Guess what?? Yesterday around 4:30, I finished revising my manuscript! Hurray for me!!! Yahoo!!!! Yipeeee!!!! I wish you’d been there as I typed the last scene. You would have laughed at me because I smiled the entire time, and when I got to the last sentence I teared up a little bit (a lot, actually), which is silly, I know, but I couldn’t help myself. I was soooooo happy.
This book means so much to me. I love it as much now as I did the day I sold it–maybe more–because for the first time, really, I feel like all the pieces are in place. The words on the page match the story I see in my mind. It feels the way I’d always hoped it would feel–warm and meaty, full-bodied and generous. When I sold the novel I was exhausted, absolutely spent. I’d poured every drop of my creative energy into it and swore I had nothing left. And even while I knew the story was good, I knew, privately, there were places where the language fell short and didn’t quite convey all that I hoped it would, all that I knew it should; but again, I’d given the story everything I had. I couldn’t have written another sentence, imagined another scene, if you’d paid me. I just prayed someone would see what I was trying to, share my vision, and invite me in out of the cold.
Some of you know that I waited 10 months to get notes from my editor. Waiting all that time was really hard, incredibly frustrating, and occasionally infuriating. But the wait turned out to be a tremendous gift because while I’d never spent so long away from the story, it turned out, the time and distance allowed me to come back the the book with fresh eyes. I won’t say I was completely indifferent to what was on the page–I wasn’t, not at all–but I wasn’t attached in the same way either. I was less breathless, more objective, more willing to toss what wasn’t working. They says it’s important for a writer to be willing to kill their darlings, and I was finally ready to take out my carving knife.
There’s nothing like having to confront one’s limitations and in the last seven months I’ve done that more times that I care to count. Time and again, I’ve had to confront the limitations of my imagination, the limitations of my writing, and there have been plenty of moments when I’ve felt outright fatigue. There’ve been days when I’ve read a chapter and shouted, “This writing is terrible,” or I’ve come to a scene made no emotional sense, or just wasn’t true, and I’d have to cut it and start over. Every writer knows when they’ve been a coward or taken the easier road. The question they have to answer, that I’ve had to answer is what am I going to do about it? There were also plenty of times when the new revised story didn’t match the old story on the page. All of a sudden characters were out of alignment, or I’d unwittingly created a new narrative knot that took days, even weeks to untangle.
Worst, though, were the days when I fretted that the questions I was asking weren’t big enough. I still worry about that, actually, because the books that mean the most to me, the books I love and find myself reading time and again, all seem to ask big, weighty questions, even in the smallest, quietest moments, and I’d love for my story to do that. It’s what I’m reaching for. I confided this to a writer friend recently, and she looked at me and said, “It’s your first book,” which I took to mean one book can’t do everything. So I’m trying to ease up just a little bit. I’m trying to remind myself this is what the writing life is all about. I tell myself, this book will do what it can do, it will be what it can be, and I’ll go on to the next one, which will be better, if for no other reason than I’ll be a wiser, more seasoned writer. It’s a small comfort, but it’s what I’ve got. I was on the phone with Dylan earlier, and we agreed that no book is ever perfect; that even the best writer looks back at their work and cringes just a little bit. You just have to know that it’s the best book it can be at the time and put it out there. Otherwise, you’d never finish anything, right?
At the end of the day, what I want most of all is for this book to be like a warm embrace. I want to share it with all the people who’ve been instrumental in helping me, who I’ve come to love with all my heart. I want them to say, “you did good.”
I still have work to do: some tightening and brightening; adding a scene here, polishing the language there, but all the heavy lifting is behind me. The new manuscript is 484 pages. That’s 120 pages more than before and my fingers are crossed that my editor likes what I’ve done.
My writer friends always tell me that it’s important to mark these milestones; to really stop and celebrate each accomplishment because they are so few and far between. So tomorrow I’m going to lunch with my pal, Hazel, and maybe we’ll see a movie. After that, it’s back to work.
Writing is nothing if it isn’t a mystery to be solved, a puzzle with a thousand tiny pieces to be arranged in exactly the right order. And I guess that’s why I keep at it. I like the challenge of translating the movie that plays in my head into words on the page. I love beautiful language. I love stories that are brave and unflinching, and that feel emotionally true. When I read a good book, I love coming upon a scene that feels so familiar that I wonder how the author could have known I’d experienced exactly that same emotion.
If my novel does that, even a little bit, I’ll be happy.