Messing It Up to Make It Good

At low tide, the sand is so wet it reflects like it's water. You can see the ocean off to the right.

At low tide, the sand is so wet it reflects like it’s water. You can see the ocean off to the right.

Earlier this month I went on a writing retreat to Manzanita, a lovely little Oregon coast town.

Well, it wasn’t so much a retreat as a publishing panel weekend. Which I turned into a retreat. Instead of walking on the beach, I hunkered down in a gorgeous “author’s apartment,” where authors like Jim Lynch, Stephanie Kallos, and Garth Stein have stayed. How could I do anything but write, drink coffee, and write in between my publishing sessions?

I can get a lot done on retreats, but what I did this time was undo.

I made a mess of the beginning of my novel. Which hung together before I jumped in and changed things.

I edited so furiously, and without fear, and at the end of the weekend I felt like I had done this to my book:



Cut it open, gouged out the good stuff, and filled it full of sand.

On that last weekend walk, feeling frustrated that I had done so much undoing, I found myself taking pictures of wrecks on the beach. Bits of crab, and messes of miscellany like this one:


What have I done to my book? I’m not sure–haven’t had time to go back and look at it again, to dive back in and see how I can pull the mess back into something recognizable. But you know what? It feels good. This mess. I can work with this mess in a way that I couldn’t work with the polished manuscript.

Sometimes we revise and revise to the point that the book just feels good, sounds good, looks good. That’s when it’s hardest to find our own flaws, to find the lack of tension or the character who acts one-dimensional. Because the pages look good! They sound good! They’ve been revised and edited!

In particular, I’m going after a slackening in my novel, The Serinette, that occurs between pages 50 and 100. The best way to tighten, at least for me at this point in the writing process–four years in, I believe, or is it five?–was to sit alone at a table used by other writers, and mess everything up. With the faith that I could put it back together in a way that’s stronger than that carefully wrought draft I had earlier.

When I found this lovely abandoned sandcastle on that last walk, I thought, okay, there’s a model. It has structure, form, purpose. It can get wrecked by the tide and someone else will come in and build a bigger, stronger, better one.

DSC05894I am the builder and rebuilder, the author of this story I want to tell, the one who is testing the story walls for weakness, and knocking down the ones that aren’t strong enough. Because I want it to hold water. I want it to work. It has to work–or I won’t have a good reason to work on the sequel I’ve already started building!

What courageous things have you done recently in your writing life? Messed up any manuscripts lately?

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Revision, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Messing It Up to Make It Good

  1. It’s so great that you got that writing time.

    I don’t know about courageous (you know what Andy Warhol said about artists and risks 🙂 ), but as usual I’m starting a new story with no idea where I’m going. This one is going to jump around in time quite a bit — and I haven’t done that in a while.

    I have the last scene written already, but it’s quite likely that I’ll never get there — not to that ending anyway.

    “Because the pages look good! They sound good! They’ve been revised and edited!” I get that feeling with movies sometimes, that they’ve been worked over and worked over by various committees until there’s no life left in them. Sometimes tweaking and polishing isn’t going to get you where you need togo.

    • I’m hoping to get some more retreat time this summer, too, Anthony! Your writing process is definitely courageous–even to know that you aren’t going to get to the scene you’ve envisioned as the ending. There’s something wonderful and scary and necessary in working toward something you don’t know yet.

      • With my last story, I had a very exciting ending written. Lots of guns and tension and confrontations and so on. The story totally didn’t go there, and instead I ended up with two crazy middle-aged women sitting on a roof talking quietly.

        I was a little sorry to lose the Big Exciting Climax, but it was cool because the reason the story veered off from the plan was because one character, a teenage girl, stepped up and acted better than I had expected. She took over the story, not because of ego but because there was something to be done and she decided she could do it.

        It’s funny to say, because of course I created her, but I was so _proud_ of her. 🙂

  2. After trimming down my first novel from 1200 pages to 600 I lost my fear of surgical strikes. I love the process of slowly figuring out my characters but a lot of that figuring comes out in subsequent drafts.

    I keep all of that mess like I’d keep old photos–in a big box, not quite worthy of framing but fun to look back at over the years.

    • Wow, that’s a huge accomplishment, Middlemay! And I love that you keep paper copies of old drafts as treasures. I used to do that but have left everything on the computer for my past two novels, and it’s not quite as fun.

  3. beeholdn says:

    Hi Laura, it’s wonderful that you got some well-deserved time away . . . reading down my Reader just now I came across a quote in one of the blogs am following, seems to be speaking to you 🙂 Here’s the link:
    Best wishes!

  4. I felt like I was walking next to you along that stretch of beach, Laura. Yes, I have done this. And I have accepted that it might be the only way I can get to what I need to say. A fav thriller-writer, Tess Gerritsen, was interviewed for Writer’s Digest. The interviewer asked, “When do you know that a book is done?”

    Her answer is something I repeat whenever I doubt that my “messes” might produce what I want to say. “Well, when I get to the eleventh draft, I feel like I’m almost there.”

    I think when you go back to see what you have done, you will know if you got “there” 🙂

  5. Gwen Stephens says:

    I mess up manuscripts all the time. The fun part is when we figure out the mess we’ve made and we have to go back and fix it.

  6. That sandcastle is the perfect metaphor. I feel like that’s what my manuscripts often look like in the first few drafts (at least). A total mess, either because of something I’ve done or because my unwieldy characters decide that the path I was considering isn’t the direction they want to take or because the characters found a flaw that I’d missed. But the things that come out of that ruined mess are usually so great. Sometimes it’s just what a novel needs to hit its stride. Hope that turns out to be the case with yours. : )

    • So true, how the mess can lead to a clean path that goes somewhere else entirely. Off the map. Feeling hopeful about tackling my disaster area this weekend and seeing what I can mine from it!

  7. jmmcdowell says:

    Messing up the manuscripts are why I keep earlier versions and save them regularly when I go heavy into revisions. Sometimes the original scene was better!

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