the punch list

The manuscript of a book is a hearty, unmanageable thing. Even a slim book clocks in at 40,000 words or more, and I’ve never written one shorter than 90,000 myself. Forget wrapping your head around 90,000 words. You might as well grasp the entirety of your childhood. Or of the present moment. One glimpse, one flash of understanding, is the most you can do: The itchy spot on your scalp. That one sleepover where you stayed up all night. Flash, flash, flash. You’ll never grok an entire manuscript. Not without all the coffee, anyway. And then you spend half your writing session in the bathroom anyway. There’s no winning.

Revising a book is like decorating a living room through its keyhole. “Move the couch five feet to the left. No, wait a second, now it’s blocking the fireplace. Since when has this room had a fireplace?” (This analogy assumes you possess the power of telekinesis. As most analogies should.)

The first editor I worked for was a paper guy. To complement his meticulous, red-pencil line edits, he’d pepper each manuscript with Post-it notes (that I’d have to painstakingly remove before Xeroxing). For a new generation of editors native to Microsoft Word, the comment became our Post-it. “Here,” the comment says. “Fix this passage in this way.” With comments, you can point out the exact spot in need of attention—so convenient. It’s like a home buyer doing a walkthrough with the seller. “Can we do something about this gap between the oven and the kitchen counter?”

Pointing is so much easier than describing. Without comments, collaborators are reduced to crude and unreliable indicators. “On page 7, third paragraph…” That’s assuming the text hasn’t reflown thanks to a change higher up in the manuscript. “In the paragraph beginning with the words…” That’s assuming the wording in that sentence hasn’t changed since then. When you have multiple people offering feedback on the same document in tandem, forget it.

So point-and-fix is convenient, but the problem is that you’re still working through that telekinetic keyhole. This becomes clear as soon as you try to work your way through an editorial pass on a manuscript, or just a chapter. Some comments are straightforward: “Can you complete this sentence fragment?” Others carry global ramifications: “Yet another example of the tendency to exaggerate in the first half of the book.” You’ve revised thirty pages of this manuscript so far and now you’re being retroactively informed that there’s been an issue with exaggeration all along. Which is about the worst thing ever.

A punch list, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a list of usually minor tasks to be completed at the end of a project.” (I went back to the home buyer analogy again, but this time you don’t have to be telekinetic, in case you were struggling with suspension of disbelief.) Creating a manuscript punch list forces you to think through all the changes and how they relate to each other before you make a single change.

Before revising a draft, I review all the meta-material first: Line edits. Comments. Correspondence. New research. I leave site-specific fixes like sentence fragments in place—I tackle them when I get to them. Most changes, however, relate to other changes in ways that are hard to grasp at the sentence and paragraph level. So they all get moved to a punch list, which I build out as an outline in Workflowy.

Once I’ve extracted all of the changes this way, I pare away the duplicative and the repetitive. Suddenly, my task doesn’t seem as overwhelming. Next, I plan out the work. Instead of revising each chapter in order, I design an approach strategy. For example, if I’m going to add a new story or a new piece of research, I will tackle that ahead of any global revisions like reducing exaggeration or changing tense throughout. Inevitably, a new chunk of text will break stuff elsewhere: segues, cross-references. If I’m going to do a top-to-bottom pass anyway, I’ll want to do that after any heavy-duty additions or subtractions. That way, I can smooth out all the lumpiness in one go.

By planning my work with a punch list, I approach the task of writing like a general, not a grunt. It’s a little more work at the start, but it delivers a huge payoff in peace of mind and productivity because I can see the whole room as I rearrange the furniture. I can even organize my effort by energy level, tackling the heaviest lifts when I’m fresh and leaving the mindless drudgery for the afternoon. I’m no good for telekinesis after 10 a.m.

chapter and verse

David Lynch came to a creative crossroads during the five-year production of his first film, Eraserhead. The project was coming together scene by scene, but the underlying meaning remained elusive to its maker. What, exactly, was he trying to say with this odd character and the oblique but compelling sequence of events along his arc?

Aware of the potency of his creation, fearful of losing its essence, Lynch turned to a familiar text for guidance.

