As a writer whose work is regularly interrupted by piddly things like my job, I leave a lot of books and stories unfinished, sometimes for months or even years at a time. When I come back to a piece to start working on it again, it’s often hard to remember where I left off. But it’s not just the cobwebs that have grown over the words that obscure my vision. Sometimes even brushing away the dust and rereading the beginning aren’t enough to remind me where I was headed. I’ve simply lost the plot. Other times, I do remember where I was going, but the destination no longer makes sense.
When this happens, I have to sit back and ask myself, “Well, where do I want to go from here?”
The question is both freeing and terrifying. Is it really up to me? I can decide? Well, of course! It was up to me all along. I’m the writer. The story is mine to tell. But that doesn’t change the fact that deviating from a set path—even if I’m the one who mapped it in the first place—feels wrong.
Living in the spring of 2021 feels a little like coming back to an unfinished story long after putting it in a drawer. After more than a year of staying home and distancing from others, of not traveling and not eating in restaurants, my loved ones and I are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and ready to resume a somewhat normal life. But that’s proving to be harder than I anticipated.
I think of the things we used to do: tasting each other’s drinks at happy hour, blowing the candles out on birthday cakes, letting 130 teenagers flow in and out of my classroom every day without once sanitizing hands or wiping off desks. Can I really go back to doing these things? Do I want to? I’m having trouble finding the plot, and when I do, I’m not sure I want to keep going in the direction I was headed before.
The coronavirus has already been a horror story and a love story, a story of sacrifice and of survival. The tale is not over yet, and I worry there may yet be unexpected twists on the way. As we venture back into our lives—safely, carefully—let us rewrite the future and create a new, happier ending.
Your story, poem, novel chapter, or query letter is not good enough. You know this either because it’s been rejected three times or because a critique group gave you negative feedback, or because you just know, in your gut. Even so, you’re having trouble finding the motivation to revise. These are your words, and you liked them when you wrote them. You like them still, even though they’re not getting the job done. So you sit and you stare and you move commas around and replace adjectives with synonyms of those adjectives and you eat some chocolate. You, friend, are a reluctant reviser.
Revising is a vital part of the writing process, and getting over the reluctance to revise is an integral first step. If you find yourself stuck in the “it’s fine the way it is” swamp, try one of these tips to get yourself, and your writing, moving again.
Tip #7: Clone Your Darlings
I always find it difficult to cut parts of a story or poem. I know I’m supposed to “kill my darlings” but what if I kill the wrong ones? What if I take something out that should have been left in? In short, what if I revise wrong?
The answer to this conundrum is so simple it’s stupid, and I’m embarrassed at how long it took me to think of it. Just make a copy first.
Before you kill your darlings, clone them. That way, if anything goes horribly, horribly wrong, you can go back to the original and start over. Now, whenever I start revising a short story that has been deemed “too long” or “too wordy” or “could be tightened up a bit,” I first create a duplicate of the file, labeling the two identical documents story_original and story_revised. Then I go to town chopping and cutting and pulverizing the revised copy, safe in the knowledge that those poor words I’m deleting still exist elsewhere. When I’m finished, I compare the results with the original, and you know what? I almost always like the new, concise version better. (And it usually irks me a little bit.)
Even after you cut sentences that you loved and accept the truth of their inadequacy, you may still have trouble sending that original file to the trash. That’s okay. You can be a file hoarder for awhile. It’s not like you’ve got a living room full of old Reader’s Digests and headless Barbies. (Right?) No one can see your Dropbox account. No one has to know.
I like to collect all of the deleted sentences and paragraphs with which I cannot bear to part in a single file. I call it Prose Purgatory. There the work sits, waiting in limbo, until I can finally accept that it is unnecessary and must be destroyed. This, however, is a rather cruel system. I urge you make the revisions as quickly and humanely as possible.
Tip #8: Listen to Yourself
When staring at your writing isn’t producing any epiphanies, try listening to it.
