A friend posted a question on my Facebook wall and, thinking other people might be experiencing the same problem, I decided to answer it in a public post.
Dear Marie-Helene Bertino (pretend this is a hand written letter on dancing dog stationery penned to you at your advice column for writers),
I have written 2 versions of a novel. I realized the novel needed an overhaul and I wrote a detailed and I think – pretty tight – outline for the next revision. Now I’m stuck. I don’t know how to attempt to integrate the text I have with the future text I have in mind, with the new outline. Do you have any recommended next steps? How do I cull the usable from the useless? How do I move forward.
Stuck & Intimidated
Dear Stuck & Intimidated,
Thank you for your “letter.” I especially liked the dancing dog stationery (#adoptdontshop).
I appreciate the precarious position you are in, teetering between revisions in that liminal space called OHMYGODWRITINGANOVELISBONKERS. I spent a good deal of last night telling a friend that only insane people attempt to write novels.
One of the millions of reasons writing a novel is ill-advised is because it is impossible to “hold” an entire novel in one’s head. Unlike a short story, which can sometimes emerge as simply and beautifully as an orchid blooms, a novel has many false starts, crash landings, days of euphoria followed by days of panicked regret. Is there an animal that eats half of itself, I just wondered aloud? (No, my husband says. What the hell are you writing?) If there was an animal that did, and then regurgitated itself in a better form, it would be a good metaphor for the process of writing a novel.
Writing a novel is like picnicking in a windstorm. Every time you batten one corner of your blanket down, another flies up. Battening that one down, another comes loose. Eventually you must give up and eat macaroni salad off your lap in the car. The novel is what you see out the windshield.
All musing aside, I fear the outline may have paralyzed you. That can happen with outlines. We think they are helping, but really they are tricking us into thinking the work is already done. It’s one of those strange magic tricks of writing fiction. We must always be careful of where we put our minds. You must resist the urge to run around battening corners down. My practical advice to you is surrender: take a long look at the outline, internalize it, and then throw it away. If you are feeling dramatic, eat it. Or witchy, burn it.
Then, find a passage that you’re really excited about. It doesn’t matter if it’s one that is narratively important or not. Open it up and take a look at it. Add to it, or write the scene that would directly follow it. Don’t worry about whether you’ll use it or not, don’t worry if it’s good, don’t even worry if everything is correctly spelled. Just write the scene. Write it in good faith, having as much fun as you can.
Did anything surprise you in doing that? Follow it.
Then, move to another scene that feels fun to you. Noodle around in it. Is there a moment or character or line that feels creatively fertile? Follow it.
The front door of your practice is locked, and you’ve forgotten your key. What you are doing is circling around the back of your practice, trying to find an open window or forgotten door you can shimmy through.
Once you’ve found one, go to the chronological beginning of the novel and take it scene by scene. Stop every time you’re bored, and fix the language until you’re not bored–even if (and perhaps especially if) it means detouring from the outline you’ve eaten. There’s no way around it—the day you do this is going to be a hard day. But at the end of that day the feeling will be better than sex, better than steady money, better than a smile on a dog, better than…
Revising can be just as discovery-producing as writing if you know how to trick yourself into being more creative and intelligent than you are, when to abandon the rules you’ve set up for yourself, and when to go easy on yourself.
This is as much as I can say without having knowledge of your specific project. Remember: Rome wasn’t built in a day. Rome is still being built. And it’s been sacked and rebuilt several times. So, you know, at least you’re not trying to do that. All you’re trying to do is create characters who behave as effortlessly and as counterintuitively as real people do. And write an ending that is inevitable and surprising. See what I mean about insanity? Yet, if we think about the end goal every time we sit down (actors call this “playing the obstacle”), we paralyze ourselves. So just go to the scene or the character that feels most fun and follow it/ them.
If all else fails, put it down. Go outside. Play with your boy. Catch a glass of wine with a friend. Tell that friend only an insane person would ever try to write a novel. Do all the things that make you a participatory human in the world. They are also what make you a good writer. Wait for new eyes to grow and don’t fret if it takes months.
Go easy on yourself. You’re on the right wrong track and the company is unparalleled. Hope this helps.