“I got out my Bible,” Lynch writes in Catching the Big Fish, “and I started reading.”

Why the Bible? I’ve read quite a bit by and about David Lynch over the years, and I think this might be one of the only mentions of religion in the entire corpus. For decades, Lynch’s primary mode of spirituality has been Transcendental Meditation. Yet when he found himself in search of meaning, he turned closer to home. Having read a good chunk of the Old and New Testaments, I understand the inclination completely. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the Bible is undeniably a rich, dense, and evocative work of literature. Read nearly any passage at random and it’ll spark something. Unless, of course, you’re unlucky enough to stumble into the begats. (Apparently, there are 139 in all.)

“One day,” Lynch goes on, “I read a sentence. And I closed the Bible, because that was it; that was it. And then I saw the thing as a whole. And it fulfilled this vision for me, 100 percent.”

No, Lynch doesn’t share the sentence that crystalized Eraserhead in his mind. I doubt it was Ezekiel 25:17. Whatever the words, I see why he felt the need for a central sentence, a verbal locus around which his inchoate notions of the film might coalesce. Some writers suggest identifying a theme for a project at the start, but I’m not convinced that’s possible. The best material comes straight from below. Or above, depending on your point of view. How much can you do on a conscious level to shift those tidal forces? All too little. Without psychedelics, anyway. 

Rather than steer the meaning of your work in advance, identify your intentions from what you’ve already written. You have to make the thing before you know what the thing is. This is a characteristic of the writing craft that distinguishes it from, let’s say, cabinetry.

It isn’t enough to identify the theme of the work, either. You still have to sift what you mean to say from what you’ve actually said.

I recall that at some point in On Writing, or perhaps in a foreword to a new edition of The Gunslinger, Stephen King writes about his earliest glimpse of what would become the monumental Dark Tower series. The idea for the seven-book saga came to him not as a fully realized story with a beginning, middle, and end but as an image, what eventually became the opening words of The Gunslinger: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Nothing but a bit of stone poking out above the sand. Trusting the creative process, however, King began the excavation. Word by word, he watched a vast edifice emerge. Even though he only had that singular image at first, he knew almost from the start that he was digging something rich, deep, and significant out of himself.

It’s true. Deep down, you know when you’re onto something major, which is why it’s that much more tragic when you let it stay buried.

If a Biblical verse fails to crystallize the intentions buried in your work, browse the Upanishads. Or page through the I Ching. If the great texts fail you, watch the equally enigmatic Eraserhead. Immerse yourself in a work of art that resonates with you below conscious awareness. Eventually, something you encounter will harmonize with the thing you’ve created, if there’s any truth to it. Once that connection illuminates “the thing as a whole,” as Lynch puts it, get out your chisel and scrape away everything that isn’t that.

“Carving is easy,” Michelangelo once tweeted. “You just go down to the skin and stop.” (If the sculptor didn’t say that, the Ninja Turtle probably did.) When you’re writing a first draft, you’re not sculpting, you’re hewing marble from a quarry. Don’t seek the shape hidden inside the block until you’ve done the work of unearthing it.

a swing at the fences

There’s a small photo studio in town, right off the main drag. This morning, I noticed that they’ve lined their front window with examples of the work they’ve done for other inhabitants of this fine little burg. Among these sample images were photos of a local teen done in the style of those post-commercial host portraits on Saturday Night Live, all the way down to the SNL logo. Judging from their placement in said store window, I imagine this option is available to all customers. As a gag gift? It wasn’t clear.

These images, of a teen in a cheap suit making a wacky face next to that legendary logo, were in current parlance a little “cringe.” At least, that was my impression. I tried to imagine my own SNL-obsessed teenage self consenting to the public display of such images, where they would inevitably be seen by all my peers, and quailed at the thought. Quailed!

Here’s the thing, though. Of those rare few across the country who’d have not only the temerity to request the SNL treatment but the sheer brass to let them post the results on Main Street, one talented teen will host SNL for real. I mean, in theory, if the show makes it another decade. You can easily imagine a monologue making reference to this youthful chutzpah: “You’ll never believe this, but I was such a fan of the show as a kid that…” In light of reality lining up with the fantasy, we’d cheer their early ambition, wouldn’t we?

