This week, I re-read the novel manuscript I’ve been working on for two years in what is my final significant revision before I send it out (fingers crossed) into the publishing world. I’ll probably sweep through it for typos and discontinuities, again, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’m equally blind to many of its strengths and weaknesses.
There are chapters toward the end that I’ve read, in full, perhaps five or seven times. There are the parts in the middle I’ve read ten to twenty times. And there are parts in the beginning I’ve read well over a hundred times. The book’s first third is likely to be the most problematic: memorized beyond recognition, calcified almost beyond re-molding. Though I did manage to recently write a new prologue and cut about a third from chapter one, which had become as overfamiliar as my own face in the mirror. That was difficult, but liberating. Like getting a new haircut after years of the same old style. (Wait, my ears have freckles?) The more we re-read our own manuscripts, the blinder we become, and the more wedded to certain chapters, dialogues, images, sentences—those very “darlings” we are told we should be ready to kill. Instead of being provisional—as all writing should be, as long as possible—certain pieces come to seem essential, part of the novel’s very DNA. They rarely are.
Reading good literature is the most important preparation for becoming a writer, but the one thing reading does not prepare us for at all is understanding that every book could have been written endless different ways, many of them quite successfully. We have trouble imagining Anna Karenina without that first line about all happy families being alike, or Pride and Predudice without that first line about a “truth universally acknowledged,” but that’s only because we don’t know what other openings Tolstoy and Jane Austen were pondering. Famous, beloved books give us an erroneously Calvinist view of literature: that it’s predetermined. The act of writing teaches us something more exciting: that there are parallel universes out there, in which even great books could have been created with different choices of POV, setting, chronology. (Did you know Fitzgerald first planned to set Gatsby in the late 1800s?)
Whenever you’re writing the opening of a new work, it feels horribly shaky—not real at all. You wish for that fated, comfortable feeling: that the characters are behaving just as they should be, that the novel could begin no other way. But I’m starting to think that the mark of an experienced writer is not her ability to banish those shaky feelings, but to live at relative peace with them for as long as possible. To extend that provisional/makeshift state of mind for months, even years, and in extreme cases, even past the point of publication.
Consider the case of Louise Erdrich. In 2010, she told the Paris Review that she was rewriting an earlier published novel, The Antelope Wife. She now considers the ending "too self-consciously poetic, maybe sentimental." She says, "I wouldn’t end it that way now. I am engaged these days in rewriting The Antelope Wife substantially—I always had a feeling it began well and got hijacked.” (Wouldn't it be incredible to hear our favorite authors lecture about what parts of their already-published books they would change now, if they could? )
How can we fight the blinders and retain a conditional perspective about our ongoing drafts? Here’s a list of possibilities, including many tricks I try while revising any novel.
- Set aside the manuscript for several months before another complete re-read, hopefully one that can be done continuously, in one to three days. (Seem obvious? I've met aspiring novelists who have never read their own manuscripts, start to finish.)
- Read on a different device (Kindle instead of laptop, for example—this is one of my favorite tricks).
- Do a complete printout if you’ve been reading only on screens (I get one printed double-sided and bound at my local copy shop). Or, if you have no fear of carpel tunnel syndrome (and this I have never done): retype the entire thing into a clean draft.
- Read in a different place: on a trip instead of at home, in a café or on a couch instead of at one’s usual work desk.
- Change the font or format. Colum McCann puts his manuscript into tiny font, forcing himself to squint and wonder what each sentence is doing there, exactly. I re-format manuscripts to look more like published book pages, to judge the pacing better. Sometimes I’ll read the first five or ten pages of several unfamiliar new novels (thanks, free Kindle samples) in rapid succession then turn to my opening, tricking my brain into thinking I’m reading something authored by someone else.
- Perhaps the sneakiest trick of all is to send the book away to a friend or peer. The moment that it’s out of your hands, you may realize exactly what’s wrong with any manuscript. (The emails fly: “Never mind that draft; I’ll send another!”)
It takes a special reader, mentor, or editor to understand that a manuscript is only one version, perhaps a barely recognizable version, of what a final book could end up being. The desire to see things as they appear now—and not as they might one day be—is the dilemma that confounds us all.
Do you have your own trick for fighting the blinders and maintaining a provisional mindset toward multiple drafts and ongoing revisions? Share here.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour. She is a co-founder of 49 Writers and teaches in the UAA MFA low-residency creative writing program. She is also a book coach with a special interest in revision, narrative structure, and the lifelong development of the writer. Contact her at email@example.com for more info on her book coaching services.