In the Roman d’Enéas, a 12th century adaptation of the Aeneid you’ve never heard of, the queen of Latium gives her daughter Lavine a really long talking-to when handsome bachelor Aeneas heaves up on shore to carry her off as his fated bride. To make a long-winded series of admonitions short: love hurts. Lavine learns that there is to be sighing, sleeplessness, heart palpitations, obsessiveness, and gobs of self-doubt—but not to worry! These are just signs that the love she feels is truly noble and worthy.
Lavine! Girl, I feel you.
I’m not trying to say that revising a novel is endless pain and suffering, because that’s terribly, ickily precious. Woe-is-me wordsmiths are about as artificial and outdated as, well, courtly love. But at the same time…revision is hard! (Let’s go shopping!) What started as a story guided by the gut must now be broken down and rewritten by the brain, and when those too don’t agree you end up kind of seasick.
Had I had my own personal queen of Latium, here is what I wish she had imparted.
You can’t coast, smartass. A lot of the first draft was pretty good. There were clever, snappy snips of dialogue and…well, that’s about it. For whatever reason, though, I thought this was enough. Sure, there were weak scenes, and maybe I hadn’t really thought about character arcs, but those I dismissed with some mental handwavery.
No! Do not past go! Do not glide so blithely by on the heelies of your back-patting self-satisfaction! A few (and I mean few) good parts do not a novel make. Hold up everything—everything—to the bare-bulb light of scrutiny, and if it doesn’t work—and you have to let yourself admit that lots of it doesn’t—tear it out.
It will unravel. Corollary to the above: I had a fear that if I dared to pluck at my weak plot threads, the whole story would come undone, Weezer-style. And then what would I do?! Rewrite the whole thing?!?
Well, yeah. If it isn’t working, it doesn’t work. You, in turn, must put in more work to get it going.
You are a citizen of the rules, just like everyone else. I have an uncanny ability to read writing advice and think it doesn’t apply to me. This won’t work. You can’t shrug off ideas about characters needing motivation and telling-not-showing just because you think you know them—you have to practice them, every sentence, every day. Don’t get sticklery about it—leges sine moribus vanae—just don’t flout.
You need a critique partner. Or several. You are too deep into the forest to see the trees. Someone else must read this. Toughen up.
You need Scrivener. You just do.
You need to let yourself obsess. All those awful, obnoxious affectations about “process” that you hate to hear from other writers will suddenly and viciously become true. You will sleep less. You will drink too much coffee. You will make playlists for your characters. You will spend an entire weekend writing, not going outside until a 6 PM Sunday grocery run where you will stare at tomatoes for five minutes trying to calibrate your eyes. You will make plot notes in dark movie theaters and write scenes on your phone. You will walk down Market Street to the train listening to LCD Soundsystem, kind of crying, and wondering if you’re up to fixing this.
It takes as long as it takes. It’s hard to come from the insta-satisfaction of throwing up a zinger-laden blog post and getting a few quick digital thumbs-up to the long, long, year-and-a-half-plus enterprise that crafting a good novel should be. Don’t rush, and don’t be impatient to get the thing “out there” before it’s ready. The play’s the thing.
It will happen. Once you’ve torn the thing apart, pinned up every new scene in Scrivener, and finally stare down the blinking I-beam, it will feel like you have forgotten how to form sentences. Move your fingers—it works! I don’t know how (alchemy, maybe?) but it does.
You must work hard, but you can work hard. Use a cocktail of perfectionism, masochism, and the low-grade hypomania of late, light summer nights to write from 8 PM to 12 AM five days a week. Wake up every morning and think about how badly you want this book to be good. Know that only you can prevent its nonexistence. Type, type, type, type, type.
Bros are the best. The bros! Oh, the bros. It’s amazing how much you can like your second-tier characters when you give them actual personalities.
Good writers get words; good novelists get people. Your witticisms will not redeem you. Your introspection will. Tell the truth—the specific, detail-focused truth that springs from what characters see and feel. Don’t hide behind the abstract. Don’t write long diatribes. Don’t panic and worry that you’re doomed to either poetry or copywriting. Don’t fret, little squirrel.
The thing is, though, that even if someone had lectured me with these talking points, Lavine-and-queen-style, I don’t think I would have gotten it. There’s a reason that didactic swaths of dialogue are unreadably archaic-sounding (even if you have to read them for your undergraduate thesis): they’re telling, and we all know that’s bad. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make process, and that’s, ultimately, all writing is.
So: I’ve got a better book. I hope you get to read it soon.
BONUS EXCITING LEDE-BURYING NEWS: come March 2014, I will be a published author! I wrote a book about college. It will teach you how to do your own laundry and make a sandwich with an iron. The introduction quotes Cicero and Animal House. I think it would make an excellent gift.