Yesterday, one of the guys of Three Guys One Book, Jason Rice, and a regular conversation partner of his who goes by “Very Unphotogenic,” posted a discussion of novel-revising called “Why Revising Your Novel is like Wanting to Throw Up.” In their conversation, they discussed why revising your novel is the first level of hell, a masochistic act, a possibly thankless task, and the thing that makes a good novel great.
I too happen to be revising a novel and I’d like to offer up a metaphor of my own: revising a novel is like having bugs in your apartment. I have bugs in my apartment and having bugs means I’m thinking about bugs and fighting bugs and trying to find a way to permanently deter all bugs from entering my apartment. I spent thirty dollars on bug-killing sprays, powders, “foggers,” and traps. Last Sunday, I emptied the kitchen cabinets, cleaned them, sprayed them with Raid, waited, and cleaned them again. (I would’ve rather been revising my novel.) Last Monday, I killed four tiny crawling not-ant things (and one thing I think is a baby roach), as if on Sunday I’d never cleaned and sprayed and cleaned at all.
That is what revising a novel is like. The novel is the apartment. Every time you step into the apartment, there is another bug to kill. Sometimes, it’s a little black thing, easily squashed. Sometimes, it’s a marching line of ants, which need to be killed with bug spray (once, drunkenly, I tried to kill ants with cheap vodka — never do that), and then a trap needs to be set for their brothers. Sometimes, you have a whole roach infestation and the place needs to be fumigated; I don’t have an actual roach infestation, but my fourth chapter did!
Bug killing seems futile when you’re in the middle of it. Those little motherfuckers keep coming back. They don’t stand up and fight you like a man: they scamper into corners. They cheat by hiding in walls. Sometimes, drenched in Raid, they continue to march onward, like their bodies weren’t covered in poison.
Then, one Wednesday, you come home and turn on the light in the kitchen, expecting to have to squash a few bugs before making dinner. But nothing scurries along the counters or the tile floors or the walls, not even a little black crawler. You stand at the entrance of the kitchen, waiting for a bug to scamper out. You know there must be some little one, something you’re not seeing — and you’re probably right, there is probably some tiny ant somewhere inside the house. But it’s just one little ant, not even showing itself. And that’s when you know your novel is done.