our minor characters to our peril.
So this is good news, more or less (especially since the book is now unambiguously mainstream, which is what Tor asked for in the first place; I've finally weeded out the remaining spec-fic elements). The problem is that it means I have to rewrite the book from scratch, and that at least eighty-five percent of the three hundred pages will wind up in the trash. I'm still hoping to be done by WorldCon, but that's very ambitious, at this point.
I called my agent and said, "Well, I finally figured out what the book's about."
When she stopped laughing -- I started this project two years ago this month -- she said, "That's good, Susan." She told me I'll be fine: my publisher won't fire me, and she'd talk to my editor to explain the situation. Shortly thereafter, she e-mailed to say that she'd reached him and he's fine with it, too. (Thank God!) Meanwhile, I'd e-mailed him to ask him to call me so I can talk about the new shape and focus of the book. That hasn't happened yet; I'll feel better when it has.
Today I started the new first chapter. So far, it's using a lot of preexisting material, but tomorrow, I have to start in on the new stuff.
This is why I'm not more prolific. Too many of my projects follow very circuitous years-long paths like this. It's bad enough with short stories; novels are sheer torture.
I'll be so glad when this book's done!