They say Babe Ruth pointed at center field in the 1932 World Series before hitting the ball nearly five hundred feet in that direction, scoring his second home run of the game. Party-poopers now say Ruth was pointing at the pitcher or even the Cubs dugout. The story’s better if he called his shot, of course, and in any case, people call their shots all the time. It’s a rule in eight ball, for example. It’s a thing. And sometimes, they even pull it off.

Scary stuff. Simply saying you’re a writer out loud is a called shot, even if you’ve been published. After all, the last book you wrote may be the last book you ever write. Are you still a writer ten years later? Twenty? How long are you still a writer after the last time you wrote? Or got published? 

If you type a proposal in the forest and no one’s around to offer you an advance…

Let’s not get lost in the ontology here. My point is, it’s tough to say you’re a writer. It’s tough to say you’re going to write something, especially if you’ve called and missed that particular shot in the past. It’s easier to say you’ve published something, of course, but the moment it’s out, the clock already is ticking—what’s past is past. What are you going to do next, if anything? Are you willing to tell us? If you aren’t, what does that say?

I’m still uncertain about the value of announcing your intention to write something. “Hey guys, I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year for real!” Does the social pressure you experience drive you to follow through? Or make you that much more likely to hide when you don’t?

I dunno. My gut says to chase the fear. When it comes to any aspect of writing, I’ve found that the more frightening path is nearly always the interesting one. Call your shot. If you miss, you can say you were pointing at the dugout. And when they ask the inevitable question—what dugout?—that’s when you run.

invisible pumpkins

Something extraordinary takes place in an episode of Hoarders, the long-running reality series about people with hoarding disorder. After getting the preliminaries out of the way, the therapist calls the hoarder’s attention to the gorilla in the room. Except, in this case, the gorilla is a pumpkin.

What pumpkin?” the hoarder replies. On cue, the cameraperson pans down to reveal a rotting orange gourd sitting at their feet. Like, right in between the therapist and the hoarder, there on the living room’s parquet floor.

“Oh. Yeah. How’d that get there? Huh.” Pause. “That’s still good, by the way.”

This isn’t to mock someone with a serious psychiatric illness. I share this moment because of its universal humanity. At this moment in the episode, the hoarder had been in the middle of a sensible-sounding argument in defense of her seemingly problematic behaviors. In her stated view, there was nothing unhealthy about the way she lived. All the expired and malodorous food in her home, for instance, was both safe to eat and properly stored. It wouldn’t take a trained therapist to notice the obvious discrepancy of a pumpkin on the living room floor, sides caved in, flies buzzing around it.

As an editor and book collaborator, I’ve noticed my share of pumpkins—obvious problems preventing would-be authors from getting more/better/any writing done. I consider a writing problem to be a pumpkin if it’s (a) a huge obstacle to the work that is (b) obvious to others but (c) invisible to the writer. While some writing challenges are intrinsically tough to overcome, pumpkins are easily resolved—once the person becomes aware of their existence.

Sometimes, it’s appropriate for me to point a pumpkin out. Other times, not. In any case, calling someone’s attention to their pumpkin isn’t going to help them if they aren’t ready to acknowledge its existence. That winter squash ended up on the living room floor for a reason. As a working writer with a sense of what works, I offer what help I can. I’m not a therapist.

In the end, I suspect we all have a few major problems with our approach that are invisible to us but obvious to everyone else. Or, at least, obvious to other writers. All it takes is a look through a work-in-progress. Or even a glance at a desk.

I’m always trying to root out my remaining pumpkins. I’m convinced I have a full patch. If only I could see them, I’d turn them into carriages and finally be free to exploit my full creative potential. When that happens, watch out, prince.

For lack of a better option, I read about other writers and their methods, or talk shop with my peers. This kind of self-diagnosis doesn’t work all that well. The thing about pumpkins is, you can’t see them even when they’re right in front of you. Even when someone else has one, too. By their very nature, you can’t even conceive of them as problems until they’re pointed out by someone else.

Ideally, another writer would hang out at my desk for a few months and watch me work. