There are many sorts of writing, just as there are endless ways to read. Snack, bite sized and on the run – or delightfully languorous, never looking at your watch. As for those on a doctoral deadline, we all know frantic and deadline driven writing and reading. But then, after you have submitted, there is the hardest of them all – revisiting old work that needs an over haul.
Just as it’s hard to get back into a book you’ve stopped reading and put away for a few months (do you ever really finish one of those tomes?) so is the pain of revisiting fiction you have put aside. Because no one gets their work out to publishers while the exhaustion of doctoral completion is fresh. So, how do you come back to the work in six months, or a year? You have have passed your Creative Writing PhD, but your novel probably still needs some work before it hits the publisher’s email.
How do you fall in love again with your work and care enough to tackle it afresh?
That’s been my preoccupation these past few days, as I have a manuscript I am working on that still needs a wrangle. The trouble is, it goes further back than the doctorate – the work I am revisiting is the novel I wrote for my MA. You probably have one of these yourself – the knowledge that you want your manuscript in the best possible shape before you send it to a publisher, but there is an aspect that just doesn’t work. Or work well enough to catch the eye of someone who wants to sink money into it. And that’s why you have left it, because apart from nibbles and some interest, it’s not quite there yet.
The worst thing about putting such a manuscript away and working on something else is that it is damned hard to revisit again – without getting into the zone.
I admit it – I am a deadline junkie as much as the next journalist but this old habit from an old working life doesn’t really cut it when you are doing a doctorate, because there is too much work for a final sprint at one deadline. You have to chunk it up and give yourself mini deadlines.
This is also a way of reentering the orbit of a work that has gone off your radar. If you are anything like me, other priorities take over, and it is only the arrival of a red letter and non negotiable deadline that makes you open the file, delve deep back into the world you created and – start again.
The problem is, unlike making bread where the combination of flour and water and yeast and heat may rise, with a manuscript that has been left, if the plot and characters haven’t got the chemistry to work together, they will still fall flat and prove difficult to fashion into a tasty product no matter how long you let it sit.
Or maybe not. Perhaps only tweaks are needed, maybe you need to change the voice, or the tone, or the characters. But perhaps a fresh perspective could also help.
Enter the workshop doctors.
If you can find yourself an intensive professional writing group – the sort that only works with those of your standard, not hobbyists, then this could be the boot camp you need to get a fresh take on your work.
I joined such a group when completing my doctoral novel, and it was invaluable. Now I am revisiting my masters novel, and while I have had two chapters published already in literary journals, the time has come for a serious edit and revise.
The trouble is, getting back into the zone. The zone of ideas that created the work in the first place.
Chances are you are not the same person you were when you started writing your book. In the time that you put the work down to ‘breathe’ and start something else, you may have moved on, found other interests, fallen in and out of love, perhaps had a child, travelled. Well – you might have put the book away for six months or six years – so how do you come back to that place that spawned those ideas?
Life is conflict, there are small and large battles every day, and the trick is to both write, and be a writer, and also have a life, move forward from the fears and ghosts that are holding us from joy but without sacrificing the shadows that helped us with the necessary chiaroscuro for drama in the first place. It’s one thing to write, it’s another to maintain both a life, a writing life and an inner life necessary to conjure up work from nothing, and maintain the head space and practical surrounds to develop this into fiction. It is a skill, and as my writing mentor admits, one that requires a high degree of difficulty. And higher chance of failure. Are you wasting your time? Your reader’s time?
There are several tips about entering the general writing zone that apply to re-writing – write every day, make a writing plan, read widely and every day, immerse yourself in reading about books and writers. Yet as a professional writer, this doesn’t go to the problem of reentering the zone of work you have put aside.
In that instance, as well as re reading the manuscript, you really need to enter the zone of ideas that created it. Hopefully, if the book is about something that you really are compelled to explore, you will have been doing this even as the incomplete work languished – or was left to breathe.
I know I am still obsessed about the themes in my work, which I am now revisiting. And those in my circle who have read the manuscript are still pestering me to get it out into the light of day. because those ideas are still compelling.
