A hard-working archivist

by Jennifer on March 19, 2008

underwood.jpgAn actual conversation with the Boy:

Boy: Do you know what this Blah Blah Bionicle character’s job is?

Me: No, what’s his job?

Boy: He’s a hard-working archivist.

I suppose archivists work just as hard as anyone, even as diligently as construction workers and receptionists, but he picked up on a soundbite that I must have missed. Maybe archivists on the island of Metru Nui work harder than other archivists. (What? You’re not tormented blessed every single day with bits of Bionicle trivia? I need hard liquor.)

Well, tonight I feel like a hard-working archivist. Or like a stuck novelist indulging a predilection for watching Ghost Hunters, while also sifting through old printed-out versions of her novel and reading editing notes from the two workshops she attended. Does digging through archives make one an archivist? I say yes.

I’m at a point in my book where I need to push through. Doubt, the writer’s curse, crept in through an open window some time back, and I started thinking maybe I’m just not a novelist. Maybe I should turn to writing something else.

But dammit, I will finish this book, is always my next thought.

What I’m doing tonight is a bit of ass-kicking. (My own.) I’m reading every comment in this stack of pages in front of me (the margins are sprinkled with hand-written workshop notes from about 30 or 40 other writers). Though I won’t necessarily employ them all, I need some perspective. I felt like it would help to go back to earlier versions to see if I’m still telling the story that excited me in the first place. Is the story still in there? Is it better now? Have I forgotten or ignored advice that I should have swallowed whole? I was lucky in both workshops to have excellent instructors (Tom Perrotta in one, and Elizabeth Searle in another.)

The editing notes from those authors are both fairy dust and grit. Here’s what is lovely and true. And here in red? It’s complete shit. (They were gentler. There are lots of ways to say this.) Writers need to hear both. The grit is what you want, because if you do what it says, your story improves.

So tonight it feels like I’m shaking grains of sand from the pages, bits of advice that come to something substantial if I smooth them into a pile and into the palm of my hand.

Turns out it’s an interesting and heartening exercise. These pages are older versions of the story, and it helps to see that I’ve made progress since then. Not enough, but it’s still progress. Some days I wish I didn’t know that Donna Tartt spent 7 or 8 years on her first novel (The Secret History) and 10 on her second (The Little Friend). It makes a handy excuse. Which I will stop using. Soon. I do not want to be one of those writers who only talks or writes about writing, without ever actually producing anything. When I think that I could turn into someone like that, it makes me think of a caught fish flopping about on the riverbank, with no nope of swimming. It’s a sad sight, indeed. I don’t want to be that fish.

So my ass is well-kicked now. 1000 words tomorrow. No less. The next day, too.

I’ve shaken the pages clean of their advice, and it’s time for my fingers to fly.


10:55 AM –305 words, and counting

11:45 AM –612 words. I’m an idiot for not doing this every day. (please keep in mind that the word count will likely decrease–and ultimately increase–once I indulge my favorite addiction…revising)

1:31 PM — 1042 words. I’m done. At the beginning of the day, I fixed a problem in my current chapter where I had removed some of the tension from the story. It’s back, and correcting the problem made it easier to go forward.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

quilly March 20, 2008 at 1:12 am

Editing your own work is the hardest part. I know, I usually edit mine to death!


Scott March 20, 2008 at 3:20 am

Well, SOMETIMES writer’s workshops are beneficial, but sometimes they just suck. Remember: YOU are the story teller. YOU know what will happen with your characters, how the plot will move along, the struggles and joys YOUR characters will experience. Workshopping can help you see gramatical errors or anywhere that the story in your head isn’t spilled well enough onto the page so that the reader fully understands (or, if you tend to over-explain, they would hopefully let you know they feel babied). And if you get stuck, have you ever tried one of those cheesy books you can get with lots of prompts for smashing writer’s block? They might help.


cce March 20, 2008 at 4:39 am

You know, I so get this. I feel like I’ve been writing and re-writing the same stuff for over a year without pushing forward. Like there’s a physical barrier between me and the next graph.
Good luck today getting 1000 words on the page. (you know that 300 choice words is actually considered top notch stuff for a day’s labor?)


Slow Panic March 20, 2008 at 5:19 am

write write write. you know i believe in you.


HRH March 20, 2008 at 5:38 am

Channel your inner writing bionicle…


Brenda March 20, 2008 at 6:18 am

Am I lucky I have no idea what you’re talking about with the Bionicle bit?

Fly, fingers, fly! Don’t doubt. Trust me. No need to doubt. Persevere. Get it done. Maybe the next thing you write won’t be a novel. Maybe it will. You are without question a talented writer. You can finish this.


Angela March 20, 2008 at 6:37 am

I agree….some feedback is useful and you attend to it. Other feedback? Not so much. And it can be overwhelming to consider all of those notes in the margins. Does that contribute to your doubt? It would mine, probably, at times. Just keep going Jennifer…feel the fear and do it anyway, right?


Rima March 20, 2008 at 8:05 am

I know just the person to show this post to 😉 Can you guess who it is?

