I’m starting to understand how it can take five years to write a novel…

illness-01Ear (or maybe sinus?) infection continues apace. Went to the doctor. He prescribed antibiotics but said he didn’t expect them to work, and he was right. It’s funny how often people are like, “Have you gone to the doctor?”

Doctors aren’t magic. There are lots of things they can’t cure. One of those things is a viral sinus infection. But I did go to the doctor. The doctor has been went to.

Anyway, I am still in pretty good spirits, since Ibuprofen seems to lessen the pain drastically.

The major disruption to my life is the lack of sleep. While I’m asleep, the ibuprofen wears off, and after about six hours, I wake up with an earache. So I am more tired than I’d like to be.

Revision continues apace.

You know, I’ve often wondered how it was possible for a writer to spend five or ten years working on a novel, but I feel like I’m beginning to understand. In addition to my line edits, my editor sent me a six page letter about how to revise one relationship in the book (the BFFL relationship, obv), and I’ve spent the last five days carefully going through and massaging these scenes so that the relationship makes more sense.

And as I was doing these revisions, I thought, “Wow, this relationship is really important. It’s a crucial part of the book! Look at how many emotions are coming out here!”

But the truth is…it’s not actually that important. It’s a subplot that takes up probably less than 10% of the pages in the book. And yet it’s occupied not only the last five days, but also a significant amount of revision and drafting time.

And every part of the book is like that. Everything can benefit from care and attention. And that’s even after the shape of the book has already been determined. What about before then? What about the point when things are still in flux? When characters can be added or subtracted or changed dramatically? And then, after all of that, what about the words themselves? Those can always benefit from tinkering.

But when you tinker on the word level, you introduce new possibilities. And then those possibilities need to be chased through the text and brought to ground.

It’s mind-boggling. There are so many possible things to change. The novel offers unlimited scope for revision.

And that doesn’t even take into account the initial drafting. For many authors that alone can take years. In fact, sometimes it takes me a long time. Not the drafting itself, but all the false starts and wrong turns and initial misconceptions. Anyway, when you add that all up, five years starts to look very possible.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to me, but the YA publishing industry has done a really good job of improving my book’s love plot

When I was writing this book, I knew it had to have a love story in it, because I knew that its main character, Reshma, was obsessed with being the best, and part of being the best in high school is being able to elicit romantic interest from the opposite sex. But I, like my protagonist, don’t have that much romantic experience. And, furthermore, I’m not exactly interested in love-as-love. I’m interested in love-as-status-symbol and love-as-an-entangling-relationship and love as a whole bunch of other things, but the actuality of it–love as a connection between two individuals–is not and was not something that I was hugely interested in writing about.

As such, it’s no surprise that each level of comments on this book (so far, two rounds from my agent and two from my editors at Disney) has included a number of notes on the love interests in this book. And, over time, the love interests have gotten way better! Especially the initial love interest, Aakash, who’s kind of a nerdy Indian kid that Reshma starts dating just because she can. In my initial drafts, he was a little blah. But over time he’s gotten to be much more interesting. He understands her. And, in many ways, he’s similar to her. But he also has a core of integrity. I don’t know, especially in this latest draft, I’m really fascinated by him as a character. Part of me almost wonders if, in the end, he might not be a better match for her.

And I think that’s a relationship which never would’ve come alive if this hadn’t been a YA novel. Because YA is a genre that treats love seriously–just as seriously as teens themselves treat it. It’s kind of a paradox, that our most passionate and intense feelings–our deepest loneliness and most intense longing–come at a time in our life that comes, after the space of years, to feel a little bit trivial. Obviously your teen years aren’t meaningless, but it’s just…you have so little agency when you’re a teen, and it’s hard to feel like anything you do during that time can really matter to you as an adult. I think that my tendency, oftentimes, is to think of the teenage years as a time that can scar you, but not help you, and that the purpose of high school is to emerge with as little damage as possible.

But that’s not what the YA genre is about. Which is, I think, really valuable. If there’s a problem in this world, it doesn’t come from people taking themselves too seriously. In fact, it’s strange how you lose your teenage seriousness as you grow older. When you’re a teen, love is real and alive. And you feel yourself to be so capable of doing so many things. But as you get older, a feeling of impotence sets in. And that impotence manifests itself, in adult writing, as cynicism.

