A few weeks ago, just shy of three years, said goodbye to my home department, and said hello to another one at Princeton. Besides the dramatic change of scenery, I have discovered there are really good departments, and really great ones. I always suspected this was the case, but now have indisputable evidence. These days I'm surrounded by tremendous works of art--some of which have been under the University's stewardship for over a hundred years, and all part of a collection that soon will encompass more than one hundred thousand objects. Besides having a new cool boss, I'm less than two hundred feet from the building where F. Scott Fitzgerald debated during his days as a student. So just file me as very happy to be in a great department.
Every writer manages the editing process differently. In my case, I defer the most serious edits until completing a first draft. For this lesson, I owe a debt to neuroscience. See, creative writing and revisions impel two different, competing areas of the brain. Worrying about the finer points of grammar and diction, while writing a first draft is like dropping two hungry beta fish into the same fish tank. I wind up working harder, and it takes much longer to finish either task. So, once a first draft of a manuscript is complete and I walk away for a few days, I return ready to bridge the great disconnect waiting for me. And by the disconnect reference, I mean the gap between what I think I have written, and the actual words on the page. The wider this gap, the more editing required. At times, revisions can be a lot of fun. At other points, the same revisions can be more draining than a divorce. For a long manuscript, this process can become frustrating, or at the very least, time consuming. Incidentally, that is also where one of the greatest dangers of writing lurks, waiting to snare a writer. For in those moments of frustration, writers are not always the best judges of their still nascent manuscripts. Even the most famous storyteller of the twentieth century, Stephen King once had considerable doubts about his writing. In one of the more dire moments, he pitched the entire first draft of Carrie into a garbage can. Only the eagle eyes and intervention of his wife, Tabitha rescued the novel. Thankfully, a great product exists for getting first drafts out of the rubbish pile and back onto the screen, Grammarly. The web based revision tool is one of the truly revolutionary writing packages on the market. There is much to like about Grammarly. In my mind, the mark of a great design is how much effort it takes to get what you need out of the software. With Grammarly, the answer is almost none. Just login and start working. Better yet, Grammarly performs just as expected, and each feature appears exactly where it should within the interface. Once a document is uploaded to the site, it scans the manuscript and identifies every instance of grammar, diction and sentence construction that could need adjustment. Better yet, Grammarly also offers helpful, constructive suggestions for fixing these issues. I especially like the report card style at a glance presentation of issues. The web version, and the Office plug-in perform equally well, which is impressive, since the feature set is considerable. Grammarly can deal with various sized projects and kinds of writing—whether the manuscript is creative or professional. Keep in mind, Grammarly is neither intended nor designed to replace a skilled copyeditor. Within the revisions process, there remains a place for the hyper-vigilant grammar czar. But by using Grammarly before delivering the manuscript to said copyeditor, a writer can greatly reduce the amount of time and effort required of an editor, and perhaps the wear and tear on a loved one. But the best part about Grammarly, is that it frees up energy that I would commit to the most tedious part of the revision process, so that I have much more time for the writing I do like. And in that way, Grammarly just might save a bestseller from the garbage can. Disclosure: I was provided access to an extended trial of Grammarly, which I enjoyed immensely.
Shortly after seeing the Dalai Lama, the days began blurring. At some point I was in New Hampshire ( perhaps last weekend, perhaps the week before ), watched a few people get tattoos, slept down the hall from a dog the size of a Clydesdale horse with the personality to match, and burned five contractor bags full of sensitive documents in a fire pit that looked more like a well. Also reconnected with my love for octopus and spicy yellow-tail sushi. A cough that had been hanging around for weeks went away, autumn abruptly ended, and the heater finally ran long enough that every room got toasty. Even better, the Poet vanquished her bronchitis. Salinger let me remove a knot in his fur without running for cover--a small and very personal victory. I carved up a pumpkin but didn't finish, which was fine because I handled more than 50 trick-or-treaters without answering the door even once, and did this without stiffing a single candy trawler. Thank you chair covered with a black sheet and goodie bowl. Even bigger approbations to all those children who read the sign that asked them to take a few pieces, and leave some for others. Almost all of them followed directions, though a few adolescents acted based on another interpretation: take everything you can carry now, before the next gang of teenagers does. Bad news for them, because the kids who came earlier loaded up on the best and most popular confectionery treats, leaving the old standbys that very few people under fifty like to the people too old for trick or treating anyway. There was a midterm election. I voted. A bunch of people celebrated the results. Others did the opposite of rejoice. To me, one clear win for the entire country: No more attack ads. No more ads, phone calls, pleadings, or any flavor or brand of whining, period. Wrote a lot. That was fun. Went to work. Oddly, that was much less fun. Thought a lot about getting a new car, then decided against it. No reason to change up a winning team after fourteen years. And so my weeks went.
After about eight days, finally recovered from the pseudo-flu bouncing from office to office at work. Very glad that bout of discomfort ended well, for between whatever I had and the Poet's bronchitis, at night the bedroom doubled as an echo chamber for hacking coughs. Both of us feel much better now. Was even able to lace a beat up pair of running shoes and hit the trails yesterday, in the middle of a storm. Cold rain on bare skin felt much better than I remembered. This year I've been working on another novel, which includes the key characters from The Last Track, but wraps them in very different circumstances. Where much of the story of The Last Track happened in the woods--and necessarily s0--this novel incorporates both urban and suburban settings. Based on my close adherence to the outline up throughout the year, current word count, and the number of scenes left to write, I'm between a quarter to a third into the draft. Framing in calendar terms, the numbers translate to five to six more months. Obviously, estimates allow some latitude for illness and the constraints of the day job, but I feel such a target is very feasible. The good thing this manuscript is teaching me: If it's done right, going forward it will be possible to insert the key characters in many more settings than the first book suggests for them and markedly increase the plot and thematic palates available for my use. Ultimately, those and other adjustments should keep the writing process interesting, and allow for entertaining stories now and in many years to come. Alas, the bad thing is, developing a transitory context which serves as a solid bridge between what I know about the characters, and where the characters are telling me they want to go next has taken a very long time. Fortunately the critical characters have marketable skills and traits, which can be leveraged in ways I never considered when they first surfaced at the keyboard. The process of writing them into new situations these past months has proven that it works. Yet the real breakthrough that made this all possible, came not by careful plotting and spending lots of time writing, but in assisting the Poet with field research for her manuscript. Because during one excursion, entirely by accident, I saw it.