Hitting Reset Part 3
My memoir is newly out in paperback if you are interested in more stories about becoming a writer.
I’ve been working these past eight days on revising my new novel. Every day I get up and do the damn thing, taking a pen to the printouts. Right now, it’s a little over 87,000 words. When I started this phase of revision I thought I’d like to cut 4 or 5,000 words out of it. And I’ve probably gotten close to that with these edits.
But I’ve also realized there’s a whole new chapter I could probably write if I wanted to. If you could have heard the groan I made when I realized it. Like an actual noise out loud sitting in my office, second cup of coffee next to me on an old stack of galleys, my messy, overgrown garden outside the door waiting for me to tend to it once I finish my work for the day. And then me saying, “Goddammit.”
But on the other hand, just because there’s an extra storyline that shows itself to you, does it necessarily need to be written? Aren’t there infinite storylines in the universe? Couldn’t we keep writing our books forever? Can’t we just say when we’re done if we choose it? If we don’t decide it then who will? Who has the power in our fictional worlds if not the author?
Anyway. So that’s how the edits are going.
Today I wanted to wrap up this discussion on hitting reset on your novels. (Here are parts 1 and 2.) If you’re just reading this for the first time, I’ve been contemplating times in my life where I’ve had to start over with one of my books in a significant way because of rejection by an editor.
This third time is with my current editor, Helen Atsma. Helen has a delicate touch but also a direct and unwavering vision. She is a superior editor who challenges me in all the best ways. Soon, Helen and I will be working our sixth book together (if I ever finish this fucking novel) (I am going to finish this fucking novel) but today I’m going to talk about our work on our second book together and my fifth book overall, Saint Mazie.
Mazie was my first stab at writing something that was more purely historical. (We will save the discussion for when a book is considered historical or not, because every book I have written has taken place in a past of a kind, even if it feels like just yesterday.) It involved a lot of research into Jazz Age- and Depression-era New York City — distinctly of another time in which I did not live. It is also an epistolary novel, its own particular challenge. It alternates between "interviews" with modern day characters who knew Mazie and with the diary of Mazie herself.
But it took a while to find the rhythm of the book. In the first few drafts, it was mostly just comprised of diary entries, and then halfway through the book, some of these interviews showed up. In general, though, it leaned heavy on that diary. I had started writing the book because I was interested in fictionalizing this real-life person, and I was so fascinated with her that I became mired in her voice, in the idea of “finding” these diaries. And all of my first readers loved her, loved the character, the backdrop of the city, the era, the spirit of the story. But purely as a diary in those early stages? It just did not work. And that was a tough day when Helen had to tell me that, but I needed to hear it.
“You were trying something really really new,” she told me recently. In terms of structure, she said, but also because it was historical fiction. "And it takes some doing to stretch sometimes."
I went back to the text and layered more of the interviews throughout so they could provide more of a spine, be more of a guide to the reader. (I think of it as being a good “host” — inviting the reader in and helping them to find their way.) A pattern for me in my process is I don’t quite find my way to how the storytelling and structure will work until halfway through writing the book. So I often need to shift more storytelling and structure to the front of the book in a later revision. Frontload the mysteries and the suspense and the hosting of the book for the reader. And often I need someone to say to me, you haven't quite earned this ending yet.
Even just thinking about this in this moment has helped me to realize that I may need to shift a little more storytelling to the front of the book I am working on now. This is a good example of why we need to honor the times people say “no” as much as they do “yes.” Because we can build a creative history and learn from it all in the future.
I share these stories with you as much as I share them with myself.
No matter where you are in your career at any moment you can need help or guidance or a push to try something different in your work. The best thing you can do is keep your head on straight when you get feedback. Sometimes that's hard. Sometimes you want everything to be perfect and you've tried so hard. (You did! I can tell!) You've genuinely put in the effort and to hear from a trusted source that it's not quite right, it can be frustrating. But I'm telling you it can happen whenever, wherever you are in your career.
I am a good writer and I know what the fuck I'm doing but I am not perfect and I always need feedback. Always. There is always a small petulant child in me that resists it and stomps its foot for a minute or two but then I tell it to shut up. I am very much in the long haul with this career — I’m stuck, kids, this is it — and so I have surrounded myself with smart people and I have had to learn how to listen.
A skill you need as a writer: the ability to listen.
Have a gorgeous weekend.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to Comic Books Legal Defense Fund.
This was just so timely and inspiring for me. I can't tell you how much I appreciate Craft Talk. And it's so powerful for the process to be demystified, which I see means being willing to start over again and again for growth. Thank you for making these.
Hi Jami, I'm so with you on finding the right editor, it's everything. And, I loved your memoir, but somehow haven't read your novels, what do you recommend for those who love your memoir voice. S