On 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.