And, to bring it full circle, I think the main benefit of the editing process has been to cleanse a little of the cynicism from my book. Not all of it. Not even most of it. But enough of it that I think it’s more possible, now, to fall in love with these characters.Who_dares_to_love_forever__by_Reinex

For someone who doesn’t believe in revision, I sure have benefited a lot from it

writing_revising2I’m not going to lie. I hate revision. I’m not a strong believer in it. And of my own accord, I would do very little of it. In general, I feel as thought it’s easier to just get things right the first time, you know? That having been said, it’s unbelievable how much better Enter Title Here has gotten as a result of the process of revision.

The first draft of the novel took me about 77 hours to compose, over the course of 29 days (mostly in January of 2013). And that was about 95,000 words long, and it was pretty good. I mean, I was in love with it.

The first cycle of major revision for the novel was mostly at the behest of my agent. And that took about 96 hours spread over 32 days that were scattered roughly through August-December of 2013. During that cycle of revision, I mostly cut down the manuscript significantly, from 95k to 63k words. Other than that, not much changed. I tinkered with the love plot a little bit. That, though, felt like an AMAZING amount of revision.

However, since selling the book, I’ve now down another 91 hours of work on it (starting in December of 2014) across what is, so far, 36 days. In that time, the novel has ballooned back up to (at the moment) 78k words and has changed in pretty amazing ways: characters have disappeared, subplots have been minimized, subplots have been added, the main character’s motivations have changed significantly. And, more importantly, the entire tone of the novel has become more complex. It’s softened, somehow, and become less strident and less sure of itself.

It’s a tremendous change. I hadn’t even believed that something like this was possible, short of a complete rewrite, and I think that the novel is much better as a result of it.

And I’m not even done! I’m halfway through the second round of edits, and then I’ll still have line edits (going through sentence by sentence, word by word, to make sure everything is as efficient as it can be).

When I finished the first draft of this novel, I was like, “This novel is DONE.” And since then, I think I’ve changed roughly every other word in it. That’s amazing to me, and it’s certainly not something I could’ve done on my own. All my life, I’ve assumed that book editors didn’t really do much editing, but that was absolutely false. They make an amazing difference. It seems odd to me that there can be a person whose job it is to buy books and make them better. Like, what qualifies them for that? How does anyone know that they’re giving good comments and are doing a good job of editing? But, in my case, they’re earning their salaries, since the comments I’ve gotten have all been excellent.

You just put one letter in front of another and eventually it’s done

Now that I’m getting close(r) to the end, it’s interesting to ponder this whole novel-revision experience. In many ways, it’s been emotionally similar to writing the novel in the first place. At the beginning, it felt very overwhelming. I had to make so many fine little changes and untangle so many little things. I’d spend hours thinking about how to alter one tiny scene. But as the days passed, the changes accumulated and the number of possible options decreased, and now I’m at the point where only a few things can happen. Also, just like when initially writing the novel, it’s possible to just press forward without exactly knowing what’s going to happen. As I sit here, I still don’t exactly know what’s going to happen at the climactic moment of the novel. Will she press forward with her plans for destruction? Or will she pull back? I don’t know. Both seem equally probable. Hmm…now that I’m writing this, that sounds kind of bad? Shouldn’t I have figured that out by now? But I don’t know. That’s the point. I did have it figured out, but as the revision progressed, everything became more ambiguous.

Bit shocking how different my novel is becoming

Nymphalidae - Danaus plexippus - ChrysalisI am in my final two weeks of revisions on Enter Title Here. And even though I knew that I was going to be making some fairly in-depth (maybe moderate depth) changes to the book, I hadn’t imagined what it would feel like to write those changes. Like, there are new scenes and new chapters. Major scenes and major plot elements are being yanked out. Characters and relationships are very different from what they were.

And it would be comforting to say “The core of the book is the same” but I’m not even sure that’s happening. The truth is that there’s a very real change happening in terms of the character’s background, motivations, and emotional journey, and that the book is not the same anymore as the one that I wrote two years ago. Maybe I’m writing the book that I should’ve written two years ago–the one I wanted to write. But I’m not even sure that’s the case. This is something different. And parts of it are thrilling, especially when I see the book opening up and becoming warmer and more comprehensible: when I see characters getting their due and receiving the kind of understanding that I wasn’t capable of giving them back when I first wrote the book.

