Guest Post, Eileen Cunniffe: Revision, Like Launching a Marble Boat

Lately I find myself less intimidated by the blank page (screen), and more by the thought of revising something I’ve already written. Not something in the early stages—usually when I’ve got a new project underway, I can’t wait to get back to it. The revisions I dread—or at least postpone far longer than I should—are on work I’ve already sent out into the world, one way or another. Writing I’ve workshopped at a conference, with feedback that now must be weighed. Writing I’ve submitted to literary journals that has been rejected often enough—even if some rejections have been encouraging—that I know I must reopen the file, reread my own work and wrestle with my pages.

Of course the ease with which we make revisions these days—and here I am talking about the mechanical ease of editing a document through the magic of word-processing software, not the mental work that goes into rewriting—is something most of us take for granted. But it hasn’t always been that way. I used a manual typewriter—and gallons of whiteout—in high school. I pecked my way through college papers on an electric typewriter, which fortunately had a ribbon of corrective tape, because I’ve always been a lousy typist. My first job after college was as a medical writer in a teaching hospital, where I worked with staff physicians and visiting fellows and residents to polish their research papers, book chapters and presentations. We were lucky enough to have in our office one of the three word-processing machines in the hospital; it was about the size of a Mini Cooper, and only two people in our four-person department were even allowed to touch it. I wasn’t one of them—my job was to write on or mark up paper, sometimes to literally cut and paste (with scissors and tape), then turn the pages over to one of the girls whose job it was to type or revise documents. In the 1980s, this was cutting-edge technology. Our machine was a Vydec, and he (we four women all agreed the big lug was a “he”) was both a technological wonder and a highly temperamental co-worker. At least once a week, Vydec acted up and we had to call in a technician. Still, we cranked out a lot of medical papers on that old machine, and the doctors were not at all shy about asking for one more set of revisions before we sent their pages out into the world. They took to word processing like ducks to water.

With one exception—Tiger John, a surgeon from China who spent about three years with us as an international fellow. He was one of the first physicians permitted to leave China after the Cultural Revolution, and he was in the U.S. to learn about Western medicine so he could bring new knowledge back home. He couldn’t practice here, but he could watch surgeries, observe clinics, attend conferences. And since everyone around him was writing papers, he thought he’d try that, too.

Silk PictureEveryone loved Tiger, who was nothing like his name. He was gentle and polite. And he was constantly offering us small gifts from China. I’ve kept one of Tiger’s gifts for nearly 35 years, because in itself it is a treasure, but also because it holds a riddle it took me forever to solve. It’s a small rectangle of silk, printed with the image of a large marble boat. Tiger explained it was a real boat, made of marble, from a long time ago. But with his limited English (and my nonexistent Mandarin), he couldn’t make me understand how a marble boat could float. It was a marvel, for sure. But our conversation about it ended as many of our conversations did—with me nodding my head, him bowing, and both of us grinning, pretending we’d managed to communicate more than we actually had.

Lately, I’ve been feeling like making myself sit down to start a revision is like trying to make a marble boat float: impossible. The longer I wait, the more I convince myself I’ll be disappointed with my writing—and, because mostly I write personal essays—with my life.

Revision always reminds me of Tiger John—although not in the best way. Tiger took to word processing like a marble boat takes to water. He used a manual typewriter, and when he was satisfied with a draft, he would bring it to me, as if it were another of his gifts. His typing was worse than mine, and with little English at his command, his manuscripts were incomprehensible. I’d read through his pages, making edits and scribbling questions in the margins, drawing arrows to indicate which paragraphs might be moved where. We’d discuss—as best we could—what I had understood and what he had intended. Then I’d mark up the pages some more, and turn them over to one of my colleagues, who would sit down with Vydec and produce an almost-readable manuscript. Which I would proof, she would re-revise, and together we would present to Tiger—as if it were our gift to him.

Tiger, it seemed, had as much trouble grasping the concept of a word processor as I had with the concept of a marble boat. He just couldn’t make it float in his head. And so every time we gave him a neat new manuscript to review—and even after we’d let him stand near Vydec and watch as words were typed and came up on the screen and as pages with those very words were spit out of the printer—he’d go all the way back to the drawing board and spend days mistyping his next revision. Which he would deliver to me, smiling broadly. And we’d start all over again. If any of those papers ever got published, it was after he returned to China, and probably in his own language.

