The Traditional Revisional Freak-Out

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 9.648% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

There’s something to be said for freaking out on schedule.
The first draft of my novel has now received all of its critiques (thanks, guys!), and the verdict is in: It needs a lot of work.  As first drafts, you know, tend to do.  Hemingway infamously said that every first draft stinks, and while that’s not strictly true, for writers like me the beauty comes from the repeated going over of each scene.
I’m a “build in layers” kinda writer.  I write a scene, and then I go over it again and ask, “Would this character really respond this way?”  As it turns out her response is too matter-of-fact, so I tweak her dialogue to be more real and bristly.  Then I think, “What’s she doing while she’s talking?” and envision the environment, and realize that she’s in a janitor’s room, her hands are filthy, she has to wipe them off on a dirty rag.  Then I think, “What’s this secondary character over here thinking when our lead is wiping off her hands?” and I remember that this secondary character is a germ-o-phobe, of course she’s going to flip out at the idea of wiping hands off on a dirty rag, and presto!  More interesting interactions, more palpable environments, more realistic dialogue.
As the writing goes on, I erase more of the original framework until all that’s left is the layers of response I’ve built in.  Anything memorable in my fiction is usually the result of something in the second or third draft.
But of course, this novel sucks.  The beginning is far too slow and info-dumpy.  The lead character’s too passive, and people hate him.  The personal stakes aren’t high enough, and the entire city is whiteroomed and doesn’t feel like a post-apocalyptic New York City. In fact, two people I’ve handed it off to haven’t even bothered to read it at all, which means that frankly, I’m already at a 33% drop rate among devoted friends of mine.  And two more of the people who read it said that they probably would have put it down at point X.
I look at everything I need to fix and break right fucking down.
I can’t do this.  The problems that are inherent in this novel?  They’re unfixable.  Beyond the level of my current skill.  All my novel starts are too slow, the world’s too massive to not info-dump, I suck at description.  This novel will fail.  I am insufficient to the task.
My nightmare’s not rejection, man.  My nightmare’s acceptance.  I get it published, having poured my heart and soul into this, and it vanishes with a resounding “Meh.”  I’m not looking to write a good novel, but a great novel, a crazy page-turner that no one can put down… and what I have here is one of those anonymous fucking paperbacks that disappears onto the shelf with the rest of the books at Barnes and Noble, gets mildly mixed reviews, and vanishes without a trace.
I’m going to do my best and create a slippery novel that’s the equivalent of Olestra potato chips – something that slides through you, providing no nourishment or relevant calories, the only permanent mark an irritating stain at the end.
This freakout is, sadly, predictable. It happens at the 65-80% stage of any first draft, when you can’t do this oh my God it’s horrible, and it happens when you get the first batch of serious critique, when all these problems are unsolvable I’m not that good.  I know this is common.  Doesn’t mean I’m not running around in little panicked Chihuahua circles now, but at least I know this is where I’m supposed to be in the process.
And tomorrow, I will take notes and hope that I can do better and look at all of the fucking cracks in this and reference Elizabeth Bear’s definition of a novel as “A piece of prose fiction between 80,000 and 150,000 words in length, with a flaw,” and remember that I do the work on the finer points.  And that work revisioning is hard, and it’s terrifying because it puts you smack right fucking looking at all of your lack of talent, and you’re going to do it anyway because hopefully maybe you won’t shatter it all to fucking pieces during the revision process.  Maybe you’ll assemble these fragments into something beautiful.  Maybe you’ll manage something.
But today?  Today, I am a terrible goddamned writer.  I’m going to try to live with that, and try not to freak too much out, and play some Deus Ex.
This is normal.  This is expected.  This is to be handled.

1 Comment

  1. Deborah
    Sep 7, 2011

    Oh, man. You’ve been peeking into my head again, haven’t you? This is exactly how I feel. *laughs* Onwards to greatness.

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