Today I met with an author. We were talking about our respective publishing interests, and she mentioned that she worked on a novel for years, and re-worked it to the point where it felt over-revised. It hurt because she poured a lot of love and energy into it, and she couldn't let it go, but she also couldn't get it to the point she wanted. Agents and editors gave her positive feedback, and all sorts of professionals had an opinion about what it needed. She agreed that it needed something, but she couldn't decide whose counsel to heed and whose to discount. Over time it became a burden for her; she described it as something like pie crust that can become overworked, and no longer tender and flaky when baked. I loved that image, and I also ached in an empathetic and connective way to hear her talk about her novel, because something similar happened to me.
I started a novel back in 1993, in graduate school, in response to a specific event (a helplessly deteriorating friendship, the demise of which felt like mostly my fault). Years later even though the friendship had long since slipped away, I still futzed with it, producing three chapters that an editor at a major house said she liked and would be willing to publish if the rest of the book maintained that momentum. That plus the jealous feedback of a love interest who didn't want to compete with a book for my attention was enough to freeze me up for years. When I finally finished it with the help of a writing group in 2002, it was so old, marbled, re-worked and memorized that I had lost all objectivity. It sits in boxes under my bed today, technically finished but spiritually unloved, and a symbol of what felt like the Longest (and ickiest) Learning Experience Ever.
Do you have an overworked piece of long fiction that has bothered you far too long? Would you be willing to post about it?
It felt so comforting to hear another author say that she had suffered with a novel that wouldn't resolve itself, but also wouldn't go to sleep and let her be. I thought I was the only one! Perhaps you have thought you're the only one, too.
Interestingly, while writing this post, I searched on the words "unfinished novel" and found what looks like a lovely new book about an unfinished novel by the late Lionel Trilling by Geraldine Murphy from Columbia University Press. Pure serendipity! I've ordered a copy, and there's a photo of it here.