Writing is like golfing. You can feel on top of the world, thinking you've perfected your swing, then after a series of bad shots, you are humbled. You might even listen to advice.
I wrote a novel three years ago, and after I polished it, I left my agent and sought a new one. It's difficult switching agents because part of me said, "An agent not working for me is still better than no agent." I sought a new agent the old-fashioned way, with a query letter and sample pages.
The good news is I found a new agent at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management in New York. The bad news is after I wrote a tighter draft of the novel, and then my agent sent it out enthusiastically, it was rejected forty times. I wrote another novel, which he's reading now. My fingers are crossed.
While he's reading it, I decided that as good* as the rejections were of the first novel (which now doesn't have a title), there must be a reason why no one snapped the book up. Rather than place hope in the notion that "those first editors couldn't see good work when it came" or "maybe another editor will love it," it was time to take stock.
While all editors are overworked and some editors might not catch a great work, I have to believe that at least ten percent are extremely good, which means at least four should have gone for the book.
Thus, I'm about to start a rewrite. Because I haven't looked at the novel in at least a year, here are some realizations I have about rewriting this particular book. I'll number them in no particular ranking:
1) Drive. I just happened to finish reading Survivor: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk. While I found the writing taut and wonderful, in the end, I found the story deeply cynical, more than I cherish. Still, I was reminded that strong books have a sense of drive right from the first page. At no point did the book lag in its drive. It also has a clear and pointed ending. The book is a reflection of Palahniuk's philosophy that people are basically brutal and selfish. I can't fault him for not laying that out well. When I reached the end, I realized that in my rewrite, I need to create a similar sense of drive right from page one. My opening paragraph is a hook, but then I take my time getting to what my protagonist needs. My protagonist, Gunnar, should have a clear goal on the first page. The drive to the end should feel inevitable.
2) Sense of storytelling. I was reminded of what Sid Stebel, one of my novelist colleagues at USC, had said recently: "All stories are told in retrospect." That is, the story happened, and now it's being retold. "It seems so obvious when you say it, but it was a revelation to me," Sid told me when I called him about what he'd said. "The essential thing about writing fiction is storytelling. You can't tell the story if you don't know it. You can't do justice to a story until you know it. Writers fall in love with their own writing, and they sometimes don't see they're not telling a story well."
Another writer friend and editor, Lynn Hightower, points out that the way the creative process works in a first draft of a novel is that the writer is discovering the story and the backstory as he or she writes. A lot of a first draft is likely to contain what she calls "plan writing," the stuff you wrote while you were getting to know your character and his goal.
One of her criteria in rewriting is that "you have to filter in the backstory and the set-up as the story unfolds. The story must unfold." She says to remember the thirty-percent rule: "No more than thirty percent of one scene can be backstory and set-up. Give each scene the backstory it needs to work, and not a single word more."
In line with what both writers say, you cannot foreshadow what you don't know. Foreshadowing deepens a story and adds to the sense of drive as well as making the ending inevitable in retrospect. Thus, I want to add more drive and foreshadowing.
3) Meaning. Stories need to be about something. Mine is. Palahniuk's is. While my present ending reveals my deeper theme. I want to think more about the ending. I didn't write it until I reached the end of my first draft -- which is perfectly viable, but I'm reminded of John Irving, who I saw speak in a keynote address at the AWP Convention a few years ago. He does not start a novel until he's written his ending first. (He also talks about this in a Bookforum interview.) Knowing the ending first not only adds to the drive and sense of storytelling, but also it contributes to the overall meaning. My plan is to NOT look at my present ending, but write it again with an eye to a nice final punch.
4) Final sentence. This, of course is in step with the meaning, but a great last sentence leaves the reader satisfied and thinking. One of my favorite final sentences is F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." I'd like a great last line.
5) First Sentences. I came across Palahniuk's book when I was at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, and I went right up to the customer service desk and said, "I'm looking a good novel that I might teach next semester. I want a literary book with a great first sentence or two. I want it to grab me from the start." I picked up on a display nearby The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and said, "I'm thinking of a book as good as this one, which has a great opening. Let me read it to you." And I did. It goes, "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."
The man said, "Wow. Hmm. Come with me." He took me to the fiction section and first pulled out One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which I hadn't read. The opening line goes, "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." I bought the book, and I'm reading it now. It's funnier than I expected, which is hooking me.
The clerk then took me to the Palahniuk book, which opens, "Testing, testing. One, two, three. Testing, testing, one, two, three. Maybe this is working, I don't know. If you can even hear me, I don't know. But if you can hear me, listen. And if you're listening, then what you've found is the story of everything that went wrong." I bought it.
Thus I want a great opening. The one I have may work, but I'll let it sit. It goes, "Twenty-two minutes before the first domino fell, setting into motion a cascade of changes in Gunnar Gunderson's life, he stepped out of the Physics building on a late afternoon and heard a scream, which may have emanated from under the stairs by the bushes."
6) Structure. The more I've written, the more I've come to realize everything is structure. To get the sense of drive, the foreshadowing, the meaning I want, as well as any new surprises and amazing turns, I need to re-outline. I used to eschew outlining, feeling I'd let my inspiration guide me, but now that I better understand myself, an outline is mandatory. It's a creative core. With an outline, I can "what if" to my heart's content, as in "What if he doesn't go home but instead goes to the office, despite it being after midnight?" I can see possible scenes instantly in my head, and I can either dismiss them or accept them. It saves a hell of a lot of writing and offers many more possibilities than what mere inspiration brings.
My plan for my rewrite is to outline the basic sense of the story as how I want it now, keeping all the above points in mind. Then I'll create what I call a post-writing outline, which is to go to the book as it's now written, read carefully, and create an outline of what I have. I will compare what I have to what I want. This leads to my final point.
7) Plan the work and work the plan. The rewriting I've done on all my books has gone well when I've made a bullet list of all the things I want to add, delete, or change. Thus, it's not about waiting for inspiration to hit, but about doing the work. In the end, you have to do the work, and a to-do list helps me do so.
Now instead of writing more about what I'll do, it's time to do it. That's a good thing to say on the last day of the year. It's a resolution. And it's good to be humbled occasionally.
* A "good rejection" by the way isn't an oxymoron. Several editors basically said, "I laughed, I cried, I read it with deep interest. I enjoyed Mr. Meeks's work. Unfortunately, we don't know how to market it, so we are passing. We would love to read his next manuscript." Treasure your bad rejections to remind you of the people who may be in your court in the future.
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