Some passages I can read without cringing, but much of the writing strikes me as lazy. When writing previous drafts of this material, I opted for a bloated style jam-packed with adjectives and adverbs and a whole lot of ramble—it was a decision I consciously chose, but now I haven’t the foggiest reason why.
God, does it have ramble.
Plus there’s a boatload of flab: empty gestures, stray sentences interrupting narrative flow, and too many characters “wondering” about too many things.
It makes me want to apologize to all my friends I had foisted the manuscript upon, many of whom devoted considerable attention to it.
[But thank you, dear friends, for your reading suggestions. I’ve been reading and/or re-reading the Bradbury, Huxley, and Ishiguro titles you suggested. Yesterday, I started on Terry Eagleton’s ON EVIL, which is actually quite engaging. And to my brother Mike, I admit it: I haven’t read enough Gramsci.]
Besides tightening the sentences, I’m strengthening the characters’ relationships to one another, inserting a few different plot elements, and doing a whole lot of cutting. By the time I’m done, it may even have heart.
Years ago, Tony Earley talked with me at the Sewanee Writers Conference about the revision process. Earley’s suggestion was to look for ways that elements within a work can refer back to themselves. At the time, I was writing a story that featured a character reading off a set of new-agey affirmations from an index card. Earley advised that I look for other ways to use an index card in that story. So I had another character, a salesman, read off a sales spiel from an index card. The reappearance of certain images and effects, if not overdone, can provide greater narrative and thematic coherence.
I’ve been thinking about this advice a lot over the last few weeks. Thank you, Tony.
Last week, George Saunders gave a couple of programs at Hollins University. Saunders is easily my favorite short story writer. Thursday night, he read “Victory Lap,” a story that appeared in The New Yorker a couple years back while I was at The MacDowell Colony. For those who haven’t been, The MacDowell Colony is as close to heaven as I’ll likely experience on this planet. People are just so generous there. I remember talking a lot with others there about “Victory Lap.” It was while at the Colony that I completed the last 20,000+ words of the novel. Hearing Saunders read the story brought back memories of how elated I felt back then.
The reading itself was fantastic. No one should pass up the opportunity to hear Saunders read. Everyone laughed, and everyone just about cried, all at the right places.
On Friday, Saunders gave a craft talk. Among other things, he talked about his revision process. He’s a rabid reviser. For some stories, he says he goes through a hundred drafts. Which I can believe—really, his work can be that good. His strategy is to print out story drafts and go through them with a pencil, working on all the parts that make him cringe. If on one day he can go through eight pages without cringing, his goal for the next day is to make it through page nine.
I wish I had brought a voice recorder to his talks.
Among the things he watches for when revising are characters and situations that condescend to readers. Which, looking at my own work, I am guilty of doing.
It’s kinda neat, actually, realizing that I’m going through the same process as he goes through. As every writer probably goes through.
Saunders news of note: he’ll have a new story in The New Yorker in the next few weeks. This particular story stemmed out of the same original project that produced his last New Yorker story, “Escape from Spiderhead,” but he says that the two stories are wildly different.
Hollins cool thing of note: 2011 Hollins MFA Ashley Good gave perhaps the best introduction to a reading that I’ve heard. The art of introducing a reader is, sadly, vastly overlooked. Too often, introductions are nothing more than bullets points extracted from the reader’s CV--Jane Doe’s stories have appeared X, Y, and Z. Her novel, ---, won the PDQ Award for Fill-In-The-Blank. Good’s introduction had heart, touching upon Saunders’ uniqueness, but also touching in its own right.
Someday, may we all be so lucky as to be introduced by someone as thoughtful as Good.
And may we all live to give such an introduction for another writer.
Okay. The rub about revisions is this:
This is not the first time I revised these pages (which, in previous incarnations, numbered almost 475 pages). Twice last year I tackled them, both times vastly improving the manuscript. Both times though, I was just as shocked at, well, how shoddy my previous drafts appeared.
There’ll come a time, surely, when the draft I’m cobbling together now will seem just as bad. I’ve seen this also in the stories I’ve written. I don’t even send out stories anymore that just a few years ago I classified as the best I’d ever written.
Over time, this recognition of one’s writerly fallibility leaches over into other aspects of one’s life. If my judgment of my writing could be so suspect, how can I trust my judgment in other areas?
Last month, I wrote about collaborations.
Revising is a lot like collaboration, but instead of collaborating with another writer, you collaborate with your past writing self. I’ve felt this in all my previous revisions as well. It startles me to see how much my inclinations have changed just over the last couple of years since I began this project. I am no longer the same writer.
Stephen King gave an interview earlier this week at The Atlantic Monthly. He says, “I never started a book that I expected to finish. Because it always feels like a job that's much too big for a little guy like me.”
Although at times I want to throttle my past writing self (especially for that horrible penultimate chapter!), I’m also grateful for all the heavy lifting he did. The material is fresh, the story (mostly) compelling, the structure largely sound.
My present-day self looks at the manuscript that my past writing self produced and thinks, Wow! I would never have been able to finish something that big by myself. Thank you!