You have a lovely way with words. And participating in a workshop led by Tom Perrotta? That’s nothing to sneeze at!


Melissa March 20, 2008 at 8:07 am

Good luck with your writing. It is such hard, hard work. The revision is the toughest bit, but your attitude is right: take from those comments what you need and dispose of the rest because at the end of they day it’s YOUR story, no one else’s.


Kelley March 20, 2008 at 9:07 am

Did you ever make sand art when you were a kid? You put glue on paper and then put colored sand on top of it to make your design. When you get all of the colors in the right places, you shake off the excess sand. You end up with a pretty picture.

Shake it, baby. 😉


Jenn @ Juggling Life March 20, 2008 at 9:08 am

I admire anyone that would follow the dream of writing a book. Keep plugging away–according to Stephen King that’s what it’s all about.


Meg March 20, 2008 at 9:23 am

Go write it sista…!


we_be_toys March 20, 2008 at 9:30 am

I get Bea to proofread and critique the big posts, because I’m never sure I’m not writing total crap, so yeah, even though I’m not writing a novel (envious sigh), I do try to write well, or as well as I can, anyway!

I got Bea and the hubby hooked on Ghost Hunters recently – we were creeping ourselves out just last night!


Lisa Milton March 20, 2008 at 9:30 am

Wow. What a workshop to attend.

(Bit envious, can you tell?)

I’m knee deep in writing my frst novel too, and some days I have the distinct urge to change gears, start something new.

But then I creep back to what I’ve started. I think it is always tough and slow.

(Tons of authors write about it on their blogs. Brings me comfort, at their expense.)

And if I have to wait another 6+ years for another The Secret History, I will wait. Loved that book.


Daryl E March 20, 2008 at 9:40 am

Funny someone else mentioned Stephen King .. he, bless his heart, churns ’em out. Regardless of how long it takes .. JUST DO IT!


Hatchet March 20, 2008 at 10:32 am

Good luck!


ByJane March 20, 2008 at 10:57 am

If you want another reader, I’m here.


liv March 20, 2008 at 11:18 am

Bionicles? Are you telling me that this is what’s next? Honestly, I hate boys toys. Except for Thomas. He was great.


Lisa March 20, 2008 at 11:45 am

I had an editor that refused to edit in red because he thought it looked scary, like blood. So he edited all in green and it looked like stupid vomit to me (the color did too lol).
Have ‘fun’!


Tootsie Farklepants March 20, 2008 at 1:46 pm

Fortunately, it’s just Lego’s in this house.

1042 words!!! Woot!!


JCK March 20, 2008 at 3:08 pm

I DEMAND that you come over right now for hard liquor. Honey, it is JackO’Clock at my blog and DO we ever have things to discuss. I ADORE “The Secret History!” One of my ALL TIME faves!

You ARE that good. Keep plugging away. You have a gift and we all recognize it. Dust off and look at the gems, discard the rust, and keep going!


Crazycath March 20, 2008 at 4:21 pm

Now THAT’s self discipline! Congrats on achieving the goal set. Keep going.

*(whispers – I’m writing too but don’t tell anyone. I stopped about 4 years ago and haven’t picked it up again. That doubt thing. Thinking of starting up again but keep it to yourself).*

Try it with the hard liquor BEFORE you write, then next time try it AFTER you write when you revise. Should be interesting….


Mrs. G. March 20, 2008 at 6:05 pm

Have you read Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life? I love this book and it is motivating. Way to meet your goal.


MamaGeek March 20, 2008 at 7:25 pm

Best of luck to you! I can’t imagine! I can barely find words to muster up a blog post. 🙂


Jamie Dawn March 20, 2008 at 9:07 pm

Keep up the hard work!! It sounds like you are undertaking a huge project with this novel and pushing yourself to finish it. Good for you!!! I wish you much success.
Thanks for stopping by my blog.


Deb March 20, 2008 at 9:48 pm

Argh, I know that editing process. I’m still avoiding the notes from my online crit group (and they were from about 7 months ago)…

But you’ve got it right: keep pushing through. Trust your story to shine though. It will. It has no choice.

And…I did not know it took Donna Tartt that long to write A Secret History! I thought the book came out right after she’d graduated from college…shows what I know.


the mama bird diaries March 20, 2008 at 9:49 pm

This is impressive. You go girl.


marlee March 21, 2008 at 8:24 am

Oh, you are DEFINITELY novelist!!

This was super helpful for me to read–I agonize over little 600 word articles and I won’t even START an essay because I get all caught up in doing it “wrong”. Thanks for posting this and giving me a little perspective! 🙂


andi March 21, 2008 at 3:10 pm

Tom Perrotta? Wow! Color me jealous.

This post really inspired me. Thanks for sitting your ass down and getting the work done – I would benefit from being so disciplined.


Suzanne March 21, 2008 at 9:23 pm

Good for you! keep pushing through, and when you get to the end, just think how proud you’ll be! You are a writer!


Landon March 22, 2008 at 9:00 pm

I am so proud of you, I can hardly stand it.


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