After the Ecstasy of the Writers Conference Comes the Difficulty of Doing the Work

angry-writerOn Sunday, I came home from the AWP Writers Conference, full of inspiration and ideas and lots and lots of insights on how to fix my old memoir manuscript, Moonchild, which has languished, untouched, for about six years.

I wanted to get right to work, and I knew part of the job would be to integrate the oldest version I had with the most recent. The oldest had all the raw material that I mostly wrote by hand from 2003 to 2005. I transcribed in onto the computer and when that task was daunting, hired someone to help with the transcription. The newest version, from sometime in 2008 had been through years of editing and was more polished and tightly written. I printed out the first chapter of each and started to read.

I got about three pages into one version, if that, and I realized, holy shit, this is going to be a nightmare to deal with. No wonder I haven’t looked at this mess in six years!

One of my insights from AWP was that I wanted to convert my manuscript into past tense. I was, and am, really clear on that. Present tense may have helped me write it–and there may be a scene or two that I keep in present tense for impact but that’s another matter–but I feel the manuscript, the story would be served best by past tense. Putting it in past would allow me to interject some more of the older, present-day narrator and voice into the work. It makes sense that that wasn’t there so much before because I wrote it not that long after the time period I was writing about. But now it’s over a decade since the events in the book, and I want the older narrator in there.

But holy shit, how tedious it is to convert tenses! The best tool I’ve found so far is an app called Tense Tool for Writers. It lets you load the document and go through, verb by verb and tap the ones you want to change. This is helpful because it lets you pick and choose, so the narrative can be switched into past tense, whereas other parts, like dialogue, can remain as is. It’s still reeeeeally tedious.  I definitely need to break it into smaller chunks because it’s just a lot.

Another issue is that both the old draft and the newer draft are both huge shitstorm messes in their own ways.

The Old Draft

This one has the raw material, the original voice. I find things in this draft that I feel are missing in the later, more tightly-written drafts. This one has the soul. There’s material here I really want to bring into the current draft. I think the newer draft suffers for having so much of this version hacked out of it.

But, it’s not well-written. The sentences are overly complex in a lot of places, loosey-goosey feeling. Imprecise in some places, flowery in others. A lot of the overly long sentences feel like garbling to me, and sound like someone talking with marbles in her mouth. Some of the thinking is just too muddy and convoluted and unsure of itself.

And there’s plenty missing in the old draft. As the first draft, I was a little shy in some ways in writing it, skirting around some of the darkness, the issues. The old draft includes some of the more simple and superficial interactions and less of the depth. And I really shied away from talking about albinism, blindness, what it was like to look different. And there’s less perspective in this draft compared to the later one.

The Later Draft

This one is tighter. It has more albinism, more blindness, more what it was like to look different, more of the darkness and depth. But I’m not sure it has much soul. A lot of the magic is gone from this draft. It’s too dry. It’s missing a strong voice, personality, and it isn’t as interesting to read.

There are sections of this later draft that sound more like the earlier one, but then there’s a sentence or two that’s purely new, and these sentences, though they may add something, feel intruding. The funny thing is, I was reading the newer version first, and even after so much time, and before looking at the old draft, I could sense that feeling of intrusion.

So it’s kind of a mess. I don’t know which to build off of. I may try merging them in Word so I have one document to work from, but I have a feeling that could be an even bigger clusterfuck.

It’s just a more daunting task than I realized. The manuscript really is a mess, and it’s going to take a lot of work, some of it mind-numbing and tedious, to make any progress.

I also want to make sure not to be overly cerebral in this initial process of working through these two messy manuscripts. That’s my tendency, to think, strategize, critique, analyze, think through with logic and reason, but at least for this first go-through of the work, I want to make sure that the artist side is represented and gets a major say in the process.

I think part of what I need to do is some freewriting, about what I want the book as a whole to be about, and also about what I want from each chapter. That could all just add another layer to factor in.

So, writers, have you been through this before? What did you do? How do you keep the passion to revise your work, marry two different version s of a manuscript, change tenses, without getting totally derailed by the enormity of the task?

Tell me it’s worth it. Please. And that it’s not impossible.

~EJ

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8 thoughts on “After the Ecstasy of the Writers Conference Comes the Difficulty of Doing the Work

  1. I’ve got the printout of an old manuscript — amounting to eleven chapters — I wrote on a Brother word processor before I discovered the Internet. I really hate the idea of the thing just gathering dust, but the thought of rekeying it just overwhelms me.

    • I completely understand that feeling of overwhelm.

      But, I actually think there may be some fairly simple solutions to your situation that won’t require rekeying. One is that you could scan it in. I had to do that with an old story of mine (Dark As Roses) a few times in my early-/mid-twenties because I didn’t have a home computer at the time. It was a pretty painless way to get a typed printout of a manuscript onto a computer.

      Another idea would be to read it to your computer. A lot of comps have dictation options. Hell, my phone even has that and it could go right into a word processing program. You may need to go back and fix punctuation and such, and some errors that the software comes up with, but it’s better than re-typing the whole thing. And I think there are some better quality dictation programs you could buy if the one on your comp isn’t great. I’m thinking of doing this because I have a lot of material that is hand-written and needs to be transcribed onto the computer.

      And when I mentioned in the post that I had hired someone to help transcribe it…that was kind of a disaster. I should have been way more choosy and asked for some samples before hiring. I can STILL tell, even eight years later, what parts were typed up by the hired girl in the old draft. She wasn’t terrible, but unreliable and a little sloppy. But if the other options sound too annoying, you could hire someone to transcribe it for you. At least it’s already typed, which should make it pretty doable.

      Anyway, if you don’t like the idea of letting it languish, get it on the comp, one way or another.

      ~EJ

        • It would. And I think scanners are a lot better than they used to be. I know whenever I have to scan stuff in now, usually for school, it comes out way better than when I was trying to scan in my story ten years ago. I think a lot of scanners will make PDFs and I think there is a way to change a PDF into a Word document. That would probably be the best way to go. Eleven chapters is a lot, and if you don’t have to lose it, scanning’s worth a try.

          ~EJ

  2. Good luck. Sometimes it’s great to just start fresh, keeping the old draft in case you want to pull from it, but with so many years of work, you know where to go with the narrative now. Do you outline? A quick outline of chapters/story arcs could guide you into forming the newest draft whether you start fresh or combine the two old drafts.

    • I thought of that, but the truth is that starting over from the beginning is the absolute last thing I want to do. If that’s the task, I’m not sure I’m willing to do it. It’s just too much. I already put years and years into this manuscript, I just can’t start over from scratch. I do have a feeling the next version that emerges may be so different that it will feel like a totally new book, and I’m okay with that. I’m okay with taking out a lot of the old stuff, and with writing a lot of new stuff for it, but the idea of actually starting over just seems too burdensome, like I’d rather just walk away, and I don’t want to walk away.

      Plus, I have this thing where a lot of times, once I write about something, I forget it. The same thing happens with dreams. So a lot of the stuff that happened during that time frame, I don’t remember all that well. So starting from scratch, I just couldn’t do it. The nice thing is, now that I have the drafts, once I start going through them, they’ll spark my memory and get it all flowing.

      As much a mess as it is, I’d much rather mold what I have than completely start over.

      ~EJ

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