Revising a Novel, Rewriting History

A few weeks ago, my agent sent me some feedback on a manuscript. She said the piece was in great shape, but that there were a few passages I might want to go over and give a good polish.

I agreed. I hadn’t worked on the manuscript in any sort of in-depth way in about a year. I’d sent it to my agent for her feedback, but knew even before I heard back from her that the perfectionist in me wouldn’t let another set of eyes so much as glance at it until I’d given it a good – and maybe a really good – polish.

And yes, that was the word I’d been using – polish – same as her. We used other words, too, in an effort to get at the same idea: tighten and tidy and clean up.

Stephen King (and my dad, too – though I don’t think he got it from King) calls this end-of-the-line editing “housework.” In the Foreword to the revised-edition of his novel The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower I), he writes, “ . . . to some extent, that is all that rewriting amounts to: straightening the pictures, vacuuming the floors, scrubbing the toilets.”

It’s the little things, in other words. Small, subtle alterations that, in their own quiet way, make a world of difference.

Stepping into someone’s home, you probably wouldn’t actively notice if the pictures were straight and the toilets were sparkling – and you almost definitely wouldn’t stand there imagining all of the squinting and scrubbing that went into making the one thing straight and the other thing sparkling. But you would, without a doubt, notice if the pictures were off-kilter and the bathroom was a disaster. This type of “housework” is done to ensure that the reader – a guest of sorts, I suppose – isn’t tugged out of the story by some bit of sloppiness.

All of which is to say that, after hearing back from my agent, I gathered up my brushes and scrubs, my dustpan and vacuum, and began my housework.

Three weeks later (my brushes and scrubs now bristle-less, my vacuum long-since dead and the dustpan overflowing), I stood up from my desk and, horror curdling the contents of my stomach, thought, What have I done?

But wait –

Let me take a second to describe what it’s like to come back to a manuscript you haven’t laid a critical eye on in an entire year . . .

Have you ever scrolled back into the furthest reaches of your Facebook photos? Or picked through that dusty shoebox at the bottom of your closet, the one full of photos of you from middle school?

Returning to that year-old manuscript is kind of like that. One page has you all smiles . . . and the next has you cringing and wanting to curl up and cry. You come across a passage full of pitch-perfect prose, or a picture of you and your best friends in the midst of an impromptu, a cappella performance of “Landslide” (if you’re reading this, you all know who you are) . . . and then turn the page to find a string of lazy, crappy sentences, or yet another photo of yourself wearing women’s clothing at a dress-up party. (Go and check Facebook if you want – they’re there.)

There is one big difference, however, between these two activities, and this is where the metaphor crumbles. Because while you can’t go back in time and tell yourself, “Look, dude, just take off the frigging dress,” you can revise your manuscript however you see fit.

And that, during those three weeks with my head bent down over my desk, was what I did. I quickly slid from polishing to full-fledged revising. This was more than “housework” – I’d given my manuscript a total overhaul, had brought in new furniture and repainted all the walls.

A novel (or any other work of art) is a collection of countless creative decisions, both large and small, and one year ago, after I’d made those innumerable decisions – and then, over the course of several subsequent drafts, questioned and re-questioned every one of those decisions – I’d ended up with a novel that I was pleased with and proud of. Returning to the piece much later on, I was no longer so happy with each and every one of those choices. Why? Because it had been a whole year. During that time, I’d grown and changed. Of course I’d make a lot of those creative choices differently. If I sat down in front of a blank page tomorrow morning and set out to re-tell this character’s story, I’d probably end up writing a completely different book.

But eventually (re: after three entire weeks) I realized that this was not the best idea. It was, I learned, ultimately unproductive, and maybe even unhealthy.

Think about those old photos again. If I could go back in time – and go back carrying the little bit of wisdom I like to think time and experience have given me – my instinct would probably be to make a lot of decisions differently. Then, the logic goes, I wouldn’t have to cringe quite so much when clicking through Facebook of flipping through old photo albums. But by getting rid of that cringe, I’d be getting rid of something else. Because that time of my life when I kept on cross-dressing to costume parties (or, for that matter, any other past moment when I made some sort of decision), serves as a sort of benchmark, a point in the past that helps me see time’s changes and measure my own growth.

The manuscript works like this, too. Let’s say it gets bought up and bound and put in bookstores. Just like me, people will find in it things they like and things they don’t, the smiles and the cringes. But by preserving the decisions made by that past self, I’m putting a stake in the ground, installing a benchmark, planting a signpost that will help me trace my future trajectory.

And above and beyond the billions of decisions that go into writing a novel, your long-term growth is something you should always strive to be happy with and proud of. It’s a good thing, in other words, to express yourself as truly as you can – whether with a regrettable outfit or a novel – and to preserve those choices, cringe-worthy as some of them may be. After all, if you tore up all your old photos, if you tried to erase the past, if you continued to revise and rewrite the same novel ad finitum, you could never look back and say, “Look at me now – look how far I’ve come.”