“Marvelous!” That’s what the editor said. She was describing my revision of Sunshine, the novel I have been immersed in—bogged down in would probably be a better description—for the last two years and more.
There will be more work to do, of course. I can often send a picture-book manuscript in clean. But with a novel of any complexity, if my editor can’t open the door to revisions each step along the way I feel abandoned. Fearful of presenting myself to the world naked.
Those final rounds of revisions, my last chance to dress my story to meet the reading public, are invaluable. It isn’t just that it takes only the smallest of slips to catch a reviewer’s eye. Far more important, small slips can leave readers dissatisfied, even if they may be less able than reviewers to name the cause of their disaffection.
And sometimes, even with a manuscript I’ve been laboring over long and long, it’s not a matter of small slips but of deep insights that evade me.
Another person’s vision can open me to the reason the story chose me in the beginning.
Ten months ago I submitted Sunshine to the editor I most wanted to work with. It was her first time to see it, and she said, “There is a lot I like about the novel, and I think it has the potential to be a very very powerful read, but it also puzzled me a bit tonally.” And so I took that puzzlement in hand and waded back in.
There is more than one reason why Sunshine has come close to defeating me. I started with a fun idea, a boy with an imaginary dog. Not a three-year-old, the age when many children have imaginary friends, but an older boy still immersed in a very solid fantasy. But having begun with that premise, I then had to answer a crucial question. Why? Why has he clung to his imaginary companion for so long? What need does the little dog fulfill?
The answer that came to me was simple, or at least it seemed so at the time. His mother abandoned him when he was three, and without being consciously aware, he has used Sunshine to fill in the hole she left. Missing mothers I understand from the child’s perspective. Though my own mother was pretty much omnipresent, I experienced another kind of abandonment as a child that I return to again and again in my stories. But having him reconnect with his mother, a woman who has not just walked away but stayed away, proved far more difficult. Because this time I had to understand, not just the child, but the mother!
Such a choice is so foreign to my own heart that I had difficulty explaining it to myself . . . except in the most black and white and therefore melodramatic terms.
In this last draft I found my way to the mother in part by making her a writer and letting the pull of the writing be a piece of what took her away. I came closer also by reducing the weight of the childhood crisis I’d used to justify her choice, allowing her to be less dramatically wounded and thus more complex.
I also started out with an angry boy and ultimately gave up the anger, however justified it might be. Instead, he is now naively hopeful, determined to remake the connection with his long-lost mother.
I made that deep change after happening upon a film in which a young teen girl was fiercely and constantly angry with her incapacitated mother. Despite my knowing that anger was the only weapon the girl had against the abandonment of her mother’s illness, by halfway through the film I could no longer bear her petulance. I turned away from the film and back to Sunshine and found another way for Ben to react.
And so, in a two-character story both characters evolved in profound ways while the story’s action remained essentially the same. Which made my journey a long one.
Once in a while, I enter a story knowing everything I need to know. I know it in both head and heart. When that happens, I move swiftly and the story almost writes itself.
Once in a while.
And then there’s the rest of the time.
I tell myself what I used to tell my students: It’s the very difficulty of the process that gives me opportunity. If it were easier to create fiction, if the process were more transparent, the rest of the world would have already produced all the market could bear.
And then where would I be?