The Process So Far
When I am not writing for my SEO company, I am working on a novel. Next week, I will have been working on it for a year. As a result, I have reached the point where I hate it.
Every day I think about when it will be finished, when I will hold it and flip through its pages with the surprise that comes from remembering one’s words as being better than originally thought. Every day I spend at least two hours working on it, and on the weekends sometimes up to six hours daily. The result is a work that is slowly, ever so slowly, shaping into something that I may one day be proud of.
That is my criteria for releasing it to the world: the sin of pride. But it is not so much pride for the sake of ego as it is pride for equality, for holding it up to the standard of other works that I admire. When I have reached that point, then I will be done.
In order to get it there, I have given it to people I trust and love and they have told me very discouraging things. Things like, I don’t believe your characters really exist, or, I don’t care about your protagonist, or, it’s good, but it needs to be better. So I go back and rewrite.
The Pain of Rewriting
The first page of this novel is what I have spent the most time on. I have rewritten my first page at least a dozen times in totally different incarnations.
It is the most important because it’s what the reader will recognize as a sign of quality from the get-go and want to keep reading.
After having edited it a dozen times or so, I find myself reworking it from end to beginning, so that eventually I will write my first page last—I am creating a kind of novel-in-reverse. Once I rewrite the first page, I re-draft the rest, using the beginning as the standard for tone and content.
The re-write is far less painful than the idea of the re-write. Coming to terms with the fact that this is not as good as I want it to be and I will have to re-write it in order to make it better requires honesty and courage.
I imagine myself as a combat medic returning to the trenches of my word doc or notebook and excising all of the hard work that has been for naught. But once I actually begin rewriting it feels like I am ridding my body of a gangrenous limb which can regenerate. And honestly, the act of rewriting is less painful than what I find myself normally doing: editing—which, granted, is a large part of the process, but is not the same as having the Muse speak and urge me to give my ideas to the world in a rush of words and phrases.
Why It Works
D.H. Lawrence redrafted “Sons and Lovers” three times before it was published. By the third time, his protests to his editor’s exhortations to re-write helped define the project as what it was when he originally set out to create it. Those letters to his editor justified and crystallized his creative intentions, so that he looked back on his work and renamed it from the less thematic Paul Morel to what it is today. Although critical reception was initially lukewarm, today his book is regarded as a masterpiece of world literature.
This is one of many examples from a history of authors who struggled and eventually found their work lauded and admired. When I am unsure if my rewrite is better than my original, I think of other artists who added onto their original idea and wound up with something different.
The words may change, but the original idea still exists behind new added-on layers, like a palimpsest or a de Kooning, serving as work that leads to the finished product. That’s why my original drafts are never worthless, because they lead eventually to a refined version. If I am really struggling, I turn to examples from history, such as the above, as inspiration to keep working, writing and re-writing, until I can proudly say I am finished.
Wish me luck.