The Making of a Novel: When It Feels Like Work

I sent 57 pages of my novel-in-progress to a friend for a critique, and last night I got back pages and pages of notes. I have some other work I have to do today -- critiquing someone else's story, getting organized for a class I'm teaching tomorrow, chipping away at the migraine memoir I'm preparing to e-publish -- but then, I will sit down somewhere quiet and face these notes. It's not going to be easy. My friend asked some tough questions -- why, and why, and why? -- and I don't know the answers.

My very first response upon seeing these notes was something along the lines of, "Ugh." The act of writing is often a thrill -- creative, spontaneous, full of hope and discovery. But the act of editing almost always feels like work. When I edit, it feels as though I'm cracking my story open. Things get messy; they fall on the floor. I have to keep track of all the little pieces. And I root around in there, and clean things up, and them try to put the story back together in a way that will come across as seamless.

Last night, my husband and I finished a long project that exactly mirrors this process. We tore the interior walls off two walls of our daughter's bedroom. They were the original plaster walls onto which someone had slapped drywall and they were susceptible to mildew and mold, so as soon as said daughter packed her bags and went off to college, we went after the wall with a lead hammer and a crowbar. It was sweaty, dusty, difficult work. Fine white powder swirled through out entire house for weeks. We were constantly chasing errant rusty nails. We hauled bag after bag of detritus out the back door -- all the while staring at this raw, open wall that looked like a wound. We cleaned it all out, installed insulation, and new drywall, and decided to mud the walls ourselves just to see if we could pull it off. For days, we've been smoothing the mud, sanding the mud and applying more mud in a search for walls as smooth as glass. Last night, we rolled on the final coat of paint -- neon orange, the color our daughter chose when she was still in middle school, and the color she insisted we keep.

We kept walking back to the bedroom to admire our handiwork. We couldn't quite believe we'd done it -- and done it well. The walls looked great. The room felt like it had a different climate -- stable and warm. And you'd have to look pretty hard to see where the seams are.

That process -- of tearing apart and putting back together -- is what I'll be doing with my book now. I have to remind myself that it's just two walls (57 pages), not a whole house (300 pages.) I have to remind myself that I know how to do this work, far better than I know how to demo a wall or hang drywall. And I have to remind myself that there's nothing more satisfying than getting to the end of a hard job.