As Vincent Lam points out in his guest blog, writing a novel is all about letting go. Writers must give up huge amounts of work in the process of rewriting and editing.
But in my own personal experience, and as an instructor of fiction and novel workshops, letting go of our work, and its placement, is perhaps the hardest thing to learn. As writers we become married not only to our darlings – those passages of our own writing that we love – but to where that material is placed within the project. Just as we resist the fact that we must dump much of our work in order to improve the project, we often dig in our heels and refuse to shift that material around.
My biggest task as a creative writing teacher is, first, to help my students to identify the discrete units that make up fiction, those building blocks of fiction. Then – and again this is the hard part – I help them learn to view their project as a magical jigsaw puzzle in which those building blocks can be shifted around again and again for differing effects. Can this section of exposition be lifted into scene? Can a piece of dialogue be handed to another character, perhaps of a different gender? How does that change things? Can two or more characters who serve the same purpose in the narrative (a mentor, say, or a confidant) be morphed into one? Can a descriptive passage be used over here to open a chapter, rather than back here where it’s hidden away and slows the action? And perhaps most importantly, can the more dynamic conflict of a side character be handed over to the protagonist?
Learning to loosen up and view our own work in this fashion means gaining distance from it and, again, that’s hard. A writer’s relationship to their writing is very much like romantic entanglement. While we’re involved in that first blush of writing, we’re carried away by this new love affair. We feel a heady rush of excitement and while we’re there, it’s very hard to see the flaws in our writing. But, just as in marriage, as the relationship progresses we see our writing more objectively. Little things annoy us; perhaps bigger issues leave us in despair. There are times when we want to give up the relationship altogether. But the rewards of working through the bad times and seeing a project through to the end are vast, just as they are in marriage.
Much later, during self-edits or working with an editor, it’s necessary that our relationship with the project does end, in a way, in order to gain further distance. Here’s where putting the manuscript in a drawer for several months, or handing it over to others to read is so very useful. When we pick up the work again, it’s very like seeing our ex on the street years after the relationship has ended: we know the writing, but in a new and unclouded way. We have an easier time letting go.