How Many Licks Does it Take to Get to the Center of This Story?

One of the most humbling experiences you can have as a writer is the realization that your manuscript will take many, many drafts before it is a novel. Confession: it took me a while to come to terms with this. I convinced myself I was some kind of special, rare breed who could get it right in one shot, save for a few line edits here and there. After roughly four, five rounds of drafts on my young adult novel In The Land of Girls, I’m back at it again working through another rewrite.

Two pieces of advice for writers at the start of this novel-writing journey: trust your instincts and don’t ignore your story’s problems just because they require hard work . Since the first draft of ITLOG, I could tell that the end worked better than the beginning. The manuscript has always felt off-balance to me, with the end seeming more carefully taken care of than the beginning. The beginning is the section I’ve returned to in rewrites the most, whether it be changing the sequence of events, shortening the amount of time that passes in the first few chapters, or adding new scenes. If I pulled every version of the first sixty pages of this manuscript, it would look like a puzzle I’ve arranged a half dozen times until all the pieces fit just right.

From the start, I felt that pull in my gut, heard the voice in the back of my head saying, “Something’s not right here.” But I’ve brushed it aside and focused on the second half, which contains my two favorites scenes, and continued to polish what was already working. It’s easier to tweak a sentence here and there than to change, maim, and kill your darlings.The end is the climax, the culmination of all the events, and, because it’s a noir, the reveal of the big twist. The beginning is the foundation laying and the build up. It’s not hard to choose which you would rather work on, but you can’t have one without the other.

Perhaps the hardest part about the editing and rewrite stages is their repetitive nature. When writing, everything is new. We create, we move forward, and occasionally we surprise ourselves with revelations not even we saw coming. These are the moments in which writers feel renewed and full of energy. These are the moments we intertwine with the muse, moments when we reach a spiritual level and enter a trance-like state and feel like a vessel carrying the story into fruition.

Rewriting makes you feel like shit.

Yesterday, my friend and writing partner Mary, faced the freezing NYC temperatures to venture to my favorite vegan doughnut shop. It took delicious treats to force me to sit down and edit my YA manuscript (photo and tastiness documentation by Mary).
Yesterday, my friend and writing partner Mary and I, faced the freezing NYC temperatures to venture to my favorite vegan doughnut shop. It took delicious treats to force me to sit down and edit my YA manuscript (photo and tastiness documentation by Mary).

I frequently look to Maria Popova for wisdom (and inspiration to read more). In her most recent from Brain Pickings, she discusses the difference between ritual and routine:

“As someone equally fascinated by the daily routines of artists and with their curious creative rituals, and as a practitioner of both in my own life, I frequently contemplate the difference between the routine and ritual, these two supreme deities of habit. They seem to be different sides of the same coin – while routine aims to make the chaos of everyday life more containable and controllable, ritual aims to imbue the mundane with an element of the magical. The structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalizes us. A full life calls for both – too much control, and we become mummified; too little excitement and pleasurable discombobulation, and we become numb.”

Ritual and routine. Writing and rewriting. The wanted and the needed. Both are necessary steps in the writing process, even if one feels like fun and the other like work. Before a stone’s rough edges can become smoothed and polished, it must first endure the rain.

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