I’ve kept the little piece of silk with the marble boat—in a plain white ceramic frame—near at hand for all the years since I knew Tiger John. It’s a reminder of people I met in that hospital half a lifetime ago, people from across the country and around the globe. It’s also been a reminder that what seems impossible often can be done—I mean, if ancient Chinese engineers could figure out how to make a marble boat float, anything is possible, right?

Except that’s not exactly what happened. Not long ago while cleaning up my home office (a highly effective tactic for avoiding the work of revision), I dusted the frame around my silk marble boat and thought to myself, I should Google that. And I did, and discovered that while there is indeed such a structure on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Beijing, originally built in 1755, it is a lakeside pavilion shaped like a boat, not a vessel that was ever meant to float. The Marble Boat is sometimes called the Boat of Purity and Ease, which is what one can only aspire to when it comes to writing—and revision.

So lately, I’ve been thinking about the marble boat in a whole new way. I’ve been using it as a reminder that Tiger John made revision so much harder than it had to be. Like I do, but in a different way. Because when I do finally get around to rereading myself, I almost always find some things to like about what I’ve written, even when I also see ways it could be improved. And so I sit with my pages and start marking them up, and eventually I head for my computer, open the file, and begin revising in earnest. Perhaps not with purity and ease, but with every intention of making the work better, making it sing, maybe even making it sail.

Guest Blog Post, T. A. Noonan: 3 = 2,964

T.A. NoonanI’m a big fan of constrained writing—the trickier, the better—because it forces me to confront certain limitations and learn to either deal with or break through them. There’s pleasure in that, I think, that goes beyond self-congratulation. Sure, I’ll do a fist pump, but once I get past the initial satisfaction, a question arises: is what I’ve written any good? That’s when the fun begins.

There’s a saying in the NaNoWriMo community: Don’t treat your November novel like a book. Completing a novel is an achievement in and of itself, and the time constraint makes it doubly so. Still, one should not expect the product of a single month’s worth of steady writing to be ready for publication. Said manuscript is, at best, a first draft. The real work starts on December 1st.

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, but in 2005, I entered the International 3-Day Novel Contest. Here’s a brief summary of how it works: participants write a novel over Labor Day weekend and submit it to the judges, who then select a winner to publish. Think of it as NaNoWriMo on amphetamines.

Why did I do this? There were practical motivations; I was working on a book that was going nowhere and thought a new project composed under pressure might shove me out of my rut. You’ve probably already guessed the major reason why, though. I did it to see if I could. And I did. The end result was more like a novelette than a novel, but I was proud of myself and felt like I had written a winner.

I didn’t. The note that the judges sent months later was very kind, but I wasn’t even a finalist.

By the time I received that note, however, I’d reread what I’d written and recalled this tidbit from the contest’s FAQ: “No writer of sound mind wants an unedited piece of work to go to print and haunt him or her for all time.” They’re right, just like those NaNoWriMo advice-givers are. No matter what, I would have had to revise. The manuscript had good moments, but as a whole, it was a hot mess.

So, I let others read it and collected feedback. I spent months rewriting chapters, fleshing out characters, and adding details. Even with all that work, though, it still wasn’t done. A little over a year later, I abandoned the project. Once in a while, I’d reopen the file and make changes, but for the most part, it just languished on my hard drive.

Strictly speaking, time-based writing projects like the 3-Day Novel Contest, NaNoWriMo, NaPoWriMo, and the now-defunct Script Frenzy, are not constrained writing. There are no requirements for or limitations on content, form, or style. Most writers know, however, that time is itself a constraint because so many things compete for our attention. It’s one thing for writers to set up a writing regimen; it’s another thing entirely for them to actually follow through.

That’s not to say that there aren’t those who keep regular writing schedules and use their time wisely, but if the popularity of time-based writing projects is any indication, there are a lot of writers who don’t. I think such endeavors “work” because they force us to write with equal parts consistency and irregularity, consideration and recklessness.