I keep reading fiction that explores ideas around the emotional or narrative core of the book. Just as it isn’t necessary to write about an exact experience, or indeed person, but rather the emotional resonance of a real event, it’s not necessary to only read fiction in the genre you are revisiting. In fact, I think it hinders, as we can get swayed by another ‘voice’. Many writers like to read non fiction in areas of their current subject interest for that reason.
Two books have helped me reenter the zone in the past few weeks – Joan Didion’s heartbreaking 2005 novel The Year of Magical Thinking and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s 2009 novel The Angel’s Game. Quite different books, that have both had an impact on my way of approaching my work again. Of course, a little obsessive behavior is always good when finding the zone – block out the outside world, let the kids fend for themselves as you bark “not now I’m writing!” and try as far as possible to screen out pesky things like current affairs, world news and local elections while you sink deep into the fictional world you are creating.
There is no getting around the fact that writing is a solitary and selfish exercise. Not much fun to be around when the process is going on – about as much fun as sitting watching dough rise in a warm car. No, unless you are going to participate by offering your naked back as services for a writer’s quill, or be there to support, perhaps it’s best that writers should be left to wrestle with their work, thrash and howl alone. There is simply nothing exciting about the process, especially when revisiting the bloody site of work that needs more work. That’s the spot to avoid at all costs. Like a car accident. And there is no way around it – revisiting the zone and rewriting is going to be its own form of torture.
An invaluable exercise in finding 3000 words (and new writing on the piece) for the upcoming writing workshop was being forced to answer three questions about the book that had been bothering me – and also contextualizing the novel, and the piece from that which I submitted to the group.
Ask yourself – what isn’t working about your novel? What would you like a reader to look at if they were given a chapter? Is it plot, character? Voice? Drill down – be specific.
For me, the hardest thing was projecting myself into the work again. This was a world I had made, these were characters who didn’t exist until I put them on the page. To change the protagonist because of feedback I received from readers who said they didn’t like her is one thing. But to wonder whether she would have been better of as I had her – an obsessive, overly emotional and deeply superstitious woman on an unlikely quest – is another again. If I change her slightly, and make her more stable, wise cracking, more modern, then would be bizarre journey be as believable?
That’s a question I put to the workshop – but to do that, and not just throw in a speculative question, I had to create the other version of my protagonist, and also her love interest, and also the location of the opening scene.
So, not so much a revisit as a rewrite. But then, all writing is rewriting.
As I watched my son make bread under my friend’s guidance on the weekend, we searched for a warm place to leave the dough to rise – Melbourne’s famously erratic weather meant even in mid summer it was a cool day, and I suggested the inside of my car. This one of my grandmother’s tricks – because the inside of cars left in the sun warm up quickly.
My son wondered what would happen if we forgot about the dough, and came back hours later – we imagined the yeast rising and taking over, oozing forth out of the car because it was not tamed into submission by the baking process.
An apt metaphor I think, for the novel that never gets finished, but constantly added to.
Perhaps my anxiety at the keyboard today had a lot to do with the knowledge that this beast of mine must be kneaded into shape, and put in the oven to cook (read sent to publishers) and then the moment of truth, of seeing whether it all falls flat or not.
I am pleased to announce my 13 year old cooked his first successful loaf of bread, which was very quickly eaten. The challenge is now on for me to again get into the zone of my novel, and knead it into shape, whatever its new shape may be.
“So, how did your writing go today?” I asked my friend who is tackling a few major deadlines.
“It was really enjoyable,” came the reply. Ah – to be in the zone, while I struggled to find that space. It made me realise how hard it is to revisit the past. My mother always warned me, don’t look back, you will turn into a pillar of salt. But we must look back as writers, and re-enter the zone.
To do so, immerse yourself in the ideas and the themes and characters you created in the first place, and then pull it apart and see if tackling it differently brings a better outcome. Rewrite from first person to third? Kill your darlings – favourite characters who have become redundant? Or make the voice stronger, harsher, ore younger and more innocent. Ah – choices. Once you re-enter the zone, stay there, move around and play with your work. Write like you have never written this book before, write like you are discovering the ideas all over again.
That’s where the enjoyment comes in. That’s the zone. Bite into it.