Sunday, November 29, 2009

Seeing Your Mistakes

John Steinbeck, when writing The Grapes of Wrath, knew he was onto something. He was confident how good the novel was. Sometimes. At other times he despaired about his ability to make the novel good. He wrote that if he had enough time and enough patience and enough enough he might make the novel special, he might make it really good, but he doubted himself.

Writers can’t see their own work clearly sometimes. Even the great ones. Sometimes a writer won’t see how good her work is. Other times writers can’t see where they’re failing. Sometimes writers get stuck making the same mistakes over and over because of this.

It’s okay to love what you’ve written while you’re writing. It’s one of the satisfactions of our difficult art and craft. And you need to love it to keep up the struggle. But at some point, when you’ve taken the manuscript as far as you can, you have to put it in a drawer and not go back to it until you can get past unconditional love (Maybe a month later, maybe longer. By the way, this is a good time to have others read it and give you their thoughts, too. )

When you come back to the manuscript, you have to force yourself to look at it critically and admit its failings and do your best to make them better. It’s a humiliating experience in some ways. But it’s also exhilarating because you can see that you did some things well and you did some things poorly and you have the chance to make the parts that don’t work, work better. There are two major stages to writing a novel—there’s the time where you are living the work, dreaming it onto the blank page and then reworking that dream so it is clearer and clearer. Then there’s the more analytical stage where you assess as clearly as possible what works and what doesn't work. It’s a struggle of a different kind, this later stage of revision.

Or so I think today.


Paul Greci said...

Without some distance and detachment it is difficult look at our own work objectively. Even with the distance it sometimes still is. Thanks Brian.

Brian Yansky said...

Thanks, Paul. It's a constant struggle. Different every time, too.

Laura Ruby said...

Hey Brian! Great post.

I just finished a draft of a manuscript about a month ago, and I'm waiting for it to "cool off" so to speak before I tackle a revision. And the waiting is AWFUL. I struggle not only with whipsawing feelings of love and despair when I'm working, but also with impatience. I just want everything done now, right now, now now now. It's so difficult to wait long enough to get distance I need to revise. (I just reread Stephen King's ON WRITING, and he advises waiting at least six weeks. That's so LONG).

While I'm waiting, I'm trying to get into a new manuscript. I'm hoping that I will come to love a new project so much that I will be able approach the last one with objectivity and the necessarily humility.


Brian Yansky said...

Hi Laura,

Know what you mean. I read that S. King book, too. As I remember he said something about, while waiting those six weeks, he'd just whip our a novella. The guy's a writing machine. Good to hear from you--hope all is going well.

Laura Ruby said...

I don't think I'll be whipping out any novellas, but everything's good, Brian, thanks! And I hope all's well with you...

Elisabeth Black said...

Agree. I think Stephen King said to write a short story? Cause I tried that; that's how I found out how hard short stories are.

I like your blog so much. I think I said that before.