Monday, February 21, 2011

Neither Empathy Nor Sympathy: Revisions

I have reached the point with revisions that there is now so much changed/new material alongside so much old material that does not match it that the story is what I think of as "broken." The new material is superior to what it replaces and I have a plan for how to rewrite the old material that doesn't properly match it, but even so this is the point during revisions that I traditionally panic, when I've got a narrative that no longer hangs together properly. It's not quite either fish nor fowl just at the moment; the patient is on the table and I seem to have a bunch of spare parts and I'm short a spleen and possibly one kidney as well. Write your own metaphor.

This is my unhappy place and I'm suffering all the usual worries. What if I can't fix it? What if the experiments I'm trying don't actually work? Can't I just cut all the new material and see if the novel still works without it? Wouldn't that be easier and a lot faster? Why in God's name have I been reading Beckett while revising? Who thought that was a good idea? Now that the novel has an added layer or two of complexity and ambiguity, is it actually a better novel, or is it just more complex and ambiguous? Is further muddying the waters as a way of refusing to moralize in my fiction a good choice or is it a form of cowardice? Is the rewritten/new material so much better than the 70,000 or so words of writing I've left alone that I need to rewrite the entire fucking novel from start to finish now? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But this too shall pass, and all I need to do is keep working. The book's better now than it's ever been and will only improve with these rewrites and that's all that matters.

Mostly I wrote this post so I'd have an excuse to put up the photo of the MS spread out on the desk in the Designated Writing Room. Mighty Reader is in the living room, messing about with photos of the red-tailed hawk we saw this afternoon while following the trails through a wetland. A red-tailed hawk will tell you that no bird is so fine as a red-tailed hawk. It was some fun. There were also a great many goldfinches, red wing blackbirds, ducks, cormorants, wrens of various sorts, sparrows in a plethora of styles, hummingbirds, gulls, Canada geese and more robins than I care to count. A robin will tell you that no bird is so fine as a robin. Don't let me forget to mention the western scrub jay, too, as well as hundreds of European starlings. A European starling will tell you that no bird is so fine as a European starling, but he will be lying to you. In the late afternoon, just as we were leaving the wetland, we saw about 18 great blue herons taking to the air a hundred yards to our east, the birds' immense wings shining hot like brass and hammered steel in the golden sunlight. A great blue heron will tell you that no bird is so fine as a great blue heron, and he will be telling you true.


  1. The sight of that manuscript is very impressive! But reading Beckett while writing...ouch! That's enough to daunt the most optimistic author!

    Judy (South Africa)

  2. Now that the novel has an added layer or two of complexity and ambiguity, is it actually a better novel, or is it just more complex and ambiguous? Is further muddying the waters as a way of refusing to moralize in my fiction a good choice or is it a form of cowardice?

    Ugh. I know these quandaries well. While you're making these changes, it's virtually impossible to see the grand, subtle effect they have on the narrative as a whole. You're working on pure faith. There are probably some good pithy religious metaphors about pilgrims and missionaries I could toss in here if I wasn't so tired.

    I've found that editing is pretty much an eternal process once I begin, because I always have to go back and edit my edits, making sure they fit cohesively into the whole...then go back and edit those edits...and so on, ad aeternam.

    BTW, beautiful description of the herons' wings. Excellent prose.

  3. Hey now, good luck with all that.

    And a North American swan will tell you that no bird is as fine as a North American swan.

    I would say, personally, it's a toss-up as I have seen both at the same time, winging majestic over the estuary. An awesome sight, a gift from God.

  4. I'm a heron and egret man myself.

    Also, I love the visual of your manuscripts bleeding all over your desk. It's a healthy kind of angst, I think!

  5. Judy: I shake my fist at Beckett! How dare he be so much...better than I am?

    Leah: Yeah, having the ms in this state, where I am--as you say--working on pure faith, makes me sort of sea sick. I just have to keep walking and not look back. And yes, I know the ripple effect of every edit (even fixing a typo seems to necessitate a change elsewhere).

    Anne: I haven't seen swans since Mighty Reader and I went to Vancouver two years ago. Ah, swans. Though a black-capped chickadee will tell you that there is no finer bird than a black-capped chickadee.

    Nevets: I usually dislike the "red ink equated with blood" editing metaphor, but in this case, with the pages laid on the tabletop, I think it's appropriate. Most of the ms got off pretty lightly, though. What you see above are the most troublesome pages.

  6. Yeah, but truth to tell, no bird is so fine as a Gyrfalcon.

    Nice room. I wish I had room in my house for a Designated Writing Room. Still waiting for the Aged Cat to shuffle off its mortal coil so I can take over the Cat's Room. How long do they live, anyway? He'll be 18 in May.

    You should stop reading Beckett and go back to Bond. Paddington, that is.


  7. Your gyrfalcon pics on the tweeters list are quite good, I must say. I am sure the gyrfalcon is a fine bird.

    Once we finish the main room on the second floor, that will become the Designated Writing Room and the current DWR will be a guest bedroom, or possibly a music room if we find an affordable upright piano. Hard to say what we'll do.

    18 is a good age for a cat. And Paddington is totally a Beckett character, with his hard stares and his ancient hat and his suitcase and his disingenuousness.

  8. Scott, you can borrow my kidney for this revision if you want. No bird is as fine as my kidney.

  9. You know there's already some Davin in this book. Still, I'm tempted to take you up on the kidney offer, but I know how slow your delivery ants are. Has Nevets received his Bread yet?

  10. I'm sure the ants are closer to the Mississippi than they are to the Rockies by now.

  11. I hate to tell you both this, because I'm sure you will be disappointed. But my ants accidentally zagged when they should have zigged. They are now in Pismo Beach, Bread and kidneys and all. Somewhere, some stranger is very lucky indeed.

  12. I'm not above finding and hunting down a stranger.

  13. So your writing has led me to believe.

  14. I write from what another man might call, "the heart."

  15. The stranger's name is Albert. Be nice to him; his mother's just died.

    I had a good look at the revisions-in-progress today at lunch and I am now suddenly confident at the path I'm taking and wondering what I thought all the fuss was about. It seems very straightforward now. I think I'm under the spell of some sort of temporary clarity regarding the story. We'll see how long that lasts.

    This is all the same stuff I wrote about my last two novels when I was revising them. Very likely I will write strikingly similar posts during rewrites to my next novel. As Beckett would say, "What tedium."

  16. Scott, enjoy the clarity. I saw Midsummer Night's Dream this weekend, and I think perhaps a fairy has swiped some magic flower over your eyes. Writing a book is easy, yay! Revisions are easy!

  17. Davin, it's all easy! We're seeing the Threepenny Opera on Friday. I think I'd rather have Shakespeare's blessings than Brecht's (who would you rather meet in a dark alley: a fairy with a magic flower, or Mac the Knife?), but it should still be a good time.