Re(re)vision: Laurie Frankel on Throwing Away Half Her Book While Writing It
The Author of “Family Family” Listens to Angel and Demon Alike As She Revises
You know that saying about laws and sausages and how you shouldn’t let anyone see them being made?
This is true of novels as well.
In the first place, watching someone write a novel would be really boring. You’d see me sitting on my sofa with my laptop for hours at a time. Then I’d get up and get a glass of water, stare out the window for a little while, chat with my dog as if she were my editor, read a book, sit with my laptop some more. Except for the part with my dog, this would not be exciting to watch.
More importantly—and counterintuitively, given the high boredom factor—watching me write a novel would be terrifying.
I cut 300,000 words from my new book. Three. Hundred. Thousand. That’s nearly three times as many words as are left. It is told via two alternating timelines. One I edited. The other I highlighted and dragged into the trash then rewrote from scratch (then edited). My main character, my protagonist, the beating heart of this novel, used to die in the very first sentence. The first sentence!
I drafted the whole book then went back to the beginning and edited to the end, then back to the beginning and edited to the end…and then I did that a few hundred more times. Writing teachers like to say “revision” very slowly so students get that it means “re vision.” You have to see again, we like to say, see anew, look at it differently. But there’s revision and then there’s revision.I drafted the whole book then went back to the beginning and edited to the end, then back to the beginning and edited to the end…and then I did that a few hundred more times.
I’m never sure whether talking about this is inspiring or demoralizing, but I’m hoping it’s the former, not least because the reader in me feels like the world would be a better place if we were all willing to edit our writing a little more and a little deeper and a little better.
In which pursuit, allow me to introduce my writing shoulder angel and my writing shoulder demon.
My shoulder angel is like: I’m really sorry, hon, but I think this scene/character/plot arc/timeline/motif-you’ve-used-throughout-the-entire-goddamn-manuscipt has to go.
My shoulder demon is like: Nah, girl, it’s fine.
Shoulder angel: It’s fine, yes, but not as good as it could be. So you should make it better.
Shoulder demon: But it’s so pretty. And clever. (And so, by extension, are you.)
Shoulder angel: It is pretty and clever, but it’s not buying you enough. You need to tighten what’s loose, propel what drags, punch up what’s cliche, drive home your points, make more connections. And lose the flab.
Shoulder demon: But it’s load bearing. If you get rid of it, it breaks things throughout the entire draft. You’ll have to change a zillion details. You’ll never find them all.
Shoulder angel: You will find them all. You will find them when you edit this manuscript several dozen (hundred) more times.
Shoulder demon: [whining] But it’s soooo hard and I don’t wannaaaa.
Shoulder angel: [kind but firm] It won’t be as hard as you think. So just do it.
Demon: Do you ever shut up?
Angel: Yes, sometime after second pass.
The trick is they’re both right. When my demon gets all worked up about how hard it will be to make big changes, changes like cutting a timeline, or shifting from first-person to third, or taking these seven characters and combining them into one, or throwing out the first third of the book and drafting it from scratch, she’s right that that will be a lot of work, that it will take a long time. Edits at that level break a lot of things that were working great and will now need to be fixed. It will be hard in many ways.
But the hardest way of all, harder than the work itself, is convincing myself to undertake it.
One reason is that my shoulder demon is a writer and imagines stuff for a living. Of course she anticipates suffering and tears and teeth-gnashing without end. She’s hyperbolic by nature. Almost nothing is as bad as she thinks it will be.
Another reason is my shoulder demon is a holdover from a bygone era. Revisions aren’t scratched by hand anymore on paper that cost more than your best laying hen with pen and ink you had to make yourself. They aren’t pecked out on a typewriter such that your edits are limited by the amount of correction tape left on the roll and have to be exactly as long as whatever you’re replacing. Honestly, I look back at even pre-laptop word processing and shake my head in smug wonder: How did anyone ever manage to write a whole book on a desktop computer?
So sometimes I think our resistance to big revisions is vestigial, a ghost from a time when such overhaul really was unbearably difficult, a lag between our artistic souls and our technology. Sometimes my shoulder angel looks at my shoulder demon and advises, witheringly, “Evolve.”
We like to think of evolution happening in great leaps forward, at least sometimes, but much more often it’s slow, discrete steps, overwhelming, impossible even, in the aggregate but eminently doable one at a time. So I propose to you evolving your project rather than revising it. I have learned, time and again, that no matter how large and daunting and destructive the proposed revisions, once undertaken, one by one by one, they’re never as big as they seem.
In this way, I find revision to be a lot like exercise. (If you’re one of those people who gets high on endorphins, congratulations, and this is not the metaphor for you.) I always find in hindsight that that which was sweaty and unpleasant and probably not making me healthier anyway was not, however, as painful as I thought it would be. Sometimes, it even feels good.So this is my remit and my plea and, honestly, my best offer. I make it to myself and to you and to all our shoulder demons: Don’t fear the overhaul.
Maybe I was wrong at the beginning when I said don’t let anyone see your novel being made. Maybe the making—all the painful, flailing, heart sinking, head banging, laborious, meandering working and reworking—should be on full display. I don’t know that anyone still buys the myth (fantasy?) that novels emerge whole and brilliant and only a light copyedit stands between first draft and bookstore.
What I think we haven’t quite shed though is the unfortunate conviction that good enough is good enough, that fine is just fine, and it’s not, especially not now. If the book can be better, let’s do the (admittedly hard) work to make it better.
So that’s what I’ve got. I can’t tell you it won’t be a lot of work, but I can tell you it won’t be as much work as you think. I can’t tell you it won’t take a long time, but I can tell you it will take less time than you imagine. I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy it while it’s happening—that throwing out hard earned, well loved, beautifully crafted words and timelines and characters and arcs will feel good—but I can tell you that that’s where the magic happens and that later, when the book is better, it doesn’t feel just good. It feels transcendent.
So this is my remit and my plea and, honestly, my best offer. I make it to myself and to you and to all our shoulder demons: Don’t fear the overhaul. Make your just fine writing better. Heed your shoulder angels for they are not only right but righter.
Family Family by Laurie Frankel is available via Holt.