Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Starting Over Again on the Autumnal Equinox

Many of my friends know that I like to start a new life on the first day of each month. A new commitment to fitness! To frugality! To astonishing work productivity! To using my leisure time to read heaps of wonderful books! The new life usually peters out after a few days, but I truly think I owe everything I've ever achieved to those few days of each month's glorious new life.

I'm in need of a new life right now, but it's hard for me to start one on some random day, despite familiar sayings that remind us that EVERY day can be "the first day of the rest of your life." But today is the autumnal equinox, which is a PERFECT day to start a new life. Autumn has always been my favorite season; perhaps it's yours, too. I adore the energy of back-to-school (even if back-to-school was so much less energizing this year, thanks to the pandemic). I envy Jewish friends who get to celebrate the start of a new calendar year with Rosh Hashanah in September. I welcome the briskness of cool mornings, so excellent for equally brisk walks.

But if autumn can feel like the season of new purpose, it's also the season of harvesting the fruits of spring's planting and summer's cultivation, and the season of preparation for winter's bare trees and blustery skies. I've recently seen quoted the sentiment that with its brilliant foliage, "Autumn shows us how beautiful it is to let things go." 

I'm in the processing of harvesting the fruits of spring's blissful writing of my first verse novel, which is now in copy-editing at my publisher, Holiday House, headed for fall 2021 publication. I'm launching my hour-a-day-of bliss on writing a second verse novel. My writing group has read the first twenty pages of the new project, and so far they like it even better than the last one, which early readers have declared to be my best book ever. So hooray for both of these things!

But I'm also letting go of a lot of hopes for how this year was going to turn out. It's been one of the hardest years of my personal/family life, and I'm now facing all the ways in which not only the coming years, but decades, will not be what I dreamed of for my loved ones, and so for me. And don't get me started on THE WORLD!!! I have yet to find a single person who thinks 2020 has been a good year for the world. But it's the year we've been given. As Tolkien wrote:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.

"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

This is the time that has been given us.

So let us welcome autumn, which is, according to Keats, "the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." It's the season of purpose, as I'm declaring it to be for me today, but also the season of harvest (sweet and bitter), and above all, the season of learning to let go. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Book Revisions: From "Impossible!" to "Done!" in a Week

A week ago I was sitting on my friend Leslie's deck, literally sobbing because I knew there was no way I could possibly salvage anything whatsoever from my beloved verse-novel-in-progress after reading the VERY long, VERY detailed, and VERY daunting list of comments from my VERY trustworthy editor. 

Given that the entire storyline was unmotivated, and central characters were too unlikable, and crucial scenes were implausible (plus several hundred other details were inconsistent, confusing, or downright annoying), if I were even to attempt revisions on this scale, there would truly be nothing left of the book as I had originally written it. Nothing at all. And this was the book I had written with the greatest joy and for which I had the highest hopes. Now joy had become misery! Now all hopes were cruelly dashed!

Well, after I sobbed for a while, I started to get some ideas for how I could make a few small-but-significant changes that would fix just about all of the problems my editor had identified. She and I talked on the phone the next day, and when I returned to my desk, I was not only encouraged, but exhilarated. 

I didn't quite LEAP into revision. My revision method is a very bad one, but it's the one that works for me. Ideally, one would fix the BIG things first, and then the middle-sized things, and then deal with the teensy-weensy things last. As I read somewhere, why would you spend a lot of time decorating a wall that is just going to be knocked down? It only makes sense to deal with major structural issues first, right?

My method, however, is the opposite. I have to do the easy things first just so that I can feel less hopeless about the whole project. For this book, my editor had flagged my overuse of several words: "back" (as in "back when we were still friends," "still" (as in, ditto), and "totally." To this I added "really." I did a global search for the overused words and eliminated a huge quantity. Progress was being made!

On I went, to more challenging queries, and then, once the work was 90 percent done, to the biggest story problems - which actually were fixed with just a few judicious cuts and additions. I typed up a four-page single-spaced memo explaining all the FABULOUSLY WONDERFUL changes I had made, and how I had fixed ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING! I attached manuscript, memo, and book calendar to my email, and then pressed SEND. 

From "Impossible!" to "Done!" in a week.

