It’s been six months or more since I looked at my last novel, the one that was “done.” That novel is gearing up to go into production now, and I have a few notes from my editors, stuff to change. As I read through the manuscript for places to cut back or to develop a character more, I am getting re-acquainted with my protagonist and her dilemmas. She hasn’t changed. The problem is, I have.
I’m six months older; some things in my life are different, some aren’t, but it all goes into what I want to write about—what I think is important.
The good news is, there are a few problematic scenes that, six months later, I don’t feel as tied to as I used to. Great—get rid of them. And I have a better sense of how other people are reading the novel, not just me. I still have my own secret story of what the novel is about, but once you put a book out to the public, it becomes something else, as well. One reader might think The Great Gatsby, for instance, is all about social change; another reader might lean more toward the personal relationships depicted therein. No doubt Fitzgerald had his own views (that should go without saying!), but after a while, weirdly, his work is no longer just his.
So as I go through and cut or expand, I’m thinking about what other people have said about my story, and how I felt about it when it started, and how I feel about it now. It’s a bit overwhelming. Here are a couple of things I’ve been telling myself:
- To quote Shakespeare: “The play’s the thing.” The best guide for how to change your novel is the novel itself. Sure, I didn’t start out thinking I would write about slavery and the underground railroad, but that’s what it’s turned out to be about. Go with it. Every story has its own logic, and the best stories are the ones that stay truest to that.
- Not everyone will agree with the changes, but I have to agree with them. I can always tell when, on re-reading my work (even six months later), I’ve written something just because someone else told me I should. Whatever you add has to fit the scene, the character, the tone. If it doesn’t, find someplace else to add whatever it is that agent/editor/beta reader wants. And if you can’t find a place, don’t add it.
- Take more breaks. Re-reading with an eye to re-writing is basically all about making decisions. Is this okay as is? Is this? Is this? Decision after decision after decision. That’s hard on a psyche. Time to order in and watch a twenty-minute sit-com, get on the elliptical, or take the dog out for a walk. Decision-making muscles (I swear those exist) have to take rests, too, in order to work well.
A wise teacher once told me, “The hardest thing is keeping everything else out.” Like probably every other writer, I have a lot to say, and I’ll just never say it all in this novel—nor should I. When you start writing, the experience of feeling idea after idea come along is exhilarating. But unless you’re Thomas Pynchon, not all of those ideas will work themselves into your plot. And that’s a blessing for your readers, who probably just want a good read.
Martha Conway’s novel Thieving Forest won the North American Book Award in Historical Fiction, and her first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award. Her short stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Folio, and other journals. A recipient of a California Arts Council Fellowship, she teaches creative writing at Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and UC Berkeley Extension.
Her new novel, Sugarland, is available now.