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.
I 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?