revision

William Faulkner once famously said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Apparently he meant this metaphorically, and not as an exhortation to go out and perform some sort of bizarre and ritualistic sacrifice of all those you hold dear in life. Seems like he could’ve made that more clear.

But hey, lesson learned.

I’m currently in the process of revising my first novel. It’s a nonfiction account of my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, appropriately entitled, The Peace Corpse: Misadventures in Love and Africa.

I’m trying to do everything like I’m supposed to. In Stephen King’s excellent book on writing, appropriately entitled, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he says that after you finish your first draft, you should set it aside and not even look at it for at least six weeks. So that’s what I did. I even marked six weeks out on my calendar, because I’m just that anal.

Sure enough, the day the six weeks were up I eagerly brought out the manuscript, ready to turn something that was maybe just sort of ok into a literary masterpiece of such magnificence and profundity that it would instantly skyrocket me to such esteem and admiration that my mere presence would cause beautiful women to spontaneously tear off their clothes and enthusiastically wrestle each other for the mere opportunity to talk to me.

Because that would be awesome.

And yeah, if my writing—and especially my editing—ability were as unique and colorful as my imagination, maybe I could approach something close to that level of success. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Because as I read through my manuscript with what were supposed to be “fresh” eyes, I found that while there were parts that I really liked, and parts that I felt could be a lot better, I didn’t have the slightest idea what I could do to actually make any of it better. Which is especially frustrating because there were many times while I was writing it where I was thinking, “Yeah, this part sucks, but I’ll fix it during the revision,” but now I don’t remember exactly which parts those were, and in particular I don’t know how to fix any of it.

Dammit.

What I need is for someone who isn’t me to go through it and tell me which parts don’t work. The problem with this is that it’s hard to find someone who is willing to sit down and read through a 98,000-word manuscript on a computer screen and make critical comments about it. That’s a pretty big request to make of someone.

Of course, the other problem with this is that I’m an arrogant ass who doesn’t take criticism very well. But I’m going to have to get over that.

Regardless, I’m determined to get it published this year. Because 2011 is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, and my book has exactly 50 chapters. Plus, I think the fact that it’s the 50th anniversary might make the general public more interested in it than they otherwise might be, and if nothing else, setting the goal of publishing it this year gives me something to motivate myself with.

But the fact that I have to face is that it’s entirely possible that no publisher will want to take it. Plenty of Peace Corps Volunteers write memoirs, and I have no doubt that most of them are better written than mine, with a lot more description and character development, and a lot less random and unnecessary swearing. And that’s cool. If I can’t find a publisher, I’ll self-publish. Which means of course that my Mommy will be the only one to actually buy a copy, but that’s ok. It’s not like this is the only book I ever plan on writing.

Of course, there’s a completely different type of revision I’m doing right now: revising scientific papers. Yeah, in the past few weeks I’ve worked on no less than four separate papers. Hell, if all goes well I’ll have at least five scientific publications this year—two research papers as first author, one as second author, a comment paper as second author, and a chapter of a computational chemistry textbook (first author). That’s actually pretty damn good for a guy who claims he’s not that great of a scientist.

It’s kind of got me thinking that maybe I’m making a horrible, horrible mistake by leaving science. After all, while I’m not exactly the greatest scientist ever, I’m actually pretty good at what I do. If nothing else, I know how to write papers and grants, and I know how to interact with people. And that’s about half of what a scientist does anyway.

What really struck me was something an American researcher I met at the conference in November said: “Doing science is like a hobby.” Now those weren’t his exact words, and I’m just now getting to the edge of being too drunk to type coherently, but the reason this struck me is that I always thought that you had to be passionate about science in order to do it well. But the fact is, you don’t. But at the very least, you have to see it as a hobby. It has to be something you enjoy devoting a good chunk of time to. And I think it’s possible for me to see science that way.

But only if I no longer have the delusion that I could be commercially successful as a writer. And that’s why I’m still planning to move to Australia in May, in order to devote an entire year to nothing but writing. And if I can’t come up with something marketable in that time, if everything I submit to agents and publishers gets rejected, I think I could give up my dream of being a writer and be content to be a scientist.

But only if I know for certain that my dream of being a successful author is just a dream.

Regardless, there’s a third type of revision I’m doing at the moment. I’m 31 years old today. 31 years old and $80,740.20 in debt. I’ve had a great time screwing around these past 31 years, but I think it’s time for me to start taking things seriously. I was loaned that money for college and graduate school in good faith, and I fully intend to pay back every dime that I owe. And if that means I have to take a job that I hate for a while, so be it. I knew exactly what I was getting into.

Of course, this doesn’t in any way change my plan to screw around in Australia for a year. I mean, I’m serious about my responsibilities, but I’m not that serious.

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About Critical Awesomeness
I'm a 32-year-old American with a PhD in chemistry and a green hat. Only one of these two things is really important.

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