...there is only one thing to do with a novel and
that is go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.
It's from a 1929 letter from Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Oh, to have lived in Paris in the times of moveable feasts.
I just realized that I had the idea for the book I'm revising (again) in 2004. That's nearly six years of rewrites. There's a Portuguese word, saudade, that I fell in love with while living there. I mused and meditated and wrapped myself in the word, and found a million stories to tell. Then I went to Scotland, where I was so moved by the scenery and life that I had to write about it. But I also couldn't get Portugal, and saudade, out of my head, so I decided to find a story that would connect the two, a love story of loss and haunting, starring the two places that held the current 'myfavoriteplaceintheworld' status. That's where I first went wrong: instead of letting the story come to me, I forced the story. The first draft was pretentious, dripping with hyperbole and metaphor, filled with the arsenal of mistakes all novelists make before they know what they're doing.
The second draft happened in Shetland, amid the winds and darkness and barking of seals, and at its longest was over 120,000 words (note to Mac users: some versions of Word start deleting chunks of text once you've hit 110K. Displeased.). I cut some of it, and it was better. Though my agent kindly passed on Novel 1, she liked Saudade; it had moments of beauty and truth, and was a good start. So I pressed on with the love story, trying to make it better; instead, it flopped.
So I changed it to first person, then back again. I changed the protagonist, then changed the result. And then I shut up and listened.
Saudade isn't a love story. It's not about Scotland, and it's not about either protagonist I first created. It's a story of a mother and daughter, both in mourning and celebrating their freedom, living parallel lives but at cross purposes. It's about how the ego can isolate and mislead, and how reaching out can seem false, and how a place can shift hearts in unimaginable ways. It's about remembering responsibly, not in vain. I'm listening now, and it's a better premise, a better story, and a better interpretation of the word.
I'll be re-reading this post every time I'm frustrated with my rewrite, every time I cut a subplot or delete a darling phrase left over from version 1. I'll remember to keep listening, to be the scribe, not the inventor.