One hopes that successful completion of a time-based project will translate into something more profound than a fist pump. Many, of course, hope for publication, but there are other victories to be had: developing a routine, learning to push past writer’s block, and building a community of fellow writers. I didn’t do any of that.

I think that’s why my novel manuscript was such a disappointment. I’d succeeded in conforming to a set of rules, but I’d failed in learning anything from them. Instead, I spent several years priding myself in my ability to rise above any writing challenge, largely because I’d written a novel in three days. After all, what else could be more difficult?

The funny thing is, the more constrained writing I did, the more I understood the trick to it. I had to consider form and function, process and result—what kind of text the rules would produce and what objectives such a text could fulfill. Following the rules of a sonnet will indeed generate a sonnet, but that’s no guarantee of the poem’s quality or its suitability to the form. The same is true of any text, really.

About two years ago, I finally dusted off that manuscript. I spent a long time working on it—an hour here, an afternoon there. It was probably the most regular writing I’d ever done outside of a time-based project. I thought about what I wanted to accomplish. I was focused.

This past October, that manuscript was published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Publishing.

Date started: September 3, 2005

Original draft completed: September 5, 2005

Time of completion: 3 days

Length: ~16,000 words

Words per day: ~5,333

Date of publication: October 14, 2013

Final book length: ~25,000 words

Number of revisions (excluding copyediting): 10

Total time of completion: 2,964 days

Words per day: ~8

The above statistics might suggest that I think time-based and constrained writing projects are silly. Nothing could be further from the truth. But sometimes, you hit a wall. The end words to your sestina don’t work. Your flash fictions run a couple hundred words too long. You don’t meet your daily NaNoWriMo goal.

It happens. Learn. Move forward. Keep your objectives in sight. If you hit lots of walls, reevaluate. Find what’s working and what isn’t. Consider your purpose. Don’t be afraid to try something different. If you succeed, congratulate yourself; you’ve earned it. But, in the immortal words of Han Solo, “Don’t get cocky, kid.” Be critical. Be reflective.

Remember, every day is December 1st. The easy part is following the rules. The hard part is turning what you’ve written into something greater than the sum of those rules.


T.A. Noonan’s latest book is four sparks fall: a novella; she promises that the published version is much better than the one she completed on September 5, 2005. Her current project is a procedural translation/reformulation of Horace’s Epodes.

Project Manager Please!

Writing is a passion. It is a siren’s call to get the story out, to create something that is timeless, that speaks to the very souls of readers. It is also messy.

Messy because, though writers are a creative bunch, they are not always very organized. If you could see my desk right now, you’d understand. Papers, pens, books everywhere. The hard drive on my computer looks much the same—folders and files stashed here and there willy nilly.

Writers are also procrastinators, especially when it comes to revising a once-loved first draft or submitting work to journals or contests.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a project manager, someone to set deadlines, to help set realistic goals, to hold us accountable for our actions, or more accurately, our inaction?

The Review Review recently published an article that addresses this very subject entitled “Does Your Writing Need a Project Manager?” by Lita A. Kurth. In the article, Kurth explains how she planned a seven week block of free time for writing using the skills of her friend, a project manager. Of her experience she says:

“I was astonished to see how quickly seven weeks passed. In the end, despite acquiring a high-energy dog, I accomplished all my major goals without burning out and without strict adherence to a schedule.”

We don’t all have project manager friends, but we can follow the same steps Kurth followed to help us be more effective writers. These steps are:

* Set goals and deadlines – No one gets anything done with an indefinite or hazy deadline. Make a goal and set a deadline. Period.

* Set realistic goals – You probably can’t write a book in a week (not a very good one anyway) so don’t set unrealistic goals like that. You want to set goals that you can accomplish and feel good about, but that don’t make you crazy.

* Make a schedule – Be honest with yourself and set priorities when making a schedule. Writers are also parents, spouses and friends. You have other interests beyond writing. Plan a schedule that gives you time (being realistic, remember) to do other stuff than just write.

* Keep track of your work – Kurth mentions her aversion to spreadsheets, but by the end of the seven weeks she realizes how useful they are. Keeping track of what you are working on saves time by eliminating confusion and duplication of work.

To read more about Kurth’s seven week adventure, click here.

So what do you think? Does your writing need a project manager?