But it’s also scary, because what if I’m fucking it up? What if the voice doesn’t match? What if it’s become an incoherent patchwork mess? Those would not be good things.

Still, though, I have a lot of hope for this book. People liked it even in its prior form. They liked it enough to want to buy it and publish it. And I’d like to think that they’ll like this new form even more. I mean, really, the level of change and improvement is, to my eyes, pretty astonishing. But who can say? Nothing to do except to keep working!

(You can tell, from reading my posts about revising the book, that I am not a very revision-heavy writer. Other writers do not write blog posts like this, since I assume they’re very used to the book changing significantly after they write it. That’s not really my thing, though, so I’m always shocked when it happens.)

More than halfway through these revisions

default-enter-title-hereOoof, revising is some kind of process, I’ll tell you what. Today, I sat down and made a list of the scenes that I thought I’d need to insert into the novel between where I am (the halfway point) and the 2/3rds point. Adding scenes to a mostly-complete novel is an amazing feeling. On the one hand, I have complete freedom to do literally anything I can imagine. But, on the other hand, I don’t really want to disrupt the overall structure. Thus, I’m left looking at the shape of the manuscript and thinking very deeply about what I need to happen, and I’ve actually come up with some very elegant solutions that I’m very happy with.

Adding new words to the manuscript is also weird, because you worry about losing the voice. For awhile, I was really worried because the new scenes I was adding didn’t sound quite right. They were more searching and vulnerable. The character was coming off less sure of what to do and who she was, and I kept trying to compensate and bring a little bit of that other stuff back. But then I was like, “Wait a second. There’s a reason for this. What I’m trying to do with this revision is to add those shadings to her character.” If I’m successful, the character will always be recognizably herself, but there’ll be different shades to her character depending on who she’s interacting with. I think there’s a reason that the two storylines I’ve been spending the most time on are the two most complex and unsettling relationships that she has.

In the end, who can say how good this revision is. I’m caught up in the middle of it, so I think it’s going great. For this novel, I wrote a very complete and very readable first draft, but it’s really astonishing how much has changed since that draft. It’s not that anyone has been cut out or anything. It’s that the weights shifted. One love interest turned into an extremely minor character. The other two became much more complex people. The main antagonist was turned into a mere foil. And the sidekick became a plotline in her own write. There’s a lot of moving pieces, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve shifted around and interacted with each other. I can’t believe that this book is actually going to come out and be on shelves for you to read. I’m very excited for that.

 

Getting back into revision mode

52e9b-hakkotqDoing major revisions on this book for the first time in about a year. It’s a little weird, because the voice in the book is, to me, so distinct. But, to a large extent, it was written about two years ago, in January of 2013. Which means that the voice and most of the language are something that bubbled up out of me ages ago. And my later revisions were mostly reductive, not additive, whereas now I’m considering adding at least one whole new plotline and making major changes to a bunch of scenes. So I’ll need to conjure up that voice again. It’s scary.

I think that if it’s going to happen, then it won’t be because I’m imitating the voice. I think that if it’s going to happen, then it’ll be because I tapped into the same place that I originally drew that voice from. And I’m confident that I can do that, because books are held together by an internal logic. And when I’m working on this one, I think I’ll start to get the sense of that internal logic again. But right now, staring into it from the outside, messing with that voice is a very anxiety-making proposition.

Got paid and also got my edit letter from Disney

The-Husbands-SecretToday, I got an invoice from Disney’s royalty department, so I’m pretty sure I’m going to get paid within a week. It will be good to have the money. My contract divides my advance into three equal payments for each book. What I just got was the signing advance for each book (i.e. I got one third of the total amount). In the future, I’ll get a total of four more payments. One on final approval of each book, and one on publication of each book. The money isn’t exactly enough to live on (at least not in Berkeley), but it’s nice to have.

Another thing I got was my first round edit letter. It’s fairly substantial. But I had heard from many other  authors that you always get lots and lots and lots of edits, so I was prepared. In the end, reading through it wasn’t a very traumatic experience at all, because I had already mentally prepared myself to make some substantial edits. In the end, I think I’m pretty capable of doing what needs to be done, and I have enough time to do it (they want me to turn around these edits by February 2nd). However, who knows? Maybe these are my fatal last words.

In other news, I bought a tuxedo and a new suit today. I am going to look so dashing, you have no idea.

