A Pleasure to Burn

Burning Man 2013

I did something I’ve never done before, in my entire six months of blogging. Six long months, for whatever that’s worth.

I deleted a post.

It was the most recent chapter of the withering man. Something that happens to me as I write this novel is that sometimes whole chapters emerge from nowhere. It happens like this: An important event happened in the last chapter, and I sit down, full of excitement to start the next one. I know what’s going to happen next, and it’s huge. I just have to get through the beginning part where the characters react to the previous events and I can write the awesome scene.

The reaction bits take a little longer than I expected.

Then another character shows up to talk about it, who really should be there. There’s an entire conversation.

That leads to another little scene that follows naturally from the conversation, and that it would be illogical to skip.

Then the protagonist reflects on all of this.

Before I know it, I have an entire chapter, shoved right in between the two chapters I actually intended to write. In the early stages of the novel this was exciting. My characters were taking on a life of their own! I didn’t have to add anything at all to flesh out my story, it took care of that for me! It was a beautiful byproduct of novel-writing that I’d heard about but never experienced. Fully formed amino acids emerging from the chemical soup of putting words down on the page.

Now that I’m near the end, its just annoying. These Bookkeeping chapters won’t go away, and all I want to do is slide down towards the conclusion. If anything, they’re more likely to happen, because the world is more organic and the characters more real. But they bug me. They’re easy to write, but not as joyful as the good stuff. They’re not joyless, exactly, but it’s not the same.

 

So for the last chapter I did something I haven’t done during the entire process so far: I rushed through it. I got what had to happen down on the screen, and got ready to write the next one. I wasn’t super happy with the chapter, but that had happened before and people told me they were fine. I could fix it on the second draft. So I uploaded it to the blog.

And you know what? It sucked. My primary reader had more stylistic problems with this chapter than any two chapters before it. Maybe any three. He was nice about it, of course, but this is my first novel. I’m a thin skinned guy, and criticism hurts. It didn’t help that he was completely right.

So I tore the chapter down and set, nervously, to the problematic task of editing. Like any good-hearted person, I hate editing. It’s the cleanup after a wild party. The hangover cure you need to take after a fantastic night out. Editing is to writing what weedwacking is to crafting hedge-sculptures. It’s not fun, but if you don’t do it your lawn will look ratty and that’s what your gossipy neighbors will talk about. They’re used to your hedge-sculptures.

I sat down at the screen, my bare draft glaring menacingly out at me. I knew sort of what was wrong with it. The prose was bloated and low-impact. There was too much dithering and introspection. The last bit was a paragraph of exposition when it needed to be a fully fleshed scene with an emotional impact and character insight. I knew what was wrong, but I didn’t know if I had the tools to deal with it. This is my first novel, after all, and editing and I have never been friends. I hesitated for awhile. I washed some dishes. I made a chicken sandwich. Then I put my fingers on my keyboard and started to delete.

It was glorious. I hacked out whole paragraphs. I sliced out at least one entire scene, and half of two others. I burnt my chapter to the ground, and built something better from the foundations. It’s much tighter, now. It actually belongs in the book.

Eventually I’m going to have to take this ax to the whole manuscript. I’ve known this from the beginning, and I’ve been ignoring and dreading it in turns. But after today it really doesn’t seem so bad. I learned two lessons, and they are as revelatory as they are obvious. Most significant discoveries are obvious, once you learn them.

The first is that editing is a lot easier when you have a solid foundation. I enjoyed editing this chapter partially because I knew there was something good under there. I cared about it, and so my sense of purpose let me power through my reluctance to do an unpleasant task.

The second is that it’s great to have a friend who will criticize you. My friend knows me well enough to know that I have a thin skin, and criticisms would mess me up a little. He also knows me well enough to do it anyway, that I need it, and that I’d probably thank him by the end of the day. Which I did.

The third is that identity is stupid. I’ve always been an “editing sucks” guy. The same way I was a “meat guy” until the day I became vegetarian. Now I see a possible version of myself who likes to edit. I can’t know for sure that we’ll ever meet. I never even heard of him until yesterday. But now I know he’s out there. A month and a half ago I wasn’t sure I had the patience and commitment to write a novel, even the first draft. Now I’m almost done. It’s lame to limit yourself by your definitions of who you think you are. But people do it all the damn time.

Better to take those definitions and just burn them. Burn them all to cinders. Then you can build whatever the hell you want.

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