On When it's Good to Be a Big Fat Loser: Or Why Fighting the Novel is Better than Not Fighting at All

Today I fought a section of my novel and lost. I gave it a valiant effort, wrote over 400 new words (which for me at this stage of revision is a lot), and completely reshaped the ending of a chapter. I tweaked, I thought, I renvisioned. I did all the things a "real writer" is supposed to do. I put in a solid six hours on the manuscript. And yet at the end of the day, I came away from my laptop sad, because the mood and tone of the scene still aren't there, and I wasn't able to get into it everything I wanted to. Everything, that, quite frankly, I need to. Normally I wouldn't fiddle this much, but I like to tweak chapter openings and endings in general, because I know that these are the places that readers are the most likely to put a novel down. I like to make sure that, in particular, my chapter endings seem complete in and of themselves, while at the same time leading forward in the story's arc. I want to make sure I'm pointing to what's next--that's what I'm doing the majority of this revision, weaving the strands of the story together and making sure that each page leads to the next.

And this chapter in particular is a frustrating one, because it comes at the end of a section, and centers on a crucial plot point. In fact, if this particular plot point doesn't work, I don't think the reader will want to read the rest of the novel. My husband disagrees, says I'm being too hard on myself, and that by the time the reader is this far in, they'll want to read on regardless. To some extent, I agree. And I also know that even though I'm getting very close to querying, that I can still go back and work on this chapter some more once I have finished this draft.

So knowing all that, why did I walk away today feeling defeated? After all, I conquered the fear of the "has-to-be-rewritten" page. I could have spent today working on any number of projects for the upcoming spring semester, but instead I chose to write. As I have almost every day of my "Winter Break," the word "break" being, now that I'm a novelist, a relative term. I should feel proud of what I've done, proud of how much work I'm putting into this novel, proud of how good it's getting.

But sometimes in our work, when we get so close to touching our original visions, it's like staring into the face of God. We're there for an instant, and then no more, and then there's darkness. The light shuts off. We've been singed with our own fire. And then we come down again, and have to confront the tyranny of the printed page, a page that no matter how much we tweak, can only ever be imperfect.

Today I was close. Tomorrow, I hope to get even closer. But if I can't, I have to move on, because there are other chapters to work on, other changes I need to make. And it still feels good to keep fighting. Even the artistic defeat I feel today is better than the soul defeat of not writing, and what's better, it's left me hungry for more, hungry to come back and try again. "Fail better," Beckett says, but it takes courage to believe him.

So go, roll your sleeves up. Get fighting.


Jeanna Thornton said…
The good thing about fighting is you are present and motivated. You show up! With every chapter you *fight*, a more clear understanding of the final product is revealed..

Writing this story from your heart takes you to your deepest level of entry. I understand this as i am also designing my dream house as I write my first two novels, the stories of Beulah Springs. Only you know the twists and turns you want to create; only you can finish it. I am very proud of you, Kath!
One of the real frustrations with writing is the inability to match the "perfect" vision for the story with real words and paragraphs and chapters. I feel your pain there, Kathryn.
Ronlyn Domingue said…
It wasn't until Draft #4 that I figured how how THE MERCY OF THIN AIR hung together on a conceptual level.

With Novel #2, I have a pretty good inkling--but I don't know how to make that work on the page yet. It's coming, though.

Perserverance, that's what it takes. Some days, the work is easy and fun and inspiring, and sometimes it's hell. Keep going!

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