I’ve been working on this novel for two and a half years, and I’m just now revising the first draft. For the first time, I printed out the whole thing — more than 200 pages in standard paperback size — and I’m seeing on paper what I’ve seen on screen daily since June of 2010.
Wow, it needs work. I’ve edited it and re-edited it. I’ve had friends read it and incorporated their suggestions. I thought I was getting close. Maybe not.
I’m looking at a page I’ve been marking up, a page that was among the very first I ever wrote. I’ve gone over these passages literally dozens of times. The printout now carries more red ink than toner.
I had — still have to some extent — the sense that writing a novel is like making pop-corn: there’s a long slow beginning to the task, then pop, pop-pop-pop, the good pages, the changes, come fast, and then begin to tail off. When the rate of new pops falls below some cutoff, you have to take the pot off the fire, lest you burn it.
It’s been popping steadily now for months. I open the manuscript at random, find missing or superfluous sentences, words that should be changed, phrases that should be swapped, significant improvements. It’s just not slowing.
One possibility is that the manuscript really is getting better and better. Every change might be an improvement and at some point, the pop-pop-pop will finally tail off, and I’ll have what I always wanted, the Great American Novel.
As Jules Winnfield would say, “I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth.” Well, maybe it is the truth, but other possibilities sound at least as plausible.
There’s an aural paradox called the Shepard Scale, “a tone that continually ascends or descends in pitch, yet which ultimately seems to get no higher or lower.” I’m constantly improving the text, but I fear the text doesn’t get any better. It feels like it does, but maybe I’m deceiving myself. Maybe I’m just a literary Sisyphus who hasn’t noticed his rock keeps slipping.
Here’s an example from early in the ms:
The pineapple fields were cruelly hot and teeming with stinging insects.
I’ve re-cast that sentence a half-dozen time, and today I spotted a new issue: “teeming”. The internal rhyme with “stinging” over-emphasizes the clause. People believe rhymes (“If it doesn’t fit / you must acquit.” “i before e / except after c.”), writers know this, and people know that writers know this, so when they hear the rhyme, they think I’m trying to convince them, that I’m stressing the point. Also, there are present participles in the previous few sentences and they’re starting to sound overused. So I might change the line to
The pineapple fields were cruelly hot and teemed with stinging insects.
Which sounds better, but now I’m thinking “cruelly hot” is a cliché…
And so on. This is eleven words in a book of 60,000 words. Sisyphus had it easy.
The final sentence:
The pineapple fields were cruelly hot, and they teemed with stinging insects.