Jack o'lanterns

pumpkinsFirst, you begin with something complete: a finished draft. Asymmetrical, maybe bruised, lined, scarred, imperfect, but whole. Recognizably a pumpkin. There is a beauty in regarding a pumpkin, but it does not yet have the expression you desire. It does not convey what you know lies within. The angel within the pumpkin is there, waiting to be released.

Perhaps you have an assortment of fine pumpkin-carving tools at your disposal. Perhaps you have simply one large knife. Perhaps you are already intimately acquainted, in your mind’s eye, with this pumpkin’s ultimate face; perhaps you have only a vague blueprint. All you know is that you want, keenly and passionately, for this pumpkin to take on the life it is meant to have. You have a vision of towering beauty. And so you take up your large kitchen knife and begin hacking away.

The task, at first, seems monumental.

pumpkin towerBut as a journey begins with a single step. a revision begins with a paragraph. A page. You may spend a few hours on this paragraph. You may spend days. You may conjure many, many paragraphs and take many, many steps and find you have to choose one way in. Keep courage. Keep stabbing in your knife. Once the cap is cut and you can create the opening, all the beautiful innards of your novel will be revealed.

Then it is time to begin scooping. There is no way to make this easy. The guts are slippery; they twist one way, then another. The threads of your story are attached in many persistent and unexpected places. You will have goo up to your elbows, possibly in your eyebrows and hair. The innards will sprout seeds and you will have to grasp them, one by one, as the firm small ovals coyly slide through your fingers. Set them aside in a bowl. They will taste wonderful later, roasted with some olive oil and salt. They will make the long tedious process seem worth it. But you can only hold the vision, or the taste, in your mind as you continue scooping, scraping your spoon again and again against the hard sides, trying to smoothen and remove the many dangling strings. There is always one more dangling string.

Pumpkin artYou have a new first page. A new first scene. A new first chapter, a sound enough foundation on which to build. And then what? What comes next? There are so many decisions to be made. Eyebrows, yes or no? Nose? What sort of expression: happy, angry, dopey, surprised? How demonic do you want your pumpkin to be? What sort of eyes will you need, and what sort of mouth? Very often it will feel like your knife is not the proper tool for this business. Very often there will be a regrettable cut. Proceed as best you can. The angel is waiting.

Pumpkin pileThe tone of your pumpkin leads you. The nuance of its expression. But how does it all come together–eyes, eyebrows, mouth, nose? How do you make all the many many intricate parts fit into something beautiful, coherent, balanced, and majestic? There are many decisions. There are many distractions. There are many things in the world beside pumpkins and many of them regard pumpkin carving as a quaint hobby that ought not be too often indulged.

There is no good advice for this part except, keep courage. Hold to your vision as to your thread. Let yourself hear the voice of your pumpkin calling to you to give it life, to give it a place in the world. Bring yourself to the pumpkin, again and again. Take advice or discard it. Allow other people to talk about your pumpkin, or not. Listen for the voice of your pumpkin and do not despair if you cannot hear it. Just be quiet. And keep applying your knife.

Jack o'lanternsAt some point, you will need to be finished. There is only so much nuance a pumpkin expression can handle. There is only so much craft a pumpkin can bear. At some point you must let yourself believe the vision has emerged. And put the knife down, gently.

You may have spent months at this process. You may have spent years. Every pumpkin is unique. Accomplishing one pumpkin does not promise ease with any others. But whatever else might happen, you at least can cherish the joy of finishing. Lighting the candle. Applying the lid. Putting your pumpkin on display to enchant and amaze passersby and visitors. Now is the time to munch on roasted pumpkin seeds and rest after a long and tiring process. Now is the time to gaze upon the thing you have created (overlooking a few small flaws–that oddly shaped tooth, the eyebrow you never could get quite right) and find it good.

May you have someone coming up to your porch with treats in hand for you, smiling, say, “Great pumpkin.” May your pumpkin bring the joy to others that it has brought to you. If you cannot ever imagine the time when the candle may be lighted and the knife cleaned and put away and the smiling passersby enjoying your pumpkin, keep hope. Keep carving. Keep patiently scraping with your spoon. Your pumpkin needs you. And you need it.

How Revising a Novel is Like Carving a Pumpkin

2 thoughts on “How Revising a Novel is Like Carving a Pumpkin

  • November 9, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    Very eloquent and apt. Remember to occasionally step back, take time to sharpen your blade, reassess your next paring, then apply it again with finesse in the most effective manner.

    • November 10, 2015 at 8:28 am

      So true! The paring knife has its place after the work with the big old chopper is done. I find myself however longing for roasted pumpkin seeds . . .


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