When we commit to a thing—a relationship, a project, a way of life, a new habit—there comes a time when the road gets rocky. There comes a time when we want to walk away, call it quits. “It’s too hard!” we say. “I can’t do it! This isn’t what I expected!”
Those statements may be true, but unless the relationship/project/action is a threat to our mental or physical well-being, commitment means staying engaged, no matter what.
Rewriting a book is like having a relationship with a person. You get acquainted, you check for strengths and weaknesses, you get feedback from others, and you either walk away or take the relationship to the next level.
But first, you meet.
The project begins
Someday, I want to publish a book. The book I publish might not be the one I’m working on now, behind the writer’s curtain. Similar to marriage, if we’re lucky, we land the right guy or girl the first time we date. But usually, it takes a few practice relationships before we develop the skills to forge a lasting bond. It takes dating some bozos before we attract the best match. But that doesn’t mean all those clowns are a waste of time. No! We learn something new with each relationship.
I accept that this novel might be the practice one. I’m sharpening my skills. And it’s good to take the pressure off, knowing this is a learning experience. Once I mastered that mind-set, that I’m showing up every day, putting in my hours or minutes or whatever time I eek out to learn this craft of rewriting, then all that’s required is for me to make the effort.
So, I carve out three days—Friday, Saturday and half of Sunday—to devote to my rewrite. First up: read the whole thing.
As I read, I try not to futz. I resist the urge to straighten the collar and flick lint off the tie and pull up the socks. I just read.
It’s been at least six months since I’ve looked at my manuscript. Plenty of time to have an unbiased viewpoint. Plenty of time to conclude I need to toss at least half. And not wince at the thought.
“Okay, it has a pleasing voice, there’s something interesting here, but the front end needs work.”
I’m able to make this assessment without cringing because I’m not in the throes of first love anymore. The rose colored glasses are off. With time, I’m able to see the flaws as a reader would, not as a writer. And that’s what we’re doing in this first reacquaintance with our manuscript. Reading as a reader.
So far, so good.
The project stalls
After checking out my novel, it’s time to start dating.
When dating, we get to know each other. We get a closer look at what this person is all about. What is this person’s history? Is there a turning point in their life that affected them? What crises has this person been through, how do they deal with problems, and how evolved are they?
It’s the same when looking at our manuscript.
We’re looking for structure, for character arcs. We’re looking for plot points or beats or whatever method we’re using to shore up our story. This is the getting-to-know-you stage: Is there a foundation here, a story, or is it a series of incidents with no conflict? We wouldn’t settle for a boring relationship. A reader won’t settle for a novel where nothing happens.
At the dating stage, we might need to lower the bar. This guy isn’t Brad Pitt, this girl isn’t Angelina Jolie, but hey, they’ve got a beating heart, right? And they’re decent, and successful on some level, and worth spending time with.
Well, this novel of mine has a beating heart, but it’s faint, somewhere in the middle. And it’s not bad; I mean it’s not like a third-grader wrote it. The voice is strong at times, and there’s sorta a story in there somewhere, and it’s successful in the sense that I got a first draft down. That’s something, right?
But first, I need to know what this story is about.
“Well, it’s about this beatnik who…”
Trouble. I’m in deep doo-doo. I can’t get a handle on what the piece is about. I ponder. I rack my brain. I bang my head on the desk trying to shake something loose. A premise.
“Maybe I should choose one of my other novels. One that’s a whole lot clearer.”
Week one, and I’m ready to throw in the towel. Surprised? Not likely. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I’m a self-confessed commitment-phobic. The act of agreeing to do anything permanently makes me feel like I need to breathe into a paper bag.
But wait…I vowed to commit to finishing this rewrite, right? Last week I blabbed it to the world. Or at least to sixty people.
“Maybe they’ve forgotten,” I tell myself. “Maybe I’ll hang up the Gone Fishing sign and go outside and play instead. They’ll never know.”
These are the thoughts that rattle around my brain. As they rattle, no premise breaks loose.
The project resumes
And then comes this reminder…
It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just choose something. Anything. You can always rework it. Like a sculptor with clay, you keep at it until the shape comes through. Look at this as practice, not like you’re writing The Great American Novel.
And just like that, the pressure is gone. Poof!
Like any good relationship, rewriting a novel takes effort. It takes willingness to stick it out during the easy times and the rough, because—surprise, surprise—it ain’t all smooth sailing.
That’s where vows come in—a reminder not to walk way.
So, in the spirit of taking that final step, I am officially inviting you to witness my joining of self to novel. Gifts will be accepted after the ceremony.
I, Diane, promise to show up at the writing chair every day, even when I don’t feel like showing up, even when I’d rather be reading, or eating a chocolate truffle from See’s, or cleaning my refrigerator. I promise to remind myself how I love writing, though at times it feels akin to having my toenails peeled back. I promise to honor the process, reminding myself that all writers get stuck and want to give up, that we’re all constantly honing our craft, trying to become the best writers we can be. And I promise to respect my work, even when it stinks—especially when it stinks—because it’s part of becoming a better writer.
Takeaway this week:
Do you have a project you’re committed to doing? Try writing your own vows. Post them as a reminder. Make a ceremony out of it; invite family and friends. Insist on gifts.
Okay, maybe not gifts.