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?

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 Photo by: Elana Elisseeva

Time and tide

Word count: 253         Reading time: 1 minute 

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again. – Oscar Wilde

Revise and revert: I know the exercise well. It’s not usually a simple comma that gets removed. More than once I’ve spent half a day revising a scene only to realize it was better before I started to play with it. I’ve torn whole books apart and rearranged them, only to put them back together again with the slightest of changes. Now that you mention it, I am thankful for the gift of word processing. 

I say half a day but I can’t be sure. Time loses meaning when I’m swept away by a story, either the telling or retelling of it. As Mary Novik explained, through her character Pegge Donne, in Conceit: It was true that, when I picked up my pen, it was sometimes hours before I counted a minute gone. Like eating a fresh buttered pike, I could not stop until my belly cried out it was glutted.

Right now I’m revising a novel. For the fourth, fifth, or maybe even the sixth time? The fact is I love the characters and they drift around me like phantoms wailing to be heard. So when I pick up the hard copy to move a comma or two, the clock stops ticking and the walls recede. 

Are you lost in any projects right now? What stops time for you?

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Photo by: Kris Jacobs

Across the line

Word count: 258        Reading time: 1-2 mins 

I typed the last word into my NaNoWriMo document a week ago. Once I was in the habit of writing 2,000 words a day, it surprised me (yet again) how easy that exercise was. In fact it was very much like physical exercise: much easier when done on a regular basis. Also like physical exercise, one day’s finish line was the next day’s starting block.  

Around the middle of November I saw a tweet from a literary agent cautioning writers against querying her with their new novels in December. I laughed at the idea that the final period in my manuscript might signal anything like a finished work. During NaNoWriMo, I follow Tara Moss’s rule: Don’t write it right, just write it—and then make it right later.

In November I wrote. Later I’ll right. The NaNo effort has been buried in my electronic crypt. Now I’m revising something different, which is a fresh start  - and much more fun in its own way. Rose Tremain explains: The process of rewriting is enjoyable, because you’re not in that existential panic when you don’t have a novel at all.

Last week’s dash across the finish line left me perfectly poised for this week’s race. Practice makes the whole thing easier.

Did you finish a first draft recently, what Anne Lamott calls a SFD? Do you need the distance of time before you can start the process of ruthless self-editing? Or are you able to type ‘the end’ one week and revise the next?

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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?

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Photos:      Junkyard Car by Melissa M. Morris

                 Old Truck by Ron Hilton