Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

What a mess I’ve made

Shortly after Agent Carrie and I parted ways earlier this year, I completed a draft (a sort of second draft, maybe something like a 1-1/2 draft) of a new manuscript I was quite excited about. The problem? It was big. 426 pages big. 138,000 words big. The biggest project I’d ever done.
Now, it turns out 138,000 words isn’t necessarily terrible. The Return of the King is around 131,000, or so I have read. Salem’s Lot is around 150,000 and sure doesn’t feel that long. Of course, one of those books was written sixty years ago, the other forty, and we’re told debut novelists can’t get away with long books and that people don’t want long books anyway (I call bullshit on both of those, but then maybe that’s why my next published book will be my first). Anyway, I knew even before I got comments back from my Trusted Readers that it needed to be cut: there were lots of redundancies, lots of duplicate scenes, lots of saying the same thing in a slightly different way. And, of course, it had to get to the point faster.

Like this, only bigger!

Normally, when I’m ready to start redrafting, I sit down with notes from my Trusted Readers, my own notes, and a printed copy of my manuscript that looks like one of Sheriff Obie’s 27 eight-by-ten color glossy photographs from “Alice’s Restaurant.” I open the last version of the manuscript on my computer, ‘Save As’ the project title and date (or the project title version xx) and go to work, deleting, adding, changing. It mostly works okay, though somewhere along the line the page numbers on the screen will stop matching up with the page numbers on the printed copy, which can cause a little bit of trouble. Also, I think it sometimes leads me to not paying attention to everything: if a sentence or paragraph has escaped my critical eye, why even look at it? It’s perfect, right? Maybe not.

This time, I decided to do something different. I assembled my notes and the notes of my Trusted Readers, plunked the 426 paragraphs with the circles and arrows and margin notes and paragraphs on the back down on the desk, opened a blank document on my computer and started to type. The benefit is that it’s forcing me to look at each line as I type, so everything’s up for consideration, not just what’s been marked up, and that’s a good thing. It’s not quite like starting all over again, but it does make things fresher, I think.

This weekend, I ran into big trouble, though I may have had the same problem if I’d done it ‘the old way.’ I had two scenes separated by thirty-odd pages in the manuscript that, while not exactly the same, needed to be condensed into one in order to move the story along faster. No problem, I managed the feat, the new version works–but then I found myself with my printed manuscript divided into four–or was it five?–piles: one on the floor that’s finished. One that’s stuff yet to come (pp. 325-426) and two–or was it three?–that I was currently working on. On the left, page 289. On the right, p. 252–what comes next? Oh, it doesn’t help that the stuff from page 290 or so has now been moved up to page 180.

I sat at my desk for about fifteen minutes yesterday morning shuffling papers back and forth. “OK, this is done, I can put that down here–wait a minute, that’s not done, that’s staying in, so that goes…here.” It got to the point where I sat there for about a minute looking at it all and almost saying, “Fuck it” for the day and going off to mow the lawn. Eventually, I did say “Fuck it” and just started working, and it went pretty well (3500 words yesterday, wowza). Still, it was fifteen minutes of stress that I didn’t need. Hopefully, it’s the last day of that sort of stress on this manuscript.

Writing, editing, revising: it’s an ongoing process, one that’s always in revision. Maybe next time I’ll figure out a better system for organizing myself so I don’t get lost.

What about you? How do you keep everything straight in the revision process?

Music!

Forty years ago this weekend, the Grateful Dead played a series of what might rightly be called “historic” concerts at a tiny little theater nestled almost at the base of the Great Sphinx in Giza, Egypt. (I say historic because I believe they were the first rock band to play there, though others have followed). For three nights, the band played before a small crowd in the desert, and by all accounts, they had a blast. Said Jerry Garcia: “Egypt was great. We were terrible!” They hoped to pay for the trip by releasing a live album, but they were, indeed, terrible. Even at their best, the Dead were unpredictable. The wheels could fall off at any moment. Here’s a song from their last night, probably the best of the run and, true to form, the wheels fell off. At least twice. Have a good week!

4 Responses

  1. Ahhhh… redrafting! It worked great for me. But if you have a lot of scenes that you're moving around, you might want to cut and paste them where they should go. Then you will only have two piles: one redrafted, one waiting to redraft. Good luck!!

  2. You know, what I forgot to mention was I even cut a page in half where I had a section break, so in additon to a bunch of piles, I have a couple of half sheets floating around in there, too!

  3. I'm still trying to figure out what method of revising works for me. I'm currently trying to deal with the ripple effects of a major change about a third of the way in. SO MANY CHANGES!!!

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