If you haven’t already discovered the benefits of this trick, you should. It’s amazing how many issues appear, as if by magic, when you read your work aloud. Silly typos that your eyes skipped right over suddenly grab your attention when you slow down and speak the words. Problems with pacing reveal themselves. Accidental repetitions practically glow on the page when moments before they did an expert job of hiding. Honestly, this is a strategy that can’t accurately be described. You just have to try it to see how well it works.
[Note: It was not until I read the previous paragraph aloud that I noticed I’d used the word “amazing” twice. I deleted the second one without giving it even a moment in Prose Purgatory.]
This was one of my favorite tricks to teach my seventh graders. Since there were twenty to thirty of them in a class, I had them put on headphones or cover their ears with their hands to drown out the other voices and feel less self-conscious. Plenty of them had assured me they were “done” and were skeptical about finding any more errors in their drafts. It was hilarious listening to a room full of kids all reading their personal narratives aloud at the same time, but it was even funnier watching one of the nonbelievers take a hand away from an ear to make an edit before catching my eye and blushing. I know this isn’t a very attractive thing to admit, but I love being right.
If reading your drafts aloud is already part of your writing routine, then try this: When you’ve found all the typos and repetition errors and you feel (again) your chapter or story is the best it can be, record yourself reading it. Then burn it to a CD or put it on your iPod and listen to it while you’re driving around or jogging or waiting in line at the pharmacy. (Yes, this means you will be literally listening to yourself talk. It’s okay. No one will know. Just don’t forget to turn the volume down before you order a coffee at the drive-through.)
This process is for ferreting out the more subtle issues with your piece. Where did you get bored, zone out and have to rewind? Where did you laugh out loud? Where did you notice a place that needed a bigger punch or more specific description?
The only danger here (besides a strong case of narcissism) is that you might be constantly pulling your car to the side of the road to take notes. Try not to cause any accidents. Remember that this is recorded. You can play it again, as many times as you want. Also remember that if you die in a car accident, then everyone will know the last thing you were listening to was the sound of your own voice.
Tip #9: Nothing Sounds Like a Carrot Except a Carrot
Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, spit out the carrots he chewed during recordings. This led to the rumor that Blanc was allergic to carrots or hated their taste, but that wasn’t the case. He simply couldn’t deliver his lines with a mouthful of carrot. So why not use something else to make the sound effect of Bugs’s chewing?
The sound of Bugs chomping on a carrot while delivering a wisecrack was a key element from the beginning, but a technical problem soon became apparent: after taking a noisy bite of carrot, Blanc would have to chew for a while before he could swallow enough of it to deliver his next line. Other crunchy but more easily chewed foods (apples, celery) were tried, but the resulting sounds were deemed insufficiently carrotlike. The simplest and best solution, it turned out, was for Blanc to briefly chew on an actual carrot, then spit it out and go on with the voiceover. Ultimately a spittoon became a fixture in Mel’s recording-studio setup.
“Insufficiently carrotlike.” I love that.
Sometimes what’s wrong with your piece of writing can’t be found on a word level or sentence level or even paragraph level. Sometimes the writing itself is fine, but the story lacks authenticity. The reader can tell you got lazy and used an apple instead of a carrot.
I used to hate the word research. Somewhere during my school years, it became synonymous with tiny handwriting on note cards that kept getting out of order and mind-numbing encyclopedia text and bibliography pages. Only recently have I figured out that research is just learning about stuff, investigating, becoming one with a topic. And it can be fun.
Since the main character of my YA novel is an eighth grade gamer, I get to count the following things as research:
Reading books like Extra Lives by Tom Bissell and All Your Base Are Belong to Us by Harold Goldberg
Playing hours of Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man at the arcade
Standing behind my husband while he’s gaming, asking him questions like: “What’s that thing for? Why did you decide to change your armor? What would happen if you jumped off that cliff? How come you’re not killing those guys? Are you dead now? What will you do differently next time?” (This counts as research AND quality family time.)
