When a book goes feral

I’m on the third draft of a novel called LIQUID WORLD and it’s starting to take on a feral quality. This means that I have a healthy respect for it, and take some care in my approach. If I come at it from the wrong angle it could run off into the woods, or worse, it could turn into something flat and cardboard-y.

What to do?

This feral stage is full of possibility and danger. It needs balls of steel, really. It’s when some writers engage an editor, but I’m not there yet. I want to tame this beast myself. Actually, ‘tame’ is the wrong word here. I want to befriend it and let it be most fully whatever it needs to be.

1. Accept its inevitability

Writer Annie Dillard says, in A Writing Life:

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”

Some writers get to the feral stage on their first draft, but for me it seems to take at least two. The first draft, as my writer / musician friend Doug Harrison so pithily puts it, is “instructions for a novel, with examples.” The second draft is more-or-less the right scenes but in the wrong order, and with the emotional stuff missing, erratic, or sorely undeveloped. The third draft seems to be where it starts to feel like a novel (although I wrote another novel called INVENTING PARIS that took twelve drafts, partly because I wrote three drafts just to find the story and POV, then scrapped the whole thing and started the fourth draft with a blank Word document. That’s a whole nother story.)

2. Recognize the beast

The feral stage has an impact on the rest of your life. For a while lately, on email signatures my fingers are typing “All beset” instead of “All best.” I’m obsessed with the TV show Scott and Bailey. I’m carrying the manuscript back and forth to the office, knowing that only by keeping it close can I hope to make it my friend.

3. Now, really, what to do:

So what to do at the feral stage of a writing project? Mine’s a novel, but this could apply to non fiction or a story collection as well.

checklist-1266989_1280a. Pick an objective for the draft

My objective on this draft is to take out everything that doesn’t work and put the rest of it in a more interesting order, plot-wise. Then to address the emotional situation of two main POV characters, which currently are all over the map.

b. Make a plan

The plan will depend on your objective, and it should be flexible yet not allow for avoidance of the work. My plan requires distance, because that’s the only way to see what doesn’t work in a novel you’re still writing. There are a few ways to get distance:
– put the ms in a drawer for a few months (the danger here is that you’ll stop caring about it)
– get some outside opinions (swap mss with writer friends or hire an editor)
– do some distance-gaining exercises

I did the second two, because I didn’t really want to put it away for too long. I got three full manuscript critiques (from my writing group), and looked for the commonality in those. I’m also asking another writing friend to read the first half and tell me what genre he thinks the book is. This is because I have high-concept ideas and seem to render them in a low-concept way (that’s a whole nother nother story). And, I used Martha Alderson’s book Blockbuster Plots, especially the cause and effect chapter, to help me figure out scene order. This also addressed my objectives of putting the plot in a more interesting order and addressing the characters’ emotional growth.

c. Proceed with enthusiasm

This takes some nerve, this part. This is where the balls of steel come in handy. Break the task down, if you can. Do whatever it takes to keep yourself coming back to the work at hand. Right now I’m editing other people’s writing half a day and revising my own novel the other half, four days a week. On day five I do whatever is most urgent, plus the usual semi-interesting stuff that running a business requires. Since my encounter with pneumonia I’m taking weekends off, and it makes everything more fun. Not everyone has that amount of flexibility in their work lives, but if you can figure out a way to spend time with your manuscript almost daily, do it. Or at least carry a notebook and think about it. Those great ideas won’t remember themselves.

So I break the task down by working two or three chapters at a time, going back and forth between the manuscript and its scene list (aka Book Map), keeping the momentum, and (new process for me), doing a lot more reading of early chapters as I move through the book. After I work through a chapter a couple of times I’ll print it out single spaced, read it with a blue pen, see where I’m repeating or neglecting the emotional arc or other stuff, and go back to the Word doc to repair. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The bliss of mutual trust

cub-1422073_1920By the time you’ve grappled with your feral manuscript and gotten, once more, to THE END it will be a new creature, maybe one with whom there’s some mutual trust, that admires you back and appreciates you for bringing it to life.

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