Tag Archives: rewriting

Medicine and Writing

Medicine and Writing 2

If you read books on writing, you will find various theories on the art of rewriting. Some writers suggest tackling the whole project head on. Others recommend breaking the story down into manageable pieces: Part 1, Chapter 1, Scene 1, Paragraph 1, and Sentence 1. Still others advocate a multiple step approach, from structure to syntax.

In spite of all the great advice from experienced writers, sometimes things don’t work out. You can’t organize your thoughts in an outline. You can’t structure your plot into three neat acts. You can’t delete that scene or eliminate that character without the whole story coming apart.

You get overwhelmed and lost and don’t know where to go for help.

The same thing can happen in life.

Since my daughter’s mysterious illness, we’ve consulted doctor after doctor, specialist after specialist, seeking first a diagnosis, then a cure. But in spite of all the great advice from experienced physicians, things haven’t worked out. My daughter still sleeps most of the day. She complains of constant headaches and migratory aches and pains. Her digestive system is completely out of whack.

Our family is overwhelmed and lost and doesn’t know where to go for help.

As a writer when I am stuck in a rewrite, I step away from the work. Sometimes I seek out other writers who have overcome similar challenges to see what they have done. Some writers have joined writers’ groups. Others have taken online courses. A few have hired professional editors. Still others have sent their work out to beta-readers for advice.

As a family, we’ve asked around and found others who have experienced the same mysterious illness. A teenage boy suffered for one year until he was well enough to return to school. Another teenage girl was misdiagnosed for several months before she was finally treated. Some parents have hired acupuncturists, herbalists, and even shamans.

In spite of all the advice I’ve received from others about rewriting, I have discovered only one thing remains true: I need to listen to the story.

In spite of all the advice we’ve received from others about our daughter’s health, we’ve discovered only one thing remains true: we need to listen to our daughter’s body.

In medicine and in writing, you need to know the techniques that have worked for others, but you also need to trust in your ability to decide what is best for you.

As I trust in the story, my rewriting gains momentum, building scene by scene each day. As my daughter trusts in her body, she slowly recovers, gaining a little bit of strength each day.

In an uncertain world, sometimes the answers we need are the ones we invent ourselves.

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Another Fight About Writing


Sometimes my husband and I fight about my writing career. We often don’t agree on what direction it should take or what the end result should be. This week my husband said, “You rush through rewriting. I don’t want you doing that with this novel. Sometimes it takes 100 times to get it right.”

How could I possibly be rushing? I wondered. After all, I wrote the first draft as a separate book, thinking it was done in 2005. I rewrote it again in 2008, knowing it was not. I wrote a second book in 2010 thinking the first book was a waste of time. I came back to the second book in 2013, finally realizing the first book provided necessary flashbacks that could fill out the second story, making it richer, fuller, deeper, and more meaningful.

“If you rush through it again, you’ll only end up with second rate offers,” he said. “I’m tired of you settling for second rate offers when you could take your time and do it right and get the best offer up front like the rest of your writing friends do.”

I sighed with frustration. Of course, there was a speck of truth in what he said, but I was determined to prove his theory about me wrong this time. I would take however long it took to get this novel right, even if it meant spending 10 years rewriting the same pages over and over again.

“You don’t have the patience,” my husband said. “That’s why you’re better known and most respected for your articles and essays. It doesn’t take much patience to polish 2,000 words.”

I shook my head, wondering if he was right. Did my reliance on writing short pieces stem from my lack of patience? Would I end up further ahead in my writing career if I devoted more time to writing longer works, even if it took a hundred times longer than it normally took for me to write something shorter? Would the payoff be better if I slowed down and reexamined the same scene three hundred times instead of three dozen times?

Often I’ve marveled over the breakout books that left the author in what appeared to be a draught of several years before a second book was published. Why did it take so long, especially when the author didn’t have a second job?

Ten years passed from Donna Tartt’s breakout debut, The Secret Society, and her second novel, The Little Friend. Her third book, The Goldfinch, is slated to be published this October, eleven years after The Little Friend was released.

