On cutting, and revising, and hanging on, and letting go.
You may know that I [the Minneapolis writer, Kelly Barnhill] spent spring 2013 engaged in a grueling editorial process with my upcoming novel The Witch’s Boy. This was through no fault of my beloved editrix Elise Howard, who is brilliant and amazing and right about everything.
This has everything to do with me. And with the work of novel production, and novel refinement, and novel discovery, and novel re-discovery. And, believe me, it is work.
- Revising a novel is building a granite castle. And then taking it apart and building it again. By hand. By yourself. And then, when you’re done, you run a marathon. Barefoot. While carrying a very heavy and very ill-tempered goose. It’s kind of exactly like that
- Revising a novel is a return to a garden that you planted a while ago – one that you know is loaded with vegetables, but you cannot see them because the weeds now tower, jungle-thick, over your head
- Revising a novel is that colicky baby that will not go to sleep no matter what you do
- Revising a novel is the thick, muddy traverse through a swamp, only to realize that you have to climb a cliff on the other side. And you forgot your rope
- Revising a novel requires the skin of a rhinoceros and the strength of a bull and the delicacy of a jeweler
- Revising a novel feels like performing open-heart surgery. Without anesthesia. On yourself
- Revising a novel requires you to heft a thousand-pound boulder, sling it onto your back, carry it up a mountain, and balance it on the head of a pin
Which is to say that revising a novel is effing hard.
And that’s the case generally, and in the case of The Witch’s Boy, it is even more so. This book is incredibly close to my heart, and was often emotionally exhausting to write. I have always loved my characters, but, in this novel, I – for real – love these characters. Partially because I didn’t come up with them on my own. This story began, very long ago, as a story that my son and I told one another during a particularly grueling hike through Shenandoah National Park when he was only six. There is a lot of Leo in Ned. There is a lot of me in Aine. And Sister Witch. And the Bandit King. Hence my struggles.
Also, there’s something about working with a new publisher – it’s exciting and inspiring and energizing, but also nerve-wracking. Because we want to get it right. And we want to make people happy with us. And we want to not suck. This is the way of things.
So I worked my bum off, took three months to write two crucial chapters that were going to re-imagine and re-focus the larger arc of the novel, allowing the choices and action to flow from a single nexus point where my main characters converge, bear witness, keep silent, and irrevocably change their trajectories.
Three. Long. Months.
And….maybe it worked? We’ll see.
Anyway, apparently, in the last revision, I managed to grow the novel by ten thousand words. And that was after some major textual excising. Which explains a thing or two.
And now I am, once more, into the brink. I have tools. I have a map. I have my dear editor sounding her trumpet and spurring me onward. I have a lantern. I have a sword. I have a pure heart and a just cause and a mind on fire. I have characters to rescue. I have giants made of stone. I have a stalwart wolf and a ferocious girl and a boy who does not know what he is capable of. I have my heart and my brain and my love, and I hope it will be enough.
Anyway, I will be posting some out-takes here and there.
He was alive. For now.
“Ha!” a man said, shaking his fist at the water. “It won’t be taking this one, by god. Only one victim for that blasted river.” He gave the river a hard look. He did not help the father, nor did he touch the boy. Everyone in the village knew that those marked for drowning were cursed by nature. The river was a greedy thing. And foul-tempered. It would have that boy eventually. This was common knowledge.
This was not magic. This was a simple practicality. Witching, after all, is tricky work. And complicated. She had learned, after all these years, to see the world from the inside – its foundation and its beams, its braces, insulation and gaps. She knew the weak places. She knew how lean against the fabric of the world and nudge it this way or that. She knew how to make suggestions. Anyone could do it, if they ever learned. But people called it magic, and conflated it with her real magic, and Sister Witch didn’t correct them.
Her real magic was dangerous – capable of great good and great evil in equal measure. It was work keeping it good. It required a firm hand and an iron will. Best to use it sparingly, if at all.
The ladies from the village came in droves. They descended onto the grieving house like an army of magpies, all feather and gossip and claw. Sister Witch thought she’d never be rid of them, and suffered the indignities of grief in relative silence.
“It’s a pity,” the magpie ladies simpered. “Such a terrible pity.”
Go away, Sister Witch seethed.
“And on such a beautiful day,” as they munched on the pastries they had brought for the family.
She thanked her visitors for their meat pies and fruit pies and custard pies and pies she could not identify or name. She thanked them for their pots of stew and their legs of lamb and their heavy rounds of hard cheese. Their gifts were thoughtful, tender, and full of wiles.
They were gifts that asked questions.
Sister Witch had no intention of answering a thing. Her son, Tam, was dead. Her magic could not save him. And that was that.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how deft your hands may be, or how sharp your scalpel or how cunning your eye. Cutting away bits and pieces of our novels – fingers, toes, tumors, tongues, unsightly moles or pounds of pulsing flesh – well, it hurts.
And because I hate being alone and wallowing in psychic pain, I turn it over to you. Any sections that you’ve cut lately? Any extraneous scenes that simply detracted from the central pulse of your novel – that single, beating heart? Paste it here and share! Our amputated novel bits can assemble and congregate. They can bind together into hideous and beloved homunculi. They can resuscitate, respirate, ambulate, and live.
And it will be beautiful.
Kelly Barnhill won the Newbery Medal for her children’s book, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and is getting much acclaim for her latest book for adults, Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, a collection of dark, whimsical fantasies. Listen as she talks with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro about it here.
Kelly is an author, teacher and mom. She wrote THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, THE WITCH’S BOY, IRON HEARTED VIOLET, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK and many, many short stories. She won the World Fantasy Award for her novella, THE UNLICENSED MAGICIAN, a Parents Choice Gold Award for IRON HEARTED VIOLET, the Charlotte Huck Honor for THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, and has been a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, the Andre Norton award and the PEN/USA literary prize. She was also a McKnight Artist’s Fellowship recipient in Children’s Literature.