In my first “real job” out of college, I worked as a committee staffer for a United States senator who had just been elected to his first term in public office. On my first day on the job, my hyper-caffeinated, immediate superior stood in front of me in our office space that was barely large enough to contain our desks and outlined my responsibilities.
“Here’s where we are. It’s been four months since the Boss was elected. I’m swamped. Here’s all of the constituent mail on anything related to this committee’s jurisdiction. The letters started coming in two days after the election. We haven’t answered any of it. It’s all yours. It’s very important to the Boss that the mail not get behind. He’s adamant about that; it’s your first priority. Also, we haven’t filed anything in four months. You need to set up a filing system. Also, the Boss needs a briefing book for the committee meeting in two days. Put that together for him. Also, there’s a constituent group coming in tomorrow about this issue everyone hates. You can take that meeting. Oh, and you should have your own issue area. Immigration. That’s you. There’s a bill coming up soon. S. something. Ask M___. She’ll tell you about it, and you can write a memo for the Boss. All set?”
It wasn’t like I had a choice. I lied and said I was. My boss left for a bunch of meetings and I immediately phoned one of my college friends. “I’m in over my head,” I said, practically sobbing over the thousands of pieces of paper that surrounded me, demanding attention on issues ranging from abortion to guns, from federal court procedure to bankruptcy and constitutional law. “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’ll be fired by Thursday!”
After my friend convinced me not to quit before my boss realized his mistake in hiring me, I called a counterpart I’d met who worked for another senator on the other side of the building. She came over, armed with a model letter, lists of committee procedures and suggestions for how to manage a list of tasks she assured me would never shrink for as long as I held my job.
By the end of the day, I’d drafted a response to a single constituent letter. One down, hundreds to go.
Fast-forward quite a few years, to the initial revision of my first novel.
When I began this macro-revision, I discovered a long list of problems to address: flat characters, fuzzy settings, an ending I wasn’t crazy about, too much exposition, dialogue that went on too long, an abundance of stage direction, repetitive scenes, an overbearing minor character and more. The dozens of bullet points laid out on multiple pages detailing what I didn’t like about my novel were more than I could hold in my head at once, and the idea of fixing all of them was overwhelming.
Each time I tried to face the revision, it defeated me. I’d open a chapter on my laptop, cringe and shrink away. There were too many problems per page, too much reconstruction to perform in each section. I was committed to my characters and my story, but I began to feel like perhaps the only viable solution was to burn the entire, bug-ridden manuscript and start all over again.
After several weeks of sidling by my office and attempting to pretend my manuscript couldn’t see me, I finally realized that I was assigning myself too large a task. I was trying to tear all the pieces of my manuscript apart and fix everything that was broken. But focusing on everything at once left me with nowhere to start; it was like trying to answer a thousand constituent letters on dozens of topics while simultaneously mastering the arts of briefing a senator, meeting with feisty constituent groups and putting together briefing books, all in the first week of a new job.
I needed to figure out what was most important and begin there. Everything else could wait. So I asked myself: what is the backbone of my novel?
Above all else, my book is about the relationship between the two main characters. And that became my first task. I would need to make sure that relationship was as alive and dynamic as a main character itself. Resuscitating the relationship would entail working on those two characters, and any place they appeared flat, inconsistent or artificial, I would need to fix those problems. Where a plot thread went off course and weakened the story of their relationship in the last third of the book, I would need to fix that, too.
But that minor character who needed work? The abundance of stage direction? The dialogue that needed tightening?
Each of these items was critical and would require attention. But not on this round.
Once I’d narrowed my task for my first major revision, my manuscript and I began speaking to each other again. I opened the first chapter and began to rewrite, focusing only on the two main characters and their relationship. As I worked, dialogue did tighten and some other scenes did fall away. Unless it related to the main characters, however, it was collateral improvement. And I’ll confess I did create a few new problems as I wrote.
But that’s okay. Revision isn’t a one-step process. There will be more drafts, and that’s when I’ll address the rest of the problems. A book is like a living, breathing being, and if I don’t construct a solid backbone first, there won’t be anything there to support the rest of it when I try to flesh it out later so that a reader can find its soul.
In that first job after college, my responsibilities changed a bit over time, but they never shrank, just as my colleague had predicted. I stayed in that job for two-and-a-half years and I never stopped learning. It had its frustrating moments, but it was a fantastic job.
And the revision? It’s ongoing. But focusing on the most important task for this round is helping me get the job done.
Photo courtesy deviantART’s BogieBreak