Why did it take Tartt ten and eleven years to publish her second and third books when she doesn’t have a husband, children, or a full-time job to juggle?

“Because she took her time,” my husband said. “She’s an artist. She knows her craft. Her books are complicated. It takes a couple of years to write something good. It takes even longer to write something as complex as the story you’re trying to tell. So if you hand it to me in the next couple of months asking me to read it, I’m handing it right back to you and telling you it’s not fit to be read yet because it’s not done.”

“But what if it doesn’t take a dozen years to get right?” I asked.

My husband’s mouth formed a tight line. “I know you. You get excited when a few things come together and you get depressed when a few things fall apart. You have to stick with the story long enough so that if someone invited you to a dinner party and the guests asked what you were doing you would launch right into the crux of the story and start talking about these people as if they really did exist.”

I frowned. “No one does that. Not even the famous writers I’ve met.”

My husband chuckled. “You can’t count those writing conferences you go to as dinner parties. First, the authors who attend consider it work. They have an agenda. If they sit at your table, they’re going to talk about what they’ve been paid to talk about. They aren’t going to share what they’re working on with you.”

“But you’re saying they would.”

“In the right circumstances, yes,” my husband said. “I’ve had dinner with plenty of screenwriters who were working on projects for several years before anyone even heard of them. They knew their stories by heart and could recite lines as if they were cult fans of a movie.”

“Like the guys did with The Princess Bride?” I asked, remembering how annoying it was to watch the movie with a bunch of my husband’s twenty-year old friends who said each line just as the character’s opened their mouths.

“Yes, like that,” he said. “And you can’t do that by rewriting a novel in 20 days.”

I stormed out of the room, unable to battle against my husband’s wits any longer.

Should I set a timer to see how long it takes to rewrite this book to my satisfaction?

Or should I place out a couple of calendars instead?

Stay tuned. It might be a long journey.

Return to the Zone

A Crime Novel_Pic

I’ve been wondering what to devote my writing hours to besides the articles and essays that put food on the table. The nonfiction book proposal I’ve written and rewritten hasn’t come together in the way I had imagined. The sample chapters are nothing that any reader would appreciate. Fifty pages into the book I knew something was wrong, but I continued writing. By the time I reached 150 pages, a sagging disbelief in my ability to communicate something meaningful gnawed at my soul. I decided to not write for a while. I would lay fallow. Take a vacation. Go visit family and friends. Let my thoughts bubble up and float away like helium balloons instead of jotting them down in my notebook.

Only one week passed without writing before something miraculous happened.

On the drive through the desert, I passed the location of the beginning of my crime novel and felt a jolt of joy and enthusiasm I hadn’t felt in months. When I wrote that book I knew it was only a draft and not a very good one at that, but I had been content to hole up in my office tapping away for every moment I could steal until the story was done. My husband warned me to hurry up and finish before I became too lost in the imaginary world I created and lost my job, my children, my family, and my friends. I wrote about the entire experience in “Surviving the Zone” which is currently under consideration. If I had been at a writer’s retreat, I could have indulged my obsession and polished off the book in two weeks. But I had other responsibilities that interfered. People who didn’t know what I was working on commented that I seemed distracted. Of course, I was. I was living in two worlds, not sure which one would pull me under and claim me first.

Passing the scene of the crime reawakened me. Why am I writing a nonfiction book? I asked. I’m a novelist. I should be writing novels.

That’s when I decided to return to the crime novel that held me captive for so long. If it possessed that type of power for me as a writer, what type of power would it possess for a reader? How selfish I had been to shelf the draft and never look at it again. No matter how disappointed I was with the imperfections, everything could be fixed. Fact-checking, plot structure, and characterizations should not be an excuse to deny the heart of the story, which pulsed with as much life as an actual event I had lived through and needed to share.

All of my fears melted as soon as I returned home and unburied the manuscript from underneath my desk and started reading. The chapters flew by effortlessly. It didn’t read like something I had written. It read like a good book I could not put down.

So this is how I will be spending my summer: returning to the zone.

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