Writer in Residence · 07/19/2012

Haunted by Old Drafts, Starting New Ones

A linked list of all posts from Revision Month can be found here.

Two thoughts:


I searched through about 30 books yesterday looking at their beginnings. In the meantime, I realized I had lost another copy of The Great Gatsby. Why is it always our favorite books that go missing, or are those the only ones we realize are gone, since those are the ones we go looking for? This seems to me just another metaphor for revision.

What I noticed in those 30 books was that about 27 of them started in scene. This as a general trend is something I was expecting, but not to such an extent, I guess. I was looking at openings because, even with all the work to reorder my sections properly and smooth out the transitions, starting with so much narrative summary — and what that entails as far as what we want to know as readers and what needs to be answered (what’s bugging him, how can he afford to bum around Prague, etc.) — was bothering me. I knew it was bothering me, but I kept telling myself it was okay, that this kind of opening could work. Yet what I felt somewhere inside of me, all along, was that it wasn’t interesting enough. I need to rewrite. I need to sit down with a blank page and rewrite the opening for the whatever-th time.

It is terrifying to face a blank page with so many ghost pages lurking behind it. How do you keep your new pages from being haunted by the old? How do you keep from writing the same thing over and over? I have memorized much of my book, by now. I could tell you the first few chapters by heart, missing a few phrases here and there.

How do you let yourself start anew? When do you have to make yourself? The reason I can’t think through simply marking up the page, this time, is that there are altogether too many ghosts. I need to get rid of all of them and work from nothing. But I have come to love my ghosts, as we sometimes do. We live, as we write a novel, in our own haunted house. Perhaps at the same time as we haunt it.


When do we need scenes and when do we need narrative summary?

Anyone who has read Maile Meloy’s wonderful books, especially Liars and Saints, knows what can be done with narrative summary. I often think of Meloy sitting down and deciding to write a whole novel in narrative summary, and I wonder how she had the confidence, and how she had the skill to pull it off.

It’s hard. It’s hard to interest a reader, the general reader, shall we say, in page after page of narration. Readers like to sink into scenes. It’s about imagination, I think; it’s about immersion. Narrative summary can be fun to admire, but it’s not as naturally immersive as a scene.

And maybe what a novel needs to hook a reader into its long long clutches, right from the start, is a depth of immersion. A promise that the novel will take the reader away from the “real world” and put her in a world that is even more real or true.

The reason I have so much narrative summary at the beginning of my book has to do with time. Time is hard to skip over in large chunks, in scene. By the nature of what a scene is. And yet I have seen a technique used in certain books, like The English Patient (one of my all-time favorites) where a scene can be read almost in the conditional. What is happening happens often, it’s become habitual — thereby taking us through time and establishing that awhile has gone by already — and yet it is presented as if a single instance, a scene in “real-time.” That is what I had tried to do with my old opening, I realize now. I think it was working, for what it was, but still the order of information, what should have been the starting point, was wrong.

I need to pass those large chunks of time and yet pass them in scene, from this new starting point. I need to immerse the reader and move her along as quickly as possible, get her to scenes that are not habitual and yet interest her in what happens again and again precisely because does. Interest her in the routine, and then what breaks it.

It’s not a strategy for just any place in a book, but it could work for the beginning. There’s only one way to find out, which is to (re)write it.

Below are some thoughts on rewriting from Christine Lee Zilka, whom you should at least follow on Twitter right away.


Christine Lee Zilka on Revision

In MFA workshop, my professor whose advice was too difficult to ignore, because how do you ignore a writer who’s earned so many writing awards and kudos — this amazing writer said she did not revise.


“I don’t revise, I just start over,” she said.

This was revelatory to me in that this was when I first began to realize that revision means different things to different people. She is not the only writer who says she does not revise — another Canonized Famous Writer of several renowned novels told me that if the novel doesn’t work upon completion, he just starts over and rewrites the whole damn thing.


I looked over my own novel manuscript, then in its thirty-thousand-word infancy, and wondered if I could just start over. I thought I could not. But then, over the years, I did. Again and again. I am sure I have written (and deleted) over two-hundred-thousand-words.

Starting over and rewriting is revision, at least for me. Saying I am rewriting gives me more creative freedom, less of an obligation to retain old words, much of which while beautiful, did not work inside the whole. The word revision, for some reason, made me more unwilling to recreate worlds.

With each rewrite, I retain more and more of my previous manuscript, though at this point, I’ve thrown away three times as many words as I’ve kept in my current draft. I’m more than halfway through writing my novel, I think — I’ve got at least two (or three or four) more rewrites/revisions to go.

It hasn’t gotten an easier cutting lines from my novel. So now I have a file called “Novel Pathology” in which I place all the words I’ve excised. I figure if surgical centers don’t throw away your body parts immediately and instead send them to pathology for examination, why shouldn’t I as a novelist do the same? Also, words can be reused later.

The following is my revision process thus far.

1. I give myself permission to rewrite the whole thing each time.

2. Have a friend, not more than two, read the draft.

3. Work on one aspect of craft in each revision — my first barely-readable-draft is to just get the words down, with a focus on plot. If I get stuck, it’s largely because of POV or structure. At which point I also simultaneously investigate novel structure, and also explore POVto see which POV fits the story. Sometimes, this requires several re-starts. Not all stories are meant to be written in 3rd person POV and not all are meant to be written in 1st, etc. In my first Halfling (I’m going to call my early unfinished drafts, ones in which I could not get past the first half of the novel, “Halflings”) draft, I learned that I had the POV all wrong; I was writing my novel in first person POV, but the narrator was a closed-up dude with intimacy issues. Why the hell was he narrating? Yah. So I switched to third. In my second Halfling draft, I realized my structure was absent. So I started looking at structure — reading other novels, reading about structure, etc. Once I figured out the structure, I was able to crank out a full complete draft.

4. After plot/structure/POV…I go through and build up characters. Each character has a story that goes beyond what’s happening in the book. I investigate, and deepen the characters (I think of their backstory, why they’re doing what they’re doing, beef up their dialogue, etc). Right now, I think I have to make a choice to cut a character. I’m not happy about doing so.

5. After that… ??? I’m still in the thick of it. I know that eventually, I’ll be revising with an eye towards language. Other writers, who revise while they write, may have a keener eye towards language in an earlier draft. It’s all up to you and your process. While language is important to me, I don’t make that my biggest priority as I write the earlier drafts, because it’s likely I’ll cut the lines I worked so hard to create

6. In fact, at this point, none of what I wrote in my first Halfing drafts exist in my current draft. None. I threw it all away. The ideas are there, but none of the words.

I’m also a fiction editor at a litmag. There are a couple manuscripts that I’ve asked for revision — but to be honest, I don’t work with a manuscript that needs major revision — i.e., if it needs help with plot/structure/POV/character, I’m likely to pass on the piece, no matter its potential. I did ask one writer to do a major edit; what happened was the work became too daunting, and the writer submitted an entirely new separate piece, which I accepted. But I’ll work with a writer on line edits.

p.s. The writer who said she doesn’t revise and just starts over? I asked her years later if she was continuing to do so. No, she said. Her recent novel made her rethink how she revised.


posted by Matt Salesses