Not all research is fun though. I got a pretty massive headache after trying to decipher the language of the World of Warcraft message boards. But I did it, and if need be I’ll do it again. (*shudder*)
The point is that you can’t fake it or your reader will know. You have to spend the time and do the homework to get it right. If that means reading books on archaeology, or shadowing a Home Depot employee for a day, or hanging out in an arcade for an afternoon writing down the things people say when they see the words GAME OVER on the screen, then do it. Sadly, not all story issues can be solved just by cutting and pasting or listening to yourself talk.
Sometimes you have to chew the carrot and spit it out. Like it or not.
For more revising tips, check out these posts from two of my favorite blogs:
Tonight my husband has to work (at home) from 7 P.M. to 3 A.M. I’ve decided to stay up too, both for moral support and to (hopefully) accomplish some of my own tasks. My goals for the All-Night-Work-A-Thon are:
Write 750 words of something. (Ideally, the words would fit somewhere in my novel, but since I might be writing them at two o’clock in the morning, I am going to allow them to venture wherever they want to go.)
I’ve got my coffee. Let’s do this!
8:15 P.M. – Slow and steady.
I’ve completed two run-throughs of my short story, first my own edit and one then using the comments a writing buddy made on the manuscript. I still have one more set of comments from a second writing friend, but I need to take a break from the story for awhile. Time to open up the old Writer’s Market.
9:45 P.M. – Things fall apart.
First, the hubby asked me to stop singing so loudly and to turn down my music. (But it was the Stone Roses’ “I Wanna Be Adored,” and I do, I really do.) Then Toby, sensing that I was taking an unscheduled Twitter break, jumped onto my lap and started knocking pens off my desk. I evicted him from my office and took a restroom break. On the way back to my room, I shut my long flowy skirt in the bathroom door and made an animal-like yelp when I was unexpectedly wrenched backwards. The hubby had to ask me to keep it down again.
Taking a break from the Writer’s Market (and from Twitter and from Toby) to get back to my story revisions. Hoping things get better.
Midnight – Dealing with transitions.
It is midnight. I’ve fed the cats, put the dog to bed, and washed my face. I’ve switched from coffee to orange juice and traded my dangerous flowy skirt for sweats and a Superman t-shirt. I’ve worked hard on my short story. I am happy with the first fifteen pages (yes, it’s a long short story), but I’m still struggling with the ending. I’m having trouble making the transition to the final scene a seamless one. I want the final scene to seem seamless. I seem to seek seamless scenes. I am also getting sleepy.
I will take another break from my short story to read Extra Lives. Maybe something in the chapter about BioWare’s RPG Mass Effect will help me conclude my story about a little girl and her great-grandmother. Probably not, but maybe.
2:40 A.M. – The end is near.
[Sadly, my midnight and 2:40 A.M. photos were accidentally deleted from my blog and my computer. 😦 Big oops.]
I read all but one chapter of Extra Lives. I started reading this book to better understand the main character of my YA novel, but instead it’s helped me better understand my husband (who shouts/screams/grunts at his computer screen on a nightly basis) and also myself. I have played all of maybe two of the games mentioned in this book, but reading about these games has made me remember (and miss) the ones I grew up with, like Bubble Bobble and Jump Man and Lode Runner. (Expect a blog post about my gaming days on a night when I’m not so zombie-like.) I’ll save the last chapter for tomorrow.
I didn’t finish the Writer’s Market either. I went through all the book publishers and agents, but there are a few more articles I want to read.
And I never got back to my short story. The last five pages are still aglow with highlighted areas of mediocrity.
Oh yeah, and this blog post is the only other thing I wrote tonight, and it’s just shy of 750 words.
In summation, I completed none of my goals.
But that’s ok.
In real life, things always take longer to finish than you think they will when you see them on a to-do list. I worked hard tonight. I worked a long time, and I accomplished a lot, although I didn’t fully accomplish anything. And now I am very tired. I think, in some ways, there is joy in having pages left for tomorrow. There is purpose in pages. Then again, I might just take tomorrow off.
(Oh, and in case you were wondering, my husband’s work went well too.)