Oh, why do I make things so hard on myself? When this book (as yet untitled) is published, it will be my 62nd book for young readers. Wouldn't you think that by now I'd be used to the many rounds of revision that are necessary to produce a published book? Why can't I just skip over the dark night of the soul and trot straight to my computer and plop myself down to work? 

Well, maybe the dark night of the soul is just part of the process, too - maybe it's a necessary step that can't be omitted. When I write a book, the events in the story seem so real to me, as if this is "how it actually happened." Readjustment of this vision is bound to be . . . jarring. 

But still, here are some things I'm going to work harder at remembering:

1. When an editor (or journal reviewer) asks you to revise something, they really, truly want you to revise THIS, as opposed to ripping it up and starting all over again with something completely new. You are revising THIS book, or THIS article. If they wanted you to throw it away and start all over again, they would have said so. 

2. Editors (and journal reviewers) are on your side. You both want the exact same thing: the best possible book, or the best possible article. 

3. Just as books are written one page at a time, so revisions can be made one problem at a time. Just fix one thing, then another thing, and then another thing. And then twenty or thirty more. And you will be done! (Or at least, done for now.)

4. There is no one way to revise any more than there is one way to write. Find what works for YOU. Once in a while, it's permissible to rethink or refine, but for the most part, if you have a tried-and-true system, rely on it to work its miracle for you this time, too. 

5. Let yourself feel not only the joy, but the wonder, of watching small alterations produce huge effects. Savor the malleability of the clay of your words in your hands. Enjoy the kneading of the dough; marvel at its rising.

6. And when you finally press SEND, give yourself a treat. 

I see some peach pound cake in my future...


Thursday, September 3, 2020

Some Days (and Weeks, and Months, and Years) Are Just Very Hard

As the child character says in the opening line of Sara Pennypacker's delightful book Clementine, "I have had not so good of a week."

An excruciatingly painful legal case my family has been involved with for the past three years reached its conclusion. I thought this would bring me the relief of closure, but instead it made me all too aware of consequences we will all be living with for the rest of our days.

Then, on an extra-bad morning, my editor emailed me another round of revision notes for my forthcoming verse novel. I had already done two extensive rounds of revision, so I expected the suggested changes to be minor tweaks. But as I read her very long and detailed memo, it seemed as if every single aspect of the story remained problematic: the entire engine driving the plot was sputtering, crucial scenes were implausible, major characters were unlikable. There was NOTHING here that was salvageable at all. The problems in the book that I had written with such joy were simply un-fixable. 

To quote another delightful children's book: like Judith Viorst's Alexander, I was having "a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad day."

I started an email to my editor saying that I wanted to withdraw the book from publication, but instead sent her an email asking if we could set up a time to talk through the comments. "Of course!" she said. And when we did talk the next morning, I realized that all of the problems she raised were not only fixable, but could be fixed in fairly simple ways that will make the book I love that much stronger and more compelling. So hooray for that.

But I'm still sad. I'm sad about my family's heartaches. I'm sad about the state of the world right now (who isn't?). Too sad to work, I've been spending endless hours scrolling through Facebook posts. This is not a good activity for someone who is already depressed (oh, those poor teachers, parents, and students trying to figure out how to educate anybody in the middle of a pandemic!). So I retrieved the I-pad I had banished to the garage and started spending endless hours doing online Sudoku puzzles. This, unsurprisingly, did not improve my mood, either. 

Reading good books helped: Ann Patchett's The Dutch House and Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and watching episodes of the French detective series Maigret, with English subtitles (I now have a huge crush on lead actor Bruno Cremer). So did walks with the dog, and phone calls and ZOOM chats with friends.

It may just be, however, that nothing will help all that much. My family situation is very sad. The state of the world right now is horrific. We're ALL sad. Sadness is appropriate and justified.

Still, I know the one thing that would lift my spirits is doing the work that I love, which is writing. Even though I feel too sad to write, I know with great certainty that if I could force myself to work on these verse novel revisions for just HALF AN HOUR, it would add a tiny bit of joy to this hard week. Writing this blog post is already giving me an itty-bitty surge of satisfaction: at least I'm doing this. 

So I'm going to try. After I publish this post, I'm going to take a shower, put in a load of laundry (another spirit-booster), pull up my manuscript on the screen, turn over my half-hour glass (the one I use when a full hour is too daunting), and begin fixing the most easily fixable things.

Some days (and weeks, and months, and years) are just very hard. But we might as well do what we can to make them a little bit better.