The Road of Revision: One Mile at a Time

I’m plodding through the second draft of my 2018 NaNoWriMo novel and it’s going slower than I had imagined it would. Partly because my life is so full of spinning plates—freelancing for multiple, planning a wedding, writing, this blog, going to the gym, keeping up with friends and family, sleep—that even when I have the time to sit down and write, I sometimes can’t summon the energy to put words together. I have to keep reminding myself that whatever timelines and extra goals I might have tacked on in recent months, my writing goal for 2019 is simply to revise this novel for publication. If that means I’m still rewriting over the summer, if it means skipping NaNo to do line edits, if I don’t find a critique partner until Christmas, that’s all okay. I have a destination and each scene laid out like the next mile marker on the road.

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

― E.L. Doctorow, Writers At Work: The Paris Review Interviews

That’s one of my favorite writing quotes of all time and as a person with occasionally debilitating anxiety, I think it’s a pretty good philosophy for life too. It’s a reminder that I don’t have to anticipate every turn of the journey and prepare for it. I just have to tackle what’s right in front of me and then the next bit, and then the one after that. And that’s how I’ve been working on rewrites for this novel.

After reading through the first draft and arming myself with advice about revising, I built my scene-by-scene outline using index cards: my roadmap for the second draft. And ever since, I’ve been working my way through each scene, grouping them into chapters (my first draft chapter breaks are completely arbitrary), and sending each chapter off to my best friend Roo for feedback. It’s been an incredibly slow process, completely different from the November rush of words pouring out onto the page. And sometimes, I’ll look at the stack of scene cards and wonder how long it’s going to take me to get through this novel. I’m impatient. I want it ready to go out into the world. But I can’t make myself go any faster. I can’t outpace my headlights.

You’d think that with the whole plot of the novel laid out this way, I’d be able to move through it like a paint-by-number. Put characters here, move them there, spring this trap on them, record their responses. I know everything that’s supposed to happen, and because this isn’t the first draft, I even have words to work with. It should just be a matter of expanding on my slim initial draft and replacing what didn’t work. But even with the formula carefully laid out, the story isn’t an algorithm. I can’t simply plug in the variables and let it run. Despite what I used to think as a dedicated pantser, outlining isn’t taking the magic out of this draft; those unexpected moments and character surprises that are both exciting and frustrating. I still need to step back occasionally and let things bubble and brew before coming back to the page. I can’t race along at top speed. This is not the Autobahn in full daylight. It’s foggy, dark, and twisty and then next turn only appears when you’ve come right up on it.

As frustrating as it is for me to go so slow, I know that it needs to be this way. The darkness and fog, and the discovery around the next bend are what keep me going. It’s what was wrong with the WIP I trunked last year. I had gone over the ground so many times that I knew where every twist was and I could see the whole story stretching out in front of me. There was no incentive to go through the process to the end because every piece of scenery along the way was too familiar, with no room for surprise and delight. This time around, it’s different. I know what’s going to happen (or what’s supposed to happen) but I don’t always know exactly how it will play out. And so I keep my headlights on, and I keep driving.

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