Courting the Neglected Manuscript Or: How the Hell do I Re-enter my Novel?

I don’t think I’m the only writer who finds life interfering with art from time to time, or—often. Whether I simply allow it or embrace distraction, I’m not sure.  But I jilt my manuscript repeatedly, sometimes for a weekend, sometimes for months. (P.S. the only time this didn’t happen was when I was in Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program and there was no escape possible.)

It’s brutal to return.

We’re advised to touch our manuscript in some way every day, but honestly, if a novel is worth writing, it’s not as if it isn’t living somewhere in us at all times. I don’t think we’re ever not writing. Still, sometimes an absence or vacation from our work leaves us unable to get back in, as if an ex-lover slammed the door and now we’ve got to go back to the flowers and the chocolate.

I love this idea of courting, and I know there’s something about being kind and gentle to ourselves so we don’t scare the part of us that’s likely to balk. I have an image of a handful of crumbs and a daily ritual in front of a bird cage…

Because it can be scary to return to the scene of the crime.  All that expectation, all the amazing ideas—only partially on the page, so it’s not yet a failed attempt at articulating the dream that birthed the book in the first place.

My new novel is difficult because I am writing it in a nonlinear fashion and it is ambitious as all hell.  I’m a pantser, to boot. I have a sense of where I’m headed, but no idea how I’m going to get there.

I’m writing this article because if I don’t do something drastic, I’ll never get back to my book.  I probably think I can get there by humiliating myself in public, some kind of reverse psychology.  On the other hand, perhaps writing this article is my clever technique for NEVER getting back to the manuscript.  I’ll just go off on some kind of long-winded adventure concerned with the Aboutness of the book, and never have to bother touching the book itself.

But writing About never solved anything for me.  It’s back to that stupid, stupid trope about applying body to chair, pen to paper.  But I don’t wanna.  (I’d rather throw a tantrum.)

I have read through all the miscellaneous chapters already written, as usual wandering off into the twilight world of editing and tweaking.  I have re-read the miles of notes I’ve made each time I’ve tried to re-enter—notes About the book, with numerous ideas and solutions and questions. I’ve also shuffled through my index cards with MORE IDEAS on them.  At that point I’m usually too overwhelmed to continue, run screaming from the room, go clean out my closet, crawl under the covers.  Sound familiar?  Always glad when dinnertime rolls around.

It’s some kind of page allergy.  Or not-this-particular-novel syndrome.  I know how to do this, but there’s this huge forcefield keeping me from it—maybe even the sheer volume of pages I’ve written with ideas I think I need to memorize so that I don’t miss even one brilliant aha as I work.

I mean, I could.  I could just sit down and force out some words till the tap turns freely.  I know this works.  But—

All the problems I couldn’t solve before will still be there, looming, with the many unknowns still unknown.

I decide to get practical and make a new kind of list. (I’m a big list-maker, though once the list is made I never look at it again–just more paper to drive me insane.)  Ideas to try once I finish this piece:

Retype the most recent paragraph and keep going from there.

Retype a whole chapter till I’m back in the voice.

Write a chapter that takes or might take place later in the book and use it as a magnet to attract the in-between chapters.

Write what wants to be written and see where it takes me, regardless of apparent relevance.

Read what I’ve got out loud.

Share it with friends so I can be reminded how good it is.

Complain to fellow Grub Street Novel Incubator alumni…

Or—accept that somehow my timing is perfect, and when I return, I’ll return.  I always do.

3 comments

  1. Deborah Good

    ” Sound familiar?” OMG. So familiar. Especially the index cards and the gap, between the brilliance in my head and the meh pages I turn out. And yet, I return to it. Moth to flame? Lemming over the cliff? I don’t know but I do it anyway.

  2. Alexandra Walker

    How comforting that I should google randomly in a moment of despair and find someone has written about an identical problem on this very day. The long notes, endless lists, distracting other ideas etc. So I’m not alone. Phew. Thanks. I knew it all along’; only grim determination will get me there.

  3. I have a whole new excuse not listed here. I have taken up the guitar and it consumes me. Practice is essential, time-consuming and gives me a virtuous glow. Novel? Shmovel.

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