It’s November, National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), when ambitious writers pound out a novel in a notoriously short month – only thirty days, several of which are devoted to the preparation, enjoyment and digestion of Thanksgiving. I’m expecting twenty people for the feast, which is easy: cook a turkey, bake some pies and lay in plenty of wine.It’s feeding the dozen or so who will start arriving on Tuesday and stay until Sunday, and who need breakfast, lunch, dinner and beds, that’s a challenge. Add two birthdays to the mix (and homemade, decorated, cakes), and it becomes clear that there’s no time for drafting anything new. But the chopping, prepping, visiting and general mayhem are quite conducive to the act of rewriting, which is what I’m up to this month.
I’m working on a novel that I researched and drafted between 1995 and 2001. A young and inexperienced agent represented it briefly, but she lost her job before she could sell it. Frankly, I don’t think anyone could have sold it. Back then, it was unwieldy and shapeless, but I was in love with my own effort and thought others would be, too.
In the intervening ten years, I’ve seen the flaws, and I’ve been episodically reworking this novel, whose word-count has dropped from a whopping 140,000 words to under a hundred thousand. I’ve lost count of the revisions – but never the story, which is a dark tragedy set in Vermont in 1958. And I’ve never given up on it, although I have put it on the shelf for long, dusty, intervals.
I’m a great believer in those dusty intervals, and I try to allow shelf time for everything I send out; I even try to let a blog post sit overnight before launching it into cyberspace. There’s a similarity here to romance, and how the hunky date might not look so handsome the next morning.
It’s misleading to think that there’s some kind of magical alchemy that occurs while words wait overnight, but I’m convinced it’s not the typescript that changes – it’s the writer who returns to a work with a little distance and a different set of eyes. Not only do the grammatical errors and logical lapses glare back in the morning light, but so do the overall structure and the narrative shape – the arc – of the story.
Oh, I know what it’s like to fall in love with your own work, to think that what has flowed onto the page is just perfect – inspired, even. And it may well be. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved. And this is especially true of a large work, one that grows by accretion.
Every time I have revised Elegy for a Girl, it has become a tighter, more gripping story. And now, I’m seeing it again, and adding more torque to the characters, language and plot. Sixteen years into this project, I’ve developed experience and faith in revision – and comfort in knowing I have the current best text to return to, if need be.
This is my second or third revision of this novel this year; I’ve lost count. What’s driving this work is the offer of representation from an agent who has read it as an advocate for the reader. She knows her stuff – and she loves the book.
What I’ve done this time – which maybe will be the last revision – is mapped the book, scene by scene. I’m reintegrating a character who I once edited out, I’m noting the pacing, and fine-tuning the overall rhythm of what happens, when.
Each time I revise this book, I learn something else about craft. In the beginning, I learned about characterization and plot and how to integrate research into a story. Another time, I learned that pruning and cutting improved its development – just as cutting away branches in the orchard promotes better tree growth and more fruit. Now, with an agent waiting for the typescript, I’m learning how to take my writing one step further up the professional ladder.
I’m thankful for learning patience over sixteen years: patience and the value of revision. What about your writing life are you thankful for?
Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness, “a fiercely intelligent love story” set in Vermont in 1964. She is a regular Commentator on Vermont Public Radio and teaches for the Vermont Humanities Council. Learn more at her website: www.deborahleeluskin.com