Zero score and four years ago, I finished a manuscript for a novel tentatively (and terribly) titled The Brief and Horrible Resurrection of Lorraine Barth. Let's get a few things straight about that:
- Yes, the title is a riff on Junot Díaz.
- No, it's probably not going to stay.
- Yes, I really did like it at one time.
Enough about the title.
I printed the manuscript because that makes it feel real. If it's not printed, then it's not real. A book should be heavy in the hands; it should scream "Important!" as you hold it. If it weren't important, then why'd you put all those words together in the first place?
After I proved the reality of the book's existence through the magic of good ol' command-P, I gave that hefty tome to my wife to read and read it she did. She is my one and only reader. (In my view, that makes me a writer as much as anything else.)
Taking the advice of Stephen King — after all, I'm well on my way to his level of success, aren't I? — I put the manuscript in a drawer and pretty much left it untouched. We've moved two or three times since then, but this manuscript has survived each of these moves. I'm sure there were moments when I thought about recycling it. I'm sure there were times when it was nearly blown out of the car, a couple hundred leaves of paper fluttering in the wind on some backroad in Mississippi or Tennessee. But, somehow, I never lost it. I happen to have the manuscript right here, in fact. I'm thumbing through it right now. Shit. Something has happened to the final pages. They're gone. Things abruptly end, mid-sentence, on page 289. They were probably used to start a fire during Winter Storm Uri.
When I read this thing, I can see it's not working (yet). I know this for a few reasons:
- My wife left a bunch of markings on it.
- I've left a bunch of markings on it.
- Halfway through chapter one, I stopped reading.
To be honest, the notes my wife left are mostly encouraging. The marks I've made indicate that I've thought about this thing more than I care to admit (or remember). The fact that I can't get all the way through the first chapter? Well, that's probably the real issue.
It needs a rewrite. I know it's got some structural problems, continuity problems, problems with voice, and problems with characters that aren't fully fleshed out, settings that aren't fully realized. This is my apprentice novel. The first one I've written, and I'm using it to learn how to do this. So, I'm going to rewrite it and learn how I write a novel. Note: I say I'm going to learn how I write a novel. I'm not saying this is the way to write a novel. It's just my way. You can write your novel however the hell you wish.
But, if I'm going to rewrite this thing, then I might as well invite you into the process.
While I look at that list of problems and know that part of this rewrite is going to have to be inventions of scenes and rearranging parts, the best way for me to go about getting into this thing is to use George Saunders' energy meter method. I'm going to start by reading the dang thing, sentence by sentence, and fixing sentences as I go. After all, a novel should work on a sentence level, shouldn't it? If we can't keep our readers humming along from sentence to sentence, then it doesn't really matter how brilliant your novel's structure is, does it?
I suppose some will think this is backward. "Start big," some might say, "Fix the systematic issues first, then drill down into the details." This is probably very good advice, so I'm going to ignore it.
What I love about writing is the movement of the sentences, the way they play off one another, the way I can choose from an endless number of words and syntactical structures to create meaning. I like sentences and I want the sentences in my novel to be good ones. Therefore, I'm going to start at the sentence level.
Let's start by looking at the opening.
The opening paragraph goes like this:
Once upon a time—December 31, 2016 at 9:09am—Adam Barth simply could not with anything anymore. His mother wasn't sure that she could either, to be quite frank.
I remember writing the opening version of that line. I knew I wanted a character who was freaked out by the idea of Donald Trump's impending inauguration, but I also wanted this character to be as millennial as possible. The opening sentence works for me because it does a couple of things:
- "Once upon a time" establishes us in a fairy tale world.
- The specificity of the time—"December 31, 2016 at 9:09 am"—immediately undercuts that opening. As we read, we're going to discover that this story is intended to be a farce, so I like the idea of immediately messing with the "once upon a time" opening.
- The phrase "simply could not with anything anymore" is internet language, the language of me and my millennial peers.
What don't I like here? To be honest: the name. Why did I name this guy "Adam Barth"? I don't really know. If you look at the image of page one above, you'll see that by the time I'm halfway through the third sentence of the novel, I'm questioning the mother's name, too.
Notice what's just happened. I have, in the first sentence of the novel, already found myself distracted. "Adam Barth" is not a name that draws me in. It's not doing it for me. My energy meter is flagging. I need something better. This is the heart of the energy meter method: when something takes you out of the world, stop and fix it. If you iterate over this, do it dozens of times, then you'll eventually land on something that works.
But here's the problem: making a change like this has ramifications for the entire work. I wrote a book where some people named "Barth" are trying to do some stuff. If I change their names, won't I also change who they are?
Well, yes. And no.
Let's never forget that I'm the author and I can do whatever I want with these characters. If I came up with a good alternative for "Adam Barth" right now, I could just do a Find-and-Replace across the entire document and then wash my hands of the whole affair.
At the same time, in my imagination (and hopefully my readers'), these are real people, and Shakespeare was full of shit: a rose by any other name wouldn't smell as sweet! The names we give things fundamentally impact who and what they are. Names matter...at least in fiction, they do. If we changed Cinderella's name to "Lois," then we'd end up with a different story.
Here's the truth that I'm trying to get at:
Everything has a ripple effect.
Every change I make is going to ripple out across the manuscript. At first, this may sound scary, but remember something very important about this here novel: it's not working (yet). Don't I want it to change? Don't I want to make it work? Embrace the ripple!
Here's the plan for the next few days:
- Rethink my main characters' names. Create some alternatives and try them out.
- Go through the opening scene, sentence by sentence, and rewrite where things start to flag.
- Decide which tools I'm going to use for this project: Scrivener? Ulysses? Something else?
This is going to be a lot of work. I'm sure it's going to test my patience and my resolve. I'm looking forward to the torture! 🙂
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