Is your writing dying?

Every single cell in the human body replaces itself over a period of seven years. That means there's not even the smallest part of you now that was part of you seven years ago.  The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall.

Word count: 334    Reading time 1-2 mins.

This means that there is still hope for the novel that I started writing seven years ago. Over the course of time, it has been revised to the point that very little of the original text survives.

This novel has become a bit of an annual tradition that coincides with spring. When the cherry trees flower and sunny forsythia brightens even the dullest day, a sense of renewal, of a fresh start, buoys me. So I revisit the languishing saga. Every year, when I open it again, it feels like I am administering CPR to a failing body.

In December 2010 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City writer-artist Lynda Barry and illustrator Maira Kalman spoke about their artistic processes. In particular, they talked about how a piece can feel like it’s dying and how rescuing it is what makes it work.

“It’s literally every day, I’m dying, it’s dying,” Kalman said. “Then something happens and it’s like, 'OK, it’s going to be OK.'”

To me, that’s what perseverance and rewriting is about; it’s digging for the moment when everything feels OK again. Just this week my writing partner, who has probably read the entire seven-year-old novel three or four times, suggested a change at a pivotal point in the story. It wasn’t how I imagined the narrative unfolding but as I revised, new perspectives on the story opened. (Thanks, Allison!) The branch of the cherry tree that looked lifeless last week is now covered in blossoms.

Is there a manuscript sitting on your shelf that you have abandoned because it looked, to all appearances, dead? Should you try to breathe some air into its lungs and hope for a ROSC (return of spontaneous circulation)? Could yesterday’s fallow ground open with flowers?

***

Photo: Cherry Blossom in Branch Brook Park, NJ by Siddharth Mallya from Wikimedia Commons

Can your work survive a tough cycle?

For years I’ve worn the same pale blue Gore-Tex raincoat, a wardrobe essential in the BC rainforest. Recently it started to look worse for wear, kind of grubby. I didn’t like the replacement options so, with nothing to lose, I threw it into the washing machine one last time. I selected a heavy duty, warm temperature wash (instead of the usual regular and cool). Result: a coat that looks bright and new again.

Word count: 264                    Reading time: 1 minute

That’s very much like writing. When I have a piece (one particular novel comes to mind) that feels shop-worn and tired, I need to put it through a course of no-holds-barred rewriting. I need to stop treating it as a fragile work that will fall apart if I’m too rough with it. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the end of Farewell to Arms 39 times before he got the words right. Based on that standard, my weary novel needs a few more revisions.

Kurt Loder urges writers to give their work stronger treatment: “The most important thing you can to is learn to edit yourself. Then go back and rewrite.” I blog on this often because I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that writing, like any meaningful endeavour, is full of repetition and hard work until it’s finally right. We have to turn up the heat and pummel it hard if we’re going to produce something that is shiny and appealing. 

What is your old blue raincoat? Is there a neglected manuscript sitting on your shelf? Would throwing it into a heavy duty cycle bring it back to life?

 ***

 Photo by: Elana Elisseeva

What I meant to say was...

 

Word count: 428                         Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve been told – and found it on the internet so it must be true – that the best way to wash a car is to do it twice. I don’t have a lot of patience with cars so mine’s lucky if it gets a single wash every couple of months. I’m like that with a lot of jobs. I’ll never create a dessert so beautiful that guests won’t want to eat it. I’ll never produce an awesome needlepoint or restore an old piece of furniture. I know. I’ve tried. These are all endeavours where the that-will-do-factor cuts in really early.

But writing? A different story: the more I do it, the greater my patience is for rewriting and the easier I accept other people’s input. So I  understand what Bernard Malamud meant when he said, “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times--once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.”

When writers forget this essential part of the writing process and rush to bring their work to the world by way of poorly-edited self-pubbed books they risk terrible remorse down the road as discussed by Suw Charman-Anderson of Forbes. They risk alienating readers who might have enjoyed their work if they had just given it a little more patience.

I'm sure there are writers whose flawless first drafts are ready for global release but John Irving’s words resonated with me: “More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn't say I have a talent that's special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina. I can rewrite sentences over and over again, and I do. . . . And I think what I've always recognized about writing is that I don't put much value in so-called inspiration. The value is in how many times you can redo something.”

I’d be delighted if I only had to write things three times like Malamud or was even close to Irving’s talent. But still, I do have the stamina to rewrite often, very often. And I hope, at the end of the process, whatever I offer the world shines like it’s been washed twice and well polished.

How do you feel about rewriting? Have you written your story at least three times? Does it finally say what it must?

***

Photos:      Junkyard Car by Melissa M. Morris

                 Old Truck by Ron Hilton

The Busy-ness of Writing

Word count: 376                        Reading time: 1-2 minutes

When I qualified as a Certified General Accountant I knew my education didn’t stop with the parchment handed out at the graduation ceremony. Being a member of the CGA Association meant that in addition to the usual long work week, I was expected to complete defined courses of professional development every year to keep my skills relevant. Then I chucked it all to become a writer.

My second career evolved slowly because there was no clear route to what ensures success as a writer. After a lot of time invested and an enormous amount of trial & error, the only thing I know for sure is that a writer needs, at some point, do some or all of the following:

  1. Write
  2. Research
  3. Read extensively
  4. Go back to school
  5. Find a trusted writing partner or two and share your work with them
  6. Rewrite
  7. Give generously of your time to other writers who need help and encouragement
  8. Revise
  9. Polish the revision
  10. Submit and track your submissions
  11. Repeat steps 1-10 – stick with it
  12. Join at least one writers’ group
  13. Attend writers’ talks (local library, university, writers’ festival – wherever)
  14. Build an online profile
  15. Build a profile in your local community
  16. Stay healthy
  17. Play; renew the energy that brings freshness to your writing
  18. Track related income (if you’re lucky) and expenses for your tax return
  19. Repeat any or all of the above as required.

Once my first novel is released, what then? Well I expect there’ll be a whole 'nother list that comes along. I’ll post it later, when I have a better sense of all that's involved.

When I did the mind map for this blog (thank you Daphne Gray-Grant), I was astonished at the commitment of time and resources involved in writing. My CGA training pales in comparison to what it takes to be a writer, but this is so much easier. You know why, don’t you? Because pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work. Aristotle said that and he knew a thing or two.

What's on your list and what's missing from mine? Is there something I should be doing that I’m not?  

***

Photo by: Uschi Hering