Different Effort

Good morning, dear ones. Welcome to the regular Friday post, written on a new MacBook Pro that is, no doubt, smarter than I am. (But I’m learning. If I can figure out how to jump to the top and end of a MSWord for Mac document on a keyboard that has no “home” or “end” key, I think I’ll be all set.) A new laptop always makes my brain hurt during the transition period, and I don’t think i was particularly smart to switch over to a whole new operating system as well while I am struggling with a couple hairy deadlines. Ah, well. It will force the neurons to make more connections, always a good thing.

I’m reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running right now. I am nowhere near Murakami in terms of talent or in terms of running stamina–he does a marathon every year, I guess–but it’s interesting to read and see how I feel about running and writing echoed or in some cases, disagreed with. I’m not quite sure I agree with him about talent being the major prerequisite for being a novelist, but then, I’m a hack. I don’t feel like I have much talent. I feel like I’ve worked so hard for so long that certain things have become easier.

But that is (as I often say) another blog post. One of the things Murakami noted that resonated with me was the fact that writing is a grueling physical job. It may not look like it, since there is a lot of sitting at a laptop involved, but writing is a whole-body act, and the brute typing of 60-100K words (strenuous in and of itself) is not the whole story. I’ve written before about the state of focused wonder; that takes physical energy too.

I have never openly admitted this before, but writing action scenes often tires me out as much as the characters I put through hell. I often–almost invariably–develop body aches and actual bruises in spots where a main character has been injured. My jury is out on whether it’s psychosomatic, a reflection of the tension and identification I feel with my characters (though I am categorically NOT my characters, thank you) or just plain crazy.

I am comfortable not knowing.

But that’s not really what I wanted to write about. Today I wanted to make the point that there are different kinds of effort involved in the writing/revision/publication process.

Reader Amanda asked last week:

I am making it through the editing, I am even up to handling the rejection-go-round. What I AM having difficulty with is after printing off my manuscript and editing it, putting the edits back into my computer.

My brain just doesn’t seem to… well. Handle it. After looking at the page and looking back at the screen and typing in stuff bit by bit for an hour I’m spent. My brain does not compute the tedious process. Any tips on how to handle that or make it easier? I don’t have a scanner or anything, and of course there’s no one else but moi to do this grunt work.

Am I just being a super-wimp or what?

You’re not a super-wimp. Editing and revising, particularly of your own work, uses a totally different set of mental and emotional (I would be willing to add physical, too) “muscles”. This is part of why I advocate a cooling-off period after finishing the zero draft and going in to make it into a reasonable first draft. The act of creation, of pulling something out of nothing, is very much like digging a well. the act of editing is like trimming trees, and the act of revision is like self-surgery. They are completely different, and they require different emotional fuel AND different ways of tricking yourself into the work.

A lot of new or novice writers make the mistake of thinking that since they’ve horked up a reasonably finished manuscript, the revision should be no problem. This is so, so wrong, and it’s one of the things I try to tell my writing students. You absolutely must treat revision as a different animal and do what it takes to acquire just a bit of emotional distance from the work you’re going to be cutting up and trying to prettify.

Here’s what I do: first of all, I schedule in time to let a book or short story sit. A short can take a day or two, a book needs a week at least. I ask for and make sure I get this time, I do what’s necessary to pad my schedule around it. That gives me time to stop looking at the piece like a new baby.

The second critical thing is this: I change the formatting.

I write in print layout in Word, single-space–somehow the idea that there are sheets of paper there helps me. When I go back to revise a work I put in page numbers, the provisional title and my last name in the header, and I double-space it as if I’m going to submit it.

For some reason, just those few little changes in the way the document looks helps me shift over into considering the book as a finished piece that needs work instead of a baby I’ve just given birth to and now need to cuddle. I have even occasionally printed out a troublesome book and gone through it with pencil and red pen and Post-Its, making notes and changes that I then feed one by one into the electronic document. After a few of those, my brain caught the idea that double-space meant we were in surgery instead of creation mode.

It’s much easier for me to edit other people’s work than my own. (Gee, what a surprise.) But a few sessions of editing exhaust me more than daily wordcount, mostly because it’s more like clearing hurdles or doing schoolwork than writing. All my critical faculties are brought to bear on the piece in question, without fear or favor, and it uses my brain very differently. The thing that helps me when I’m doing a lot of editing, believe it or not, is trashy movies. I watch a LOT of B-movies if I’m doing edit work; any film or book that requires effort instead of just-plain-watching just doesn’t happen. The movies are to let the flywheel in my brain slow down, I guess.

So, Amanda, this is normal. Try figuring out what you need in order to replace the type of mental energy you’re spending. The good news is, once you find out, you’ll be able to revise a lot more easily. The bad news? It will require just as much, or more, energy than the outright writing of the piece itself.

But then, if this was simple, we wouldn’t like it so much, would we.

Over and out.

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