The book in progress, The Ghost of My Father, is a memoir and it’s no surprise the process of writing it has been different than my other books. To help me sort out what I want to do and how to do it I’ve read dozens of memoirs and several books about memoir writing (recommendations post forthcoming). I thought I had a strong grasp of my own goals and the nature of writing these things. How wrong I was.
The funny thing is every book I’ve ever written has a moment where I realize how wrong I was. That’s part of the journey of writing. You have to possess a certain madness to believe you can take on something as big and unknown as 300 blank pages and shape it into something other people will want to read. For all of my books there has been a point like this, somewhere late in the middle of the work, where it hasn’t all fallen together yet in the way I want and I naturally wonder if it ever will.
The thing I’ve learned is when any creative work isn’t falling together yet it means something bold has to be done. Usually it’s concision: removing something big to give everything that remains the space it needs to blossom. Sometimes it’s shuffling: changing the order in which things are told. Other times it’s far more subtle, and I need to write a new beginning for the book that has better aim for carving through the rest of the material. For most of my books the first chapter that appears in the published version was written from scratch late in the process, to my dismay each and every time. The original first chapters, as hard as I’d worked on them, no longer fit the book they’d started. Maybe if I fill that shelf, I’ll have enough abandoned first chapters to make a book out of them.
This week I’ve been reading through the entire 2nd draft of Ghost. It’s the draft I’ve had 5 people read and give feedback on. I call these sessions where I read through the entire manuscript The Big Read. It’s a big deal psychologically and I force myself to do it. Rewriting and revising is far more fun than reading drafts. I’m convinced it’s worth it as reading the whole manuscript is the only way to put back into my brain what the book actually is at the moment. Books are big and my brain is small. Without rereading the whole thing I’m working with my imagined idea of what the 2nd draft is, which may be pretty far from what it really is like. Reading the entire draft also lets the feedback I’ve heard from others land properly, as while I’m reading I can see for myself where the feedback is accurate, or not, and make notes accordingly as I go. As strong as the urge is to jump to the computer and fix things, I resist. I want to wait until I’ve experienced the whole thing before I change anything.
As I’m reading the 2nd draft I’m noting the problems I find. Some problems are structural: why is this section before that one? Why is this story even in the book, but not this other one? How does X fit with Y, if at all? Other problems are craft: underwritten paragraphs, overwrought metaphors, experienced told but not shown. Craft is far easier to fix than structure. Craft is polish and you can revise a book, even a deeply flawed book, into polished writing. Some excellent books are structural disasters with craft so fantastic you barely notice (I’m looking in awe at you, Mr. Updike). But structure, pace and tone, things that have to line up throughout the entire narrative, are far harder to get right or to experiment with.
I have a novel I’ve worked on now and then for years. I once decided to switch the entire book from 3rd person to 1st, a task I decided could only be done by typing in the entire manuscript again, shifting the point of view as a I went. Some experiments and changes can only be tried at large scale. That’s the burden of long narratives like books, or films. The upside of books, and all writing, is you can always go back. Unlike a painting or a sculpture where a bad choice is irrevocable, in writing you can always go back. Writers should be brave in revision for this reason: there’s always a safety net, so be bold.
It took until I was halfway through this big read that I understood what I needed to do for Draft #3. And as much as I want to dig in right now and get busy, I won’t do it. I need to know if these plans I have now, at the halfway mark, will still hold together when I’ve read the whole thing. As soon as I hit publish on this post, I’m going back to the read. I’ll report back when I’m done. Have a good weekend.