by Lesléa Newman
I have to admit, I love love love revising! Let me rephrase
that: I confess, there’s nothing I like better than writing a sentence over and
over until I get it right. What I mean is, I can spend hours changing a “the”
to an “a” and then changing it back again. See what I mean?
I can’t really say how many drafts my novel, The Reluctant Daughter went through. I started writing it by hand, as I do all my books. Then I typed the first section into my computer, and rewrote the first paragraph about seven times.
Then I moved onto the next paragraph. I think I only rewrote that paragraph
three times. Then after I had moved through the first section paragraph by
paragraph, I read the whole section and made some more changes. And this is how
it goes, for 300 pages or so. And I love every minute of it.
What kind of changes are made? Everything from broad strokes
(my protagonist Lydia whined too much, and I had to make her less annoying) to
narrow strokes (in the first sentence, I changed the phrase “fifty years” to
“half a century”). I had to add sections when I realized that readers needed
more scenes about Lydia’s childhood to understand the issues she faced as an
adult, and I had to cut sections, when I realized that Lydia and her girlfriend
were saying the same things over and over and over. Of course that’s what
happens in real life (at least in my relationship!) but fiction, as it has been
said, is life with the boring parts left out. I like to think of a manuscript
as an accordion: you can stretch it out and insert material, and you can
squeeze it together and push things out.
In addition to looking at plot and character, I had to pay
particular attention to the setting of this book. Much of The Reluctant Daughter takes place in a hospital and while I can invent family interaction and drama, I can’t make things up that would never actually happen in a medical setting.
The book centers around Lydia, a lesbian in her late forties
who has never resolved her issues with her mother. One night Lydia gets a call
that her mother is gravely ill and on life support, three-thousand miles away.
Lydia flies across the country, and in a early draft of the novel, I have her
barge into the hospital, take the elevator up to the first floor, march herself
over to the CCU and bang open the swinging doors as if she were entering a
Well of course, you can’t do that! When visiting the
Critical Care Unit of a hospital, one must be buzzed into the unit. So much for
Lydia making a grand entrance.
Later on in the book, (again in an earlier draft) when
Lydia’s mother is taken off a respirator, I had her say to Lydia in a loud,
angry voice, “What the hell are you doing here?” Well guess what? When one has
had a breathing tube down one’s throat for ten days, one cannot speak right
away. In reality, Lydia’s mother would not be able to speak at all following
the removal of the tube, and for a few days afterwards, she would only be able
to manage a whisper. These things may be obvious to some people, but they weren’t obvious to me.
Luckily, after I complete a first draft of a book, it goes through many stages before it lands in my readers’ hands. I rewrite the book on my own at least three times before I show it to anyone. First in line is my beloved spouse, who is not a writer but is a life-long reader. Plus she knows me better than anyone else on earth, so can point to a paragraph and say, “You’re being lazy here.” Or, “You’re not being honest here.” Or, “You can do better than that.” And she is always right!
Next I show the novel to my writers group. The group was
started 40 years ago (!) and I have been a member for 11 years. These 7 women,
whom I am privileged to meet with every Tuesday afternoon, are smart,
supportive, kind, honest, and wise. They take me to task and push me to make my work the best it can be.
And I often enlist the help of an expert. In this case, I
called upon a friend who is a nurse and has worked in Critical Care Units. I am
always amazed at how generous people are when it comes to helping out authors.
Julie was only too happy to read the book and comment extensively on all the
medical aspects of it. She also helped me revise (literally look again) and
make my book better.
Once I think the book is ready for the next step, I send it
to my agent, who also gives me comments. When I rewrite to her satisfaction,
she sends the book off to an editor. Once the book is accepted, my editor gives
me comments, and then after more rewriting, the book goes into copyediting (yet
more comments!). It is said that a book is never finished, it is merely
abandoned. I can ceertainly vouch for that. Left to my own devices, I would
probably still be fiddling around with The Reluctant Daughter. But one has to let go eventually. And then it’s on to the next book!