Narrative Surgery

I’ve not accomplished much on the novel this week.

I’m terrified because, following in the wake of the question I posed to myself earlier this week, I’ve pretty much decided to take a sledgehammer to my first draft. I’m conflicted about it. The first draft didn’t do anything wrong. I rather like it, if I’m honest. But in the intervening time between when I penned the last period of the draft and I re-read the thing from front to back over the last couple months, I’ve come to accept that while it’s not bad in its current state, there are ways in which it could be so much better.

Problem is, the draft grew the way it did without a care for the changes it might undergo later. It grew a thick protective skin, developed bones and musculature and a web of interconnected tendons and ligaments that bind the whole squalling thing together in the shape of something that surely made sense to me at the time (and still does). But now I can see more clearly that, perhaps, that arm could stand to be relocated to the other side of the body, or that the ears are stapled on a bit too high, or that what the thing as a whole really needs is a scaly, spiked tail. And making these changes to the anatomy of the poor dear is going to require smashing parts of it to pieces. It’s not a change deep enough to throw the whole thing out and start over. But I’m going to have to separate that shoulder joint. That ribcage will have to be laid bare and prised open. That pelvis is going to have to be redesigned. You know, to accommodate the tail.

So I’m standing here feeling a bit like a sculptor standing in front of a great marble statue, tasked with making changes to the very anatomy of the thing, knowing that if I strike wrong, the whole mass of stone could crumble to dust before my very eyes. Okay, a story is a little more resilient and forgiving than that, but when I start making these changes, who knows what other lumps are going to pop up under the skin in other areas of the story?

I’ve been putting off taking that first sledgehammer swing, because I know that when I do, it’s going to consume my life, much the way a busted pipe can do, what with all the leaking light fixtures and waterlogged carpets and exploded drywall. I’ll make that first edit and then the patient will start hemorrhaging ink and plot points and it’ll be triage all the way through until I can get the whole bag of bones put back together in some semblance of rightness and sewn back into its skin.

And it still won’t be perfect. It may need the sledgehammer again, or maybe I’ll be lucky and all it will need is a few flashes of the narrative scalpel.

I had gotten a bit enamored with the idea that the first edit would roll through and, once finished, I’d have in my hands something approaching a state of “finishedness”. But I guess that’s not the way of it at all. The second draft, I guess, is just that — a second draft. Another stab at the target I was aiming for when I wrote the first draft, tempered by time and contemplation, but still in all likelihood a bit wide of the mark. Still, you can’t hit home runs if you never swing, and you can’t rebuild a shattered femur without laying the leg wide open.

So I guess it’s time to start cutting.

Now, where did I leave that bone saw…