Chances are, you're familiar with psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's Five Stages of Grief, a pattern of phases most people go through when faced with their impending death, or the death of a loved one. This universal process can be applied to less serious personal traumas, such as injury, break-up, bankruptcy, etc.
I'm thinking now, after emerging from a 3-week nightmare workathon, that it may be also true for rewrites -- specifically when one is handing in a so-called final draft on deadline. Herewith:
THE 5 STAGES OF FINAL DRAFT WRITING
It's really in very good shape. Sure, I've got a ton of notes, but it's nothing I can't handle...
Who is the cretinous asshole who wrote this crap?
If I can just have [enough methamphetamine, a roomful of writers a helluva lot smarter than I am, a time machine, etc.], I promise I'll have this in good enough rough shape for the draft after the final draft!
I am SO fucked.
As awful as this one is, the next one can only be better. And I still (sort of) have my health.
How cavalier was I, when my editor suggested a date three weeks away for handing in the manuscript of my novel! Hadn't we just had a dream date of a lunch meeting, going over her five pages of notes and arriving at (theoretical) solutions for all the problems cited? It was all so clear, everything -- only a few bits of heavy lifting amidst lots of little stuff -- that needed to be done.
What I forgot, in Denial, and then confronted (in Anger) was the principle of It Can Always Be Better, and the presence of The Me That Came Before.
Here's how it goes. Beyond the Domino Syndrome (the idea that when you change one plot beat, the next is affected, and so on) lies a more insidious morass of what we might call a Fortunately/Unfortunately rewrite principle: Fortunately, you can drain a boggy paragraph here, prune an unruly sentence there -- any draft can be improved. Unfortunately, no sooner has one section of a piece been polished to a fresh sheen, than an adjacent swath of prose looks pathetically shoddy.
It Can Always Be Better is the awful truth that often leads to a torturous game of literary Whack-a-mole. You're in the home stretch on a scene (you think), merely correcting light line edits, and you're suddenly brought up short by the sight of what an illustrious critic acquaintance calls "a lump." Some heretofore unnoticed patch of coal is nestled amidst your diamonds, a first draft-like clumsiness that's not up to last-draft snuff. So back down to the mines you go.
And how did this happen? Why didn't you see it before? This is where The Me That Came Before comes in. Billy 2003 thought the thing up. Billy 2004 reshaped it. Billy 2005 rethought it yet again... By the time I got to my present draft there had been a history, a multitude of me's involved, each of them improving on the work of the one before.
The positive way to look at this, as my stalwart, sweet Tater suggested, is "my standards are getting higher." The negative way is to fear I'll never get high enough.
But meanwhile, who is the nefarious Billy who wrote yesterday's draft and pronounced it viable? That freakin' guy -- I'm always reading over what he wrote last night, thinking: what was he thinking?! Thus the Me That Came Before makes it better, until the Me That Comes After needs to make it better than the Me Before again... ad infinitum.
Next, in my Bargaining phase, the present-day Billy -- while addressing the multitudes of Billys with a desperate plaint: can't we all just get along? -- promised to build a temple in the lord's honor, among other things, if he could just for a second get the story straight.
During Depression, my general hopelessness over the story's ever being a story (let alone being great) alternated with visions of lifelong friends crossing the street to avoid seeing me after the book is published.
Finally came the understanding that the only way to truly bring the book up to the present moment (i.e. where I am now as a writer, via learning from all the mistakes the past me's have made) would be to throw this draft out and start writing the book again from the beginning.
This sounds to me like I'm approaching Acceptance -- the point where you can at least live with the idea that you'll only get the damn thing as good as it can get for where you are now.
Because it's due tomorrow morning, my brain is mush, and if it really sucks... my editor will tell me how to fix it and get us an extension. Won't she?
So why does it feel like I've somehow wheeled my way back to Denial again...