I’m a book coach, which means I read manuscripts for a living and can attest to the power of revision. I’ve seen people take a weak, confusing manuscript and turn it around, revising it into a clean, focused, emotionally moving, ready-to-market memoir or novel that I can’t wait to buy and send to my own friends because it’s gone from “meh” to “this-is-so-good.”
But the story I want to share with you as you peer down the tunnel at an uncertain 2021, trying to decide which dreams you dare to dream, is my own story — as novelist, not coach.
Just over ten years ago I tried to write a novel that didn’t work, even with MFA mentors to help guide me. And so I gave up, moving on to what would become my third and fourth published novels, leaving dozens of wretched drafts of the “problem novel” in a folder of my laptop, mostly forgotten until I clicked that folder open again in 2017, got curious, and started over.
A month from now, Annie and the Wolves will be in bookstores. It just received an Oprah Magazine nod as one of 2021’s “best and most anticipated historical fiction novels.”
What follows are the lessons I learned, years after I’d given up on that manuscript completely, when I finally understood how to do a true “page one rewrite.”
1. Let that baby go stone cold.
A few times — a year after giving up; two years later — I thought I might be able to revise Annie. But every time, I was imagining small structural and character arc changes. I had to let the thing fade — truly forget the book’s major incidents, voice, everything — before I could think about it again with complete detachment. I can’t emphasize enough: I sunk into a state of near amnesia about the whole project. If you showed me pages from those early drafts, I would no longer recognize them.
2. Know what you did wrong the first time; be both merciless and tender.
It didn’t take me long to reach this stage. I knew exactly what I’d done wrong. Every novel will have its own fatal flaws.
My early draft’s problems included: 1) Relying too much on autobiography, trying to fashion characters from my experience and that of family members, rather than allowing autobiography to inspire themes and incidents. 2) Having a writer as the main character. Agents and readers cautioned me against this, yet I clung to it. In any case, my narrator was far too passive, as writers in novels often are. 3) Having a subplot — a story within a story — that was imaginary, even within the world of the book, meaning that it was low stakes, in a book that needed some real stakes to prime the pump. 4) Saving all the best parts for the end. (Oh, boy. Never works.)
I could explain more — problems with POV, with unreliability, blah blah blah— but you’re interested in your failed manuscript, not mine. Every DOA novel or memoir has its own problems. Do you know precisely, without an inkling of doubt, what they are? Have you learned — as I had to learn — to distance yourself from the friend or spouse or even agent who says, I don’t know, these parts aren’t bad; I liked them, actually. (Yes, I had an agent who liked aspects of this novel. And yet even that didn’t mean it was working in its original iteration.)
Are you ready to be your toughest critic? And after that — this part’s even harder — are you ready to be your most tender ally? No, you are not dumb. No, you are not a failure. No, you have not wasted time. You are creative and part of being creative is experimenting and learning and most of all, enduring.
3. Don’t cut and paste.
It’s so tempting to try to save enormous chunks of your old novel and shoehorn them into place, to just change pronouns and names and verb tenses, to go from first person to third person, to change beginnings and endings. That’s all good editing, but that’s not what a page one rewrite is. If you’re really starting over, let the old novel exist only as a fading dream or smoky vision in your mind, not something you keep re-opening to read or pilfer entire chapters from. (Some lines may sneak in. It all depends.) In any case, start with a clean page. Let that white space carry you away from your old dead prose.
4. Interrogate your original motivations.
Ask yourself: What was the main thing you were trying to accomplish in the first place? Not “what was the plot,” but “what was your purpose?” Maybe you were trying to depict a realistic marriage, or the problems of twenty-somethings today, or what life will really be like in 2100. Maybe you were trying to ask a philosophical question, or write with humor, or thrill the reader on every page. Maybe you were penning an homage to your favorite author or book, creating an intertextual conversation of some kind. Maybe you were writing a love letter to a particular place or time period, trying to get it just right, while populating it with interesting people and their urgent problems. Find the deepest, truest thing in that old manuscript and hold tightly to that. Trust the DNA of that foundational urge. Let new life spring from the old.
5. Find a way to play again.
Oh, this was hard. Because once this new novel got going, I wanted it to work. I didn’t want to waste yet more time. When I hit the most difficult stage again — manuscript three-quarters done but not yet singing — I was ready to throw in the towel. My family couldn’t believe it. My husband, usually supportive, was questioning my sanity. Another whole novel (almost) finished and I was going to kill this one, too?
Those were dark times. I had to tell my family — and myself — that yes, maybe I would let this new book go to the unpublished novel graveyard as well. I had to insist on my right to take chances, to spend time, to perhaps — change of metaphors — sink the boat. Again. Writing a completely new novel would have been easier. But I was doing this for reasons other than ease. And yet, I could work hard and still play. I had to find the moments that gave me joy. I had to keep taking risks. I had to be ready to sacrifice or save the damned thing, every month, according to my gut. Either way.
One of the things I did during this phase was to look to my role models, not to copy what they’d done, but to keep believing that there are authors who break rules and readers out there, somewhere, who get it. I was blending genres and incorporating unreality (spoiler: time travel!) into an otherwise realistic plot. So does Margaret Atwood; The Blind Assassin was a big inspiration. I was incorporating letters and journals and playing with multiple timelines. So does A.S. Byatt’s Possession.
When you’re having a dark night of the soul, remember the books you love. They were once messy, imperfect first drafts, too. Let me modify that. Even in published form, all books are imperfect, and no book is beloved by every person who reads it. If you really need a mood lift, search for the worst reviews your favorite author has received. No one is exempt.
My story has a happy ending, which doesn’t mean I’m all done tossing out manuscripts. Many of us toss as much as we keep. But even those things we toss can sometimes be found, dusted off, and lovingly transformed.
If you’ve read this far, I hope it’s because you have that itchy-twitchy sensation that you, too, could dig out an old project and find new life in it. Not someday. This coming year. You still have time.