I wrote last month about the first stage of my first serious attempt to revise a first draft. The plan involved reading the draft from top to bottom and taking notes along the way without making any revisions, not at the paragraph, sentence, or word level. (I confess to adding paragraph breaks where they were needed and fixing obvious word choice errors and typos; that’s it.) The point was to see where I was and try to figure out where to go before I start to rewrite.
I’m nearly done (6 pages to go) and starting to suspect that this was probably the easy part.
Taking notes is fun. Too fun, perhaps, because the notes are threatening to become the volume of a novel themselves. I’ve been avoiding thinking about what to do when it’s time to read them. I’ll probably end up taking notes about the notes, and then more notes about those, in a never-ending cycle of notes from which I and this manuscript will never emerge. When will I get back to writing?
One of the best parts of taking notes is that I get to use my editor brain. I imagine my comments to be those of a great editor, incisive and insightful. I imagine I have ideas that no one else would have, that I can find nuggets of splendour in the pile of rubble that is my first draft. But most of the notes are rambling and wondering and questioning. No great insights, nothing clever or sharp. In fact, the notes are mostly questions.
I can’t stop my writer brain from responding in questions to what my editor brain has to say. It’s eager to please, to have an array of solutions to the problems my editor brain points out, but it doesn’t know the right answer. Neither editor nor writer know the answer yet, because of course that’s not the point. The point at this point is just to ask questions. The answers will come.
Being consistent with this practice has been harder than the practice of writing every day. Writing first thing in the morning, especially if you’re not all the way awake, is a special kind of thing. Reading your own work and applying critical thinking skills to it and then taking notes about it is something else. Morning is perhaps not the best time.
It’s strange to think not about forming sentences and paragraphs, but to step back and think about the story. What’s really happening. What should be happening. Does what’s happening make any sense. Instead of focusing on what am I going to write today, I’m thinking how am I going to turn this into a good story.
Many mornings, I give up before I start. When I can’t summon the critical thinking skills, when I have other things to worry about, when I’m at a part of the novel I know will not survive revision. The easiest thing to do with such a mess is to ignore it.
Reading your own writing can be weirdly vulnerable and unnerving. I don’t like being exposed to scrutiny, not even my own. I want to cringe and look away. I get so ashamed of whatever idiot wrote that paragraph or thought up that plot twist a few months ago. Whoever wrote that sentence is clearly full of themselves, braindead, tone-deaf. But it’s useless to think that way. Every morning is practice for standing back and looking full-faced at what is there. Taking it for what it is and dealing with it. Doing it more often can only make it easier, right?
I know my story, or what my story might be, so much better now. I think I know what I want to say, but I don’t want to focus on that part. I need to focus not on what I’m saying but on what the characters are doing. What action makes sense? Where are the conflicts and how are they resolved? I think too much about what things mean. I want to focus on the concrete things that happen because of what things mean.
Perhaps I’ll do something like Olivia Laing’s serial killer wall or a subway map or some other method that’s probably less effective than it is evidence of an unhealthy obsession with office supplies. Something that makes me feel like a detective with some serious crimes to solve or a tourist with some serious sights to see or my mom with serious errands to run on a Saturday morning.
Before I start rewriting anything, I need to do more work. The notes aren’t enough. I need an outline. Something complicated and layered and scalable, to make sense of this jumble of ideas. I need a frame that can adapt to what I need it to be, that will remain strong enough as I build on top of it, remove pieces beneath it, and replace everything that hangs upon it.
So, index cards. Maybe another spreadsheet first. I’m not trying to do anything innovative with the story structure. The plot isn’t supposed to be complicated. But figuring out the mechanics is something I’ve never been good at, and it’s something I want to do better. I’m trying to follow the rules, but I also want to be able to feel my way through it, the way I’ve always done. It still needs to feel right.
I’m trying to remember that none of this writing is really me. It’s just a story, just a bunch of words I put together, and every time I look at it is an opportunity to make it better. But it’s not me that’s getting better; it’s the story getting better.
Every morning is darker than the last, and it’s only going to get worse. I’m trying to imagine how I might deal with index cards on the couch under a blanket on these dark autumnal mornings, with just the floor lamp nearby for light. Maybe it’s time to get beyond the couch. Maybe it’s time to migrate to the dining room table.