Also, I’ve been reading hellllla books. I’m almost finished with Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret. Apparently this is a super-duper bestseller in the women’s fiction category? Like a mega-bestseller: Gone Girl big. I’d actually never heard of it until it showed up in my Amazon recommendations, which just shows how you how divided the literary world can sometimes be.

It’s a quiet domestic drama about three women in Australia who are facing different problems with their husbands and families. I enjoy all the parts that are just about people talking and feeling. However, I kind of don’t enjoy all the suspense or thriller elements. In particular, the central thread of the novel (the eponymous ‘Husband’s Secret’ feels very flat and very contrived to me). The secret feels like it belongs in a different novel; it’s too flashy and doesn’t really seem of a piece with the concerns of this book.

I have a better understanding of how to write books than how to revise them

revisingI’ve written first drafts of lots of books, but I’ve only ever brought two books from first draft to submittable form. And in both cases, it was a bit of a haphazard process. With This Beautiful Fever, I did real editing. In fact, I deleted the whole first third of the book and rewrote it. But with Enter Title Here, I did surprisingly little. Most of what I did was cutting stuff. In the end, I cut about a third of the book. Which is hard, of course, but it’s also a very compartmentalized process. I’d wake up and go through it page by page, asking whether this scene, paragraph, sentence, or word really needed to stay.

Now I’m trying to revise my sociopathic mom book, and it’s proving a bit less tractable. This book is a big one, for one thing. It’s 110,000 words and it spans three years and lots of different events. The book is a very complex machine.

Right now, the thing I am wrestling with is the character’s emotional and intellectual development. It’s astonishing how you can write an entire book and yet not be entirely clear about the character’s journey or whether they change. In this case, there’s just something about the mother’s journey that’s not quite sharp enough. She never quite comes to terms with her own behavior. In the end, it’s not even clear if she understands it.

I think I’ve figured out a solution (I’m going to weave on extra thread into the narrative). But it’s a bit exhausting to think about going through the whole manuscript and patting everything into place.

And then after that there’s everything else: the cutting of extraneous words, the revising of awkward sentences, the checks for internal consistency. It’s all such a big production. And I think it’s going to take at least a month.

In the case of at least three novels, I’ve gotten to this point–the place where I’d need to spend serious time polishing the novel–and decided that the underlying product wasn’t strong enough to warrant the effort. In this case, I don’t think that’ll happen…but that still leaves me doing all this work. Sigh.

Going through Enter Title Here for approximately the millionth time

2014-03-07 00.50.51
The manuscript

Well, as we ready this sucker for submission, I am left to go through this manuscript one final time. This time, my agent went so far as to actually print it out, circle the typos, and mail it to me for correction (the manuscript arrived in an envelope that’d been torn open sometime during the shipping process). So I’m left to go through the 250+ pages of this thing for one last time (well, actually, if it sells I’ll probably have to go through it another ten or fifteen times).

The torn envelope
The torn envelope

I really like this book. I was telling a friend of mine that I am literally 100% confident that it will sell. And she told me, “Well…it’s good that you like it, but that seems like a dangerous belief.”

And it is dangerous. I know it’s dangerous. There’ve been many times in my life when I’ve been 100% confident that something would sell, and in almost every one of those cases, the work has failed to sell. And I know, intellectually, that this book is not a slam dunk. I know that most of the editors that see it are going to reject it. And I know that if one editor can reject it, then it’s possible for every editor to reject it.

It seems like the prevailing style amongst modern writers (well, the good ones, at least) is to display meekness and diffidence. Every extremely successful writer that I know is always saying running themselves down and expressing surprise at their success and talking about how they don’t feel like they deserve any of their sales. I don’t understand that at all. I’ve never felt like an impostor.

That’s why I keep moving forward. I believe in the work. I believe it’s worthwhile, and I believe it ought to be out there.

You know, it’s true that I am writing these YA novels now. And it’s true that those have a different tone and feel than the novels that I (try to) write for the adult market. But I am not conscious of using any lesser degree of artistry in their composition. On the contrary, they contain more of me, and are more deeply personal, than the adult works. I definitely didn’t write this book for the money, or because I just wanted to be published. Well, I did write it for those reasons. But not just for those reasons. I think this book contains, in full measure, whatever artistry I have it within me to put into prose. And I really want it to sell.