Today is a better day, or Scarlett O'Hara got it right

As some of you may have guessed from my lengthy comments on Colleen's last post, yesterday was NOT a good day for me. I was having one of those is-it-all-worth-it/I question my very existence moments. Part of that was that I was just exhausted; since turning in grades last week, I've been working hardcore on the novel, putting in an average of 9-10 hours a day. I've reached the point where the book is in endgame, and all I want to do is work on it. That point actually came for me before the end of the semester, which was interesting, because I couldn't quite give into the flow like I wanted. So when grades were in, I took a night off and watched old Bones episodes, and then dove back into the revision. For a few days, it was great. Then exhaustion started creeping in, and I started forgetting important things, like eating, and Mark started to worry about me, as he does at these times, when I get close to the end of projects and don't want to do anything else.

So Monday night, after nine hours of working on a chapter that is supposed to show the beginning of the mental breakdown of my antagonist-turned-antihero character, I decided to take a bit of a break--and to show Mark some of my most recent work. I wanted to be sure that the chapter was really showing the disarray of Isobel's thoughts, but in a way that wouldn't confuse readers. Mark has read the novel in its various incarnations, but it's probably been more than a year since he's read that particular chunk, so I thought he'd be a good reader. I asked if he minded and he said no--it's been awhile since I've showed him anything. But because I wasn't sure that chapter would be the best place for him to enter back into the story, I threw in the chapter before it, too, the chapter I hadn't revised much because it was already working.

Imagine my surprise then, when several nervous minutes later, Mark returned to tell me that the Isobel chapter was "brilliant," but the chapter I thought was "working so well" needed more work. "I just don't understand Diana's decision at the end," he said. "I feel like her motivation is missing."

"Okay," I said. "That's really bad. Because that's a very pivotal chapter."
"Really?" he said. "How is it pivotal?" And I went on to explain it to him, and then he sort of sighed and said "well, I don't get that at all. I mean, I did enjoy that chapter, but that's not at all how I read it."

Of course, by the time he said that, I was starting to feel very unsure about everything, and my new found writer confidence was starting to erode. On the one hand, it was great that he was so complimentary to the chapter I'd just slaved over, but on the other hand, how am I ever supposed to develop a sense of what I can let go/stop working on if I have that much of a disconnect between what I think and what he sees? Granted, he's but one reader, and not exactly my target audience, but the more he explained his reading to me, the more I realized he was right. And I hate to admit it, but I went into the bedroom and lay down and cried. Mark came in after me, perplexed.

"But I don't understand why you're so upset," he said. "The ideas are there and they're great! It's just all the words that are the problem."

At that point, I didn't know whether to cry or laugh. I think I did a bit of both. I went to bed that night frustrated with the chapter, mad at myself, and unsure of what to work on next. When I finally got up the next morning, I dragged myself to the chair and started trying things. I had not planned to spend any more time on that "pivotal" chapter, but the conversation had convinced me that I really needed to make a few things more clear. So I worked, and I worked, and I was in such a funk that I had almost decided not to go to a volunteer meeting that night or out to dinner with two of my friends from the group afterwards.

"You should go," Mark said. "You need a break."
"I don't deserve a break."

But by the time 4 p.m. rolled around, I'd figured out what the problem was with the chapter, and that it wouldn't actually take that long to fix. So by 5:30, I was ready to head out to the meeting and dinner, although still skeptical that I would have any fun. But I did go, and guess what? I did have fun! And more importantly, attending that meeting and going out with those women--brave, beautiful women who have a heart for something larger than themselves, reminded me of my greater purpose. It's the thing that keeps me going when the writing is difficult. It's the thing that keeps me going when the work is not at all "fun." I know I'm meant to do this, and if not with this book, then with another, although I still have a gut feeling about this one. Call it stubbornness, call it delusion, but I've been fighting this fight for awhile now, and both I and the book are getting stronger. I can withstand rejection and criticism and just plain bile, because the fight itself is worth it. And yes, I can even make a chapter pivot, dammit, even when it wasn't quite pivoting before.

That--and sometimes the next day is better because we've taken a break. And sometimes, it's better just because it's another day, and we can always hope Miss Scarlett was right.


jeanna Thornton said…
Wow, this is the way I feel a lot, Kath. but you and I know there is a *book being birthed*...maybe a hard birth but well worth it when the words are right...Hugs to you for writing this so eloquently! jink
Suzan Harden said…
Believe or not, I do understand your frustration when something just is not working on paper (or screen) the way it does in your head.

But please don't torture yourself too much. I'm reading a book right now by one of my favorite authors in a subgenre she doesn't normally write. Let's just say it's very, VERY obvious that the author was "encouraged" to write this book by her agent or her editor because it's a hot subgenre. It's also very, VERY obvious that the author HATED every minute of writing this book. Oh, it's technically a well-written book, but the author's soul isn't there.

Yes, writing can be hard, but I'm glad you went out with your friends because you need a break occasionally.
Thanks, Suzan. The thing is, my heart, mind and soul are always there, in everything I write, and for me, revision--no matter how torturous, does nothing to diminish that bloom. In fact, I'd say if anything, the hard work of revision is soul-refining and clarifying.

That said, I do think there can be a danger of working and reworking too much, but trust me, I'm nowhere near that with this novel yet! I think I just wanted to "get out of" reworking that chapter because it was the only chapter of this sequence I felt I could really leave alone.

I'm also not naive enough to think I'll be able to do this again when I'm under contract--I'll have to move much faster then. But still, these days debuts are so difficult, I want to be able to submit this with the confidence that I've done absolutely everything I can. I know people who have queried too soon and lost good potential agents because of that, so I definitely don't want to run into that problem. If it were just a matter of tweaking, it would be different, but something as large as a pivotal moment not being pivotal--that's something I feel like I really do have to fix. And I can, and it makes my heart sing when I do. :)

For what it's worth, the short story that got me into UH went through twenty-five drafts before I sent it, and then I took it through another five before submitting it for a contest that netted me a total of $7500. All together, that story, while still unpublished, has resulted in $11,000 of prize money, fellowships, and grants. And yet I have other stories I haven't worked nearly as hard on that I love in some ways just as much, but that for whatever reason, I just didn't feel that internal pressure to revise.

It's all a crap shoot, I guess. The funny thing is that I haven't hated any of it. It's just been hard. And maybe I love it because it's hard.
Mylène said…
Here is something to chew over: I ENVY you, my dear Kathryn. I am not at this point with a book right now. A point when the stakes are so high. You aren't just writing, you're LIVING. This is what it is ABOUT. Viewed from the outside, you are riding a great, white, powerful wave. You smash or you fly. Who wouldn't rather do that, rather have those options, than be safe and dull? Just thought you might like to know how you appear from the shore . . . Soul Surfer ;-)
You have no idea how awesome that made me feel, Mylene, especially coming from you, my SHERO! ;) And you also can't have known how, deep within, when I write, I always have this strange picture of the girl from that movie Blue Crush, the movie based upon Susan Orleans' amazing piece on Hawaii girl surfers. For some reason, the passion that girl has for surfing--as well as her crippling anxiety regarding it, has always reminded me of the way I approach my writing. So thank you, dear one! And you're all right, of course--it is all still worth the ride, whether we crash or soar.