From Blog to Book, Part 5: A Poem is Never Finished — Revising the Manuscript
“A poem is never finished,” wrote W.H. Auden. “It is simply abandoned.”
This became my mantra as I went through the process of revising Driving Hungry. I don’t remember when I was forced to admit that the manuscript would never be perfect, no matter how many times I edited it. But I did realize this sad fact at some point over four major revisions, and Auden’s words were my greatest consolation then.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I left off in Part IV of this blog-to-book chronicle having finished the first complete draft of Driving Hungry. That was August 30, 2013. Had I known then how far away I was from final delivery and acceptance of the manuscript, I don’t know if I would have had the heart to keep writing.
Draft #2: A Structural Edit
About a month after I turned in the first draft of my manuscript, my editor came back to me with his comments. Overall, he was happy. He said I’d hit it out of the park. But he wanted me to make some major structural changes: deleting certain chapters, adding more reflective exposition, making a few characters more vivid, and toning down/clarifying the story of the love affair I’d had with my tango teacher.
Traumatic as it is, a structural edit of a first draft is a normal part of the publication process. As a writer, you have to steel yourself for structural edits, staying open to ideas your editor has that might make your book better.
But while I agreed with many of my editor’s suggestions, there were quite a few I wasn’t sure about. Would they make the story flow better — or just make it more accessible? I didn’t know. And believe me when I say it is agony not to know whether or not you should follow your editor’s advice.
In the end, my agent told me I had final cut. It’s your manuscript, she said — but if you don’t agree with the editor you have to come up with a good explanation. By the time I delivered the revised manuscript, Draft #2, in March 2014, I’d spent a lot of sleepless nights agonizing over what to change and what to leave alone.
Delivery without Acceptance
I loved this version, said my editor, after reading Draft #2. It is all starting to come together. But Berlin has lost a bit of its magic. And the scene at the airport, when you take your final fare in NYC, seemed much harsher in last draft, which I think was better… He had more, and more fundamental, suggestions, too: Think of giving yourself this book at the beginning of your journey, my editor wrote. What would you want to say to that younger self?
In other words, I had to do another structural edit, which meant that we’d have to postpone the publication date a year, which meant that I was still far away from final delivery and acceptance (before final delivery and acceptance, a publisher theoretically has the right to decide not to publish your book). I was devastated.
Imagine someone telling you that you have to run a second marathon after you’ve just finished your first one. No sooner do you cross the finish line and begin to bask in your accomplishment than they break it to you that you have to run another 26.2 miles — and faster.
So that’s what I did — albeit after a week or two of sulking and fuming. But then a funny thing happened: a few days after I went back into the manuscript, I realized that, yes, as painful as it was, it did need another structural edit. Following five months of rewriting, reworking, deleting and re-inserting, I turned in Draft #3 of Driving Hungry.
Delivery and Acceptance
My editor was happy with Draft #3. He loved the changes I’d made, said the book was getting better with every draft. So much better, in fact, that Pantheon had now decided to publish it in hardcover. (Driving Hungry was initially going to come out as a Vintage trade paperback, which has the advantage of being cheaper for book buyers, and the disadvantage of not always being taken seriously by literary editors, who traditionally don’t review paperbacks.)
Going to hardcover was great news — thrilling, actually, and unexpected — but the manuscript still wasn’t ready for final delivery and acceptance. Now that I’d resolved the structural problems, I had to address the stylistic ones, going over the manuscript line by line, cleaning up the language, cutting out redundancies, fine-tuning wherever possible.
It took three months of line editing to produce Draft #4, which I turned in on October 9, 2014, two years and eleven months after I’d signed my book contract. Layne, you’ve done it! wrote my editor, twelve days later.
Final delivery and acceptance — at long last. Now I had a publication date: July 14, 2015. Now, my editor said, Driving Hungry was officially going into production. I had no idea what that meant. I was too exhausted to be excited.