Life After The MFA: The Imperfect Art of Revision

The worst part about being a writer is telling people that you’re a writer AND that you work two jobs and you are, currently, thirty-two and living with roommates, car-less, and that you have no real 401K or retirement plan to speak of.  It is the constant struggle of all writers to justify calling themselves a writer.  It is like a construction worker calling himself a construction worker yet working at a diner and driving a bus. In his heart, he knows what he wants to do with his life.  But the practical needs for food, shelter, and the proper American amount of stuff result in working and doing things you’d rather not do in order to facilitate the waiting game until you can do what you want to do.

Writing takes time.  And it takes multiple drafts.  There are plenty of wrong ways to write, and an unending list of right-ways to do it.  In the interests of trying to spark a creative conversation (and avoid all that CHEERY Haiti news) I thought I would detail my revision of a draft, and the three major changes that I’ve worked into it.  If you don’t read novels, or don’t know what a Fray-Tag Diagram is, you are welcome to go ahead and sit this one out.  I promise I’ll make some Sarah Palin jokes the next time around.

So, first, let me toss out what the draft is about.  It is about a group of people who are dealing with the future of information sharing.  That is the quick and dirty of it.  What I was going for with this novel (I hate calling it that) is the chronicling of the active progression of the Internet.  What is going to happen to us in ten or twenty years?  What I wanted to make clear is that humanity will be the ones who will turn the Internet into some horrible monster, not the other way around.

My first instinct was to not make my main point I was trying to make the driving force of the book.  I wanted to highlight a family and how they struggle through a transition.  That was my goal.  I soon realized that the family members were all jerks, and I didn’t really care about them.  They were jerks despite the problem (the developing internet), not because of it.  In the first draft, I was trying to show how the Internet had changed this family into horrible people.  Instead, I was simply showing how they were horrible people.  I stopped fighting what I wanted to do in the book and just let the family characters do what they wanted.  It worked, in the sense that it was easier to write.  I enjoy writing about self-destructive people.  I think it is interesting to see that moment when they stop being self-destructive and instead try and be positive and productive.  The change is beautiful, and it is one I appreciate when I read novels.  Trying to show that change is the hard part.

Second, I needed a miracle.  Every novel that I’ve loved has a miracle in it, something happens that the main character can’t explain and it makes the book more interesting.  I’m not talking about the “Hand of God” here.  I am not interested in a miracle giving the main characters the revelation they need to turn the corner and make their lives whole.  I want the characters to do that by themselves.  But I do want a strange and unexplainable event to occur that causes the main characters to question the rules of the universe.  That is the fun stuff.  A good example of this is Catch 22.  Unexplainable and down-right impossible events happen in that book every few pages, and the book is better because of it.  Slaughter House Five has the same sort of strangeness, with a different result.  Without the strangeness of the Alien abduction/time travel weirdness, Slaughter House Five is just another war novel.  I needed that same sort of miracle, that strange something that would make the reader keep flipping aimlessly to see if I explain it, which of course I won’t do.  In my first draft, I had a young boy toss himself from a seven story building into a “rescue pad”, which is one of those inflatable thingies that rescue teams use when someone is going to commit suicide or when people are jumping from fire-filled buildings.  When I wrote it, I knew it made no sense.  I mean, has anyone even seen one of those things before?  I made it up from that Lethal Weapon scene and I was going to try and slip it past my reader.  Upon revision, it makes more sense literary-wise for the boy to drop and survive the fall “somehow”.  The boy jumps and is completely and utterly unharmed.  How?  Well, that’s it. No one knows, and that helps drive the book.  Which would bother you more?  Jumping from a building and surviving because you landed in swimming pool?  Or jumping from a building and surviving because you have no idea?  The second one, obviously.  It would make you question everything you believed about the universe, and that is good reading.  No, it doesn’t make sense.  Novels don’t have to.  The story-telling has to be logical and make sense.  The story doesn’t have to make any sense at all.  You read Alice in Wonderland, right?  My case is resting.

Third, I had to get over my desire to write a short novel.  I added characters where I was supposed to have been cutting characters out.  I added long plot threads where I was supposed to make plot threads shorter.  You never know what a book is going to do until after you write it.  The revision is where the real work happens, and I had to commit myself to working on the damn thing until the damn thing was done.  Currently, it is clocking at 380 pages and I know it will be the full four hundred pages before I am finished.  The funny thing is that I’ve read and enjoyed novels longer than that, and I don’t know why I feel bad about making readers read my 400 pages when I’ve read plenty of other people’s 400 pages.  And I don’t know why I feel guilty about writing about the process of writing when I could be, you know, writing.  But, I think “Writer’s Guilt” will have to wait for another blog post.

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3 thoughts on “Life After The MFA: The Imperfect Art of Revision

  1. “It is the constant struggle of all writers to justify calling themselves a writer.” YES. Yes, yes, and yes. Sometimes I think, I should enjoy this time of complete uncertainty. Because one day I will either have made it or I won’t. And I’m not sure which is more terrifying.

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