Tuesday, October 12, 2010

When falling In Love Is A Bad Thing

The last time we chatted (see my 9/14 I.N.K. entry) I had followed my inner voice -- that muse inside my head who guides me through the writing process by asking questions, making endless comments and suggestions, and nagging me constantly about this thing and that -- and wound up with a 311 page text about George Washington's first six months as commander of the Continental army. For kids 8 to 12 years old!
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This would never do, of course. Not only was the text wildly long for the majority of my intended readers, it was 200 pages over the contracted page limit. Yes, I had known the text would come in long for many, many months, but I'd continued pushing the text forward to work out the book's themes and overall structure. Besides the writing was going smoothly and I wanted to see where it would lead, especially with regards to the dramatic action sequences. So it was all my own fault -- and don't think my inner voice didn't let me know. Every so often, it would suddenly blurt out, "Just be ready to delete a lot of this stuff, Murphy."
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When I finished I wasn't in a panic. Well, not a big one anyway. I knew I had a great deal of work to do and knew it would take time to accomplish. So I took a deep breathe and launched into the revision.
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At this point my # 1 priority was to cut as much of the text as possible without completely destroying the narrative story line and flow. I did what every writer does: I read each sentence carefully and analyzed it to see what needed to stay and what could go, cutting a word or phrase here, a paragraph there. Some of this was quite easy. There is always excess fat that needs to be trimmed. Some deletions were more problematic. I might slash a paragraph and feel fine about the decision, only to realize later that the paragraph set up a crucial scene and needed to be restored. After going through the entire text once, I went back for another try at it, ax in hand and ready to chop. When the dust finally cleared, I sat back to look at the text and was shocked by what I found. After weeks of work I had managed to cut the text by a measily 7 1/2 pages!
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Now the panic set in for real. I had focused on cutting the text and had pushed the delete key hundreds and hundreds of times. I thought I'd been brutal on my writing, had attacked it with single-minded purpose. But the manuscript was still over 300 pages long. What had gone wrong? It took several days, but the answer finally came to me. I had fallen into a common writer's trap. During the initial writing phase, I had lived with the text for months on end, had read over and massaged every word, every line, and every paragraph numerous times to get the text just right -- and I'd fallen in love with what I'd written. I couldn't see the flaws, so I couldn't devise a solution. Didn't want to really because I thought I'd already worked out all the problems. In effect, my inner voice -- that ever present critic I counted on to help me make the text as perfect as possible -- had followed me down this path as well and couldn't really point out the problems or a solution either.
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What to do now, aside from panicking completely. Here a more rational and calm voice finally chimmed in. Clearly, I had lost the ability to view my text with perspective; logic suggested that the best way to get my perspective back was to put as much distance between me and the text as possible. I needed a vacation from my words, and not just one that lasted a few hours or even days. I needed to get as far away from the manuascript for as long as possible.
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At this point I decided to enlist my editor's help. I sent her the manuscript, told her it was too long (as if she wouldn't see this immediately), and that I could use some guidance on what to cut. Then I went on to work on other projects and whenever I thought about opening the George Washington file I used every ounce of will power I had (with help from that inner voice) to resist the temptation. Several months went by like this until my editor sent me an e-mail. She had no specific suggestions on what to delete; her only guidance was to "keep the focus on George. He's the star of the show."
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This wasn't the kind of advice I'd expected. I guess I'd felt so clueless about what to do that I'd hoped for a more speciific blueprint. Which was when it dawned on me that she had actually done just that.
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I opened the George Washington file and began to read what now felt like someone else's manuscript. Which was a good thing. My inner voice was chattering away, saying over and over, "Keep the focus on George." And whenever the focus drifted away from him even for a second, I highlighted the section and pushed delete. Over and over and over again. At one point I deleted an entire chapter (where British officers discussed military tactics and their views on Washington). Push, delete; push, delete. It wasn't easy sending away great chunks of what felt like a beloved child, but it had to be done no matter how painful. And this time when I viewed the results, I was almost as shocked as after that first failed revision. This time I had whittled the text down to 74 pages!
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It wasn't finished by a long shot. The text would require months of intense revision work. But eventually a much more compact and focused narrative emerged that would become THE CROSSING: HOW GEORGE WASHINGTON WON THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Despite this near disaster, I haven't given up on listening to my inner voice; it's been a faithful and accurate guide for too many years. But I do sit back in my chair from time to time and think about where its advice might take me. And sometimes if it seems like it might be a long, intricate journey, I close the file and take a little vacation before making a decision.

3 comments:

Linda Zajac said...

This year, I discovered the value of "parking" a chunk of writing and revisiting it later. When I looked too closely with a microscope at my own writing, I didn't see the whole picture. I saw the links of a chain. After I returned to it, I saw it with the binoculars and got an overall view. Is the direction right? I agree, it is hard to put it away.

CC said...

Coming to writing from Illustration, I learned this same lesson, that just as the
details in a picture must be reduced to the essence, so must the text.

Enjoyed your description of the process.

Thanks.

Jim Murphy said...

Thank you Linda and CC. Writing can be painful at times, but at least I'm still experimenting and learning as a result. Which (hopefully) will help keep the text lively.