The other night I had a dream that I was in an old inn that was being renovated. I was on the first floor. The place was draped with tarps, tangled with scaffolding. In between the sawdust, scaffolds and drapes of canvas, bits of fancy carved woodwork peeked out here and there. I needed a telephone, which was on the second floor, but all the staircases had been yanked out.
This is a dream about novel revision, or rewriting. Sure, it could be a dream about any kind of project, or even health, or it could be a random collection of images, but I know it isn’t. I had this dream while I was on a research trip—a trip that made it immediately clear that two large and integral (and mostly completed) action sequences in my novel won’t work as written. They’re like the phone on the second floor—I can’t get there from here.
There are internal clues that the dream is about rewriting. The building isn’t a church, a temple, or a house; it’s an inn, a place people visit and stay for a time, which is how I feel when I’m reading a novel. The thing I need to reach is a telephone, an instrument of communication. And bits of elaborately carved wood peeking out amidst the chaos, could, if I do say so myself, symbolize the occasional nice bit of writing that shows up in this draft.
The dream is pretty hopeful. First of all, most of the remodeling is taking place inside. I’m not standing outside a hulking ruin with a damaged foundation. That may mean that the essential book is viable. At least, that’s what my subconscious thinks. I really don’t know how good a literary critic it is.
The dream’s hopeful in another way. As the dream progresses, I meet a workman who points me to one intact, if rickety, staircase that gets me to the second floor where I meet two electricians who help me with the phone. They are cheerfully, irreverently competent, sure of themselves, able, and they have a clear grasp of the problem.
People who haven’t written a novel think that “rewriting” is going in and shaping up a few paragraphs, hunting down and destroying adverbs and adjectives, punching up dialogue and adding a few words here and there. That is what it’s like much farther down the line, in process most of us think of as line-editing, or “polishing.”
The accurate term for what I’m doing is revision, literally “re-visioning” the work. It’s not about a paragraph here or there. The first draft let me spend time with my characters and get a sense of the shape of the story. I originally typed “see the shape” but that’s much too grandiose. At the end of a first draft, I know what the story is, but now the plot, the steps of the story, need to be engineered.
As the book stands right now, is cluttered up with too many ruminations about the characters. Back-story is important; the question is how much, and where.
As far of the construction motif of the dream, that is literally accurate. One thing I have to do is reconstruct a central valley town (which is why I spent a day in Merced). In one section, my main character walks to Canal Street from a point along the railroad tracks. Before I’d seem Merced, I had this take him about half an hour. Then I went to Merced and did it. It took me about 10 minutes. Well, if I can do it in 10, my super-powered main character would be able to do it in about two. This is a problem. I can fix it, though, by moving his starting point. It probably means creating a New Canal Street that connects my new city center, out near the university campus, with the current downtown.
I’m also trying to re-vision Merced, a town filled with Chinese pistachio trees—crimson flames– and trees with glowing yellow leaves this time of year, as a sub-tropical city filled with palm and jacaranda trees. It’s not as hard as I might have thought since the town has palm trees everywhere.
The dream ends optimistically. I have skilled competent workers to help me. What a relief!