“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
-Leonardo da Vinci
I picked up a novel that I’d tossed into the filing cabinet over a year ago. It should be perfectly safe, right? It’s cooled off and I should be able to approach it with a fresh perspective. After all, I’m a different, better writer/editor than I was back then – an entirely different person, right? Well, not so much. Ten pages into the review and I can see the good and the bad. Fifty pages in and all the angst creeps back into my mind. One hundred pages in and I can’t even remember my own name.
This is how you drive a writer/artist/editor absolutely crazy: Make them read their own work. Especially long fiction. Oh my. It’s like a tour of your own subconscious mind, but only the bad parts. All the insecurities and cringe-worthy habits come bubbling back to the surface. Terrible turns of phrase and paper-thin characters leap from the prose and bludgeon you with their awkward presence. The entire work seems to be a Frankenstein monster, built out of the demented portions of your imagination. Every horrible thing you’ve ever written, every weak trope you’ve used as a crutch, they seem to have found a home in your once-precious so-called ‘book’.
Like the fool that you are, you roll up your sleeves and get to work though. You start by making notes and comments. When you examine the structure and find out where the big gaps are, you figure out how to build it up and flesh it out. You brainstorm and come up with a way to tie up all the loose ends. If you listen to your characters, they’ll tell you how they want things to play out and you discover the obvious solution to that nagging, missing element. Yes, you dive in, because you can’t NOT do the work.
It burns your mental fuel and drains your reserves of patience and energy. The narrative climbs in through your eyes and makes a nest in your active mind. The story interrupts you while you’re taking a shower and making dinner, when you’re at the dentist and when you’re trying to fall asleep. Like an invasive weed, it wants all the territory it can take root in. And what do you do? You let it. Because you have to.
Here’s the good news. It happens to all of us and we have a good chance of survival. All you have to do is get through it. The work is what seems important because it is. When you’re in it and the engines of creation are at their maximum power things get accomplished. Don’t fight it, work with it. Yes, it makes you crazy. Yes, it might destroy your social life. But it’s for a good cause.
Revising our work is almost as intense as the initial writing, but it’s so much more important. If the first draft is like giving birth, then the road to the final draft is like raising a child. To do a good job requires active, constant attention, and the right set of tools. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Anybody can have a kid and anybody can write a book. The good kids and the good books have a lot in common; you have to put in a lot of work and they are guaranteed to make you insane.
In the end, however, it’s all totally worth the effort. Now, get back to work.
When he’s not giving others the advice he so badly needs to hear himself, Patrick Jennings-Mapp is working on the third revision of that damn novel. No, not that one – he stopped that one – the other one. Yes, the one with the crazy people. (sigh) No, the other one with the crazy people…