Very Unphotogenic and I are continuing the talk about things that interest us. Cleary; revising a novel holds no sway, for us…at all.
JR: You and I are both in the revising stages of our novels (we’re both unpublished, full stop), and we have both expressed the near life-ending brutality of the revision process. When you first start a novel, you find that voice, like Zadie Smith says, and it usually comes down to one or another, first person, second, whatever. And you write. (The saying goes, “Everyone has a novel in them.” I disagree. Everyone has the first 50 pages of a novel in them. Writers are the ones who can finish a book.) Then you look at the first twenty pages and think it might be something, until you read it again a few days later and wonder, “Why did I think I could write?” The crushing solitude and loneliness of writing is the hardest part. You only want to give up, and it’s like an oasis on the horizon.
Revising is exactly the same way. You shape and build, (sounds so corny as I write this), and suddenly you have something. But that something is a novel. You start thinking: Is it just like every other novel that has ever been written? What makes me different? What will make me stand out? Do I have anything to say, at all? I heard an editor say, “The debut novel, or any novel, has to be so good, so amazing, otherwise it just drifts away to nothing.” So what makes our two books better than any other novels? I think it’s in the revising/editing where we will make our books the best they can be. I look at revising like self-improvement. It takes all this crazy discipline and sometimes there is no reward. Like, who is going to read this? I sweated so hard over this, and I don’t think I will ever get a response from anyone. I have actually gone through that, the no-response thing for a book I worked on, and worked on. While we’re at it, what does it take to get an agent’s attention? Or an editor’s? Does it matter anymore? Is it better to not publish? What happens when you have to write a second book? Just because you wrote it, doesn’t mean anyone is going to read it. A platform helps, but what if you have one of those and no one responds? You say keep writing, like it’s easy or something. I read James Wood’s advice on how to write fiction (great advice, hard to put into practice), or read AM Homes’ new novel and think, “Did she just write it perfectly the first time, and send it in?” Cormac McCarthy never gets edited. I hear the publisher goes from his manuscript to press without stopping. This is the part that is most damning to me… like I want to get uninspired, unwrite the book I’ve written. Control, Alt, Delete, and take up checkers.
VU: There’s that old saying: “Familiarity breeds contempt.” No one understands that concept better than a novelist. Unless you’re a super fast writer who is also capable of writing perfect second drafts, you’re going to get so sick of the story you’re writing. Worse than sick of it. It will be dead to you at one point, and engaging with it will feel like reanimating the corpse of a rotting pet.
But that’s not the only problem.
To be a novelist, you have to be two people: a writer and an editor. I think I’m a good writer, but I’m a fucking psychotic editor. The writer side of me could type away all day and have a jolly good time, but the editor is waiting in the wings, petting her lap cat-like a Bond villain. I can’t work with her, but at the same time, all I ever want is to please her. She will never be happy with every sentence of the manuscript. She’ll never be happy with every tenth sentence. She will never be happy, period. People often say that you have to ignore your inner critic, but how can I do that when I trust her more than anyone else?
In an ideal world, I suppose I would like to be published. But what I really want more than anything is to be proud of what I’ve written. I’d take that over publication any day.
JR: I ‘m no editor. Full stop. I can get you there with some writing, maybe even story, (which I’ve been accused of not knowing how to write), but after that, someone has to come in and go, “Jason, this, this, this and this, AND this have to be changed.” And I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to have people in my life – whether they were the right people or too many people – who offered advice, good or not. I think the insecurity of writing is so crushing that it’s impossible to be more than a general editor of your own work. Zadie Smith talks about how you do need to be both, but not at the same time. Again, if the novel is good, and I mean really fucking good, has style, story, tone, great dialogue, then it will find a home. But then what? I’d much rather publish to middling sales then never publish. If the inner critic tells you that this is shit, all the time, then it’s shit. But after a while, I just ask someone to read it, and say, “Am I on the right track?” And for a long time, VU, you’ve been that person. I think someone needs to read your writing after it’s done. Then take whatever advice they give you, weave it with your own thoughts, and send it out.
I can’t even start to talk about the level of pure rejection I’ve gotten over the years, bordering on being completely ignored by the industry. The miles of form letters, how an agent once left my manuscript in the produce section of Gristedes supermarket, and I got a call from the manager saying he had my novel, and what should he do with it? Once you’re published or finished with the novel, it would seem a whole new layer of difficulty starts and it’s much worse than editing. I prefer short sentences; that way, the work is cut in half, or something like that.
VU: That Gristedes incident is brutal. Wow. I don’t know what to say, except the obvious – You have to use it in a story. You must.
You’re right that editing is just the first level of hell. Getting published can be a nightmare and then you have to worry about how you’ll be received or if you’ll just be ignored. The whole process is pretty miserable, which makes me think that novel-writing is for masochists. That old stereotype of the depressed, alcoholic, volatile writer persists for a reason. Even Zadie Smith has said that she can’t read her old novels without dying inside.
I don’t want to be a tortured artist, but I’m starting to wonder if there’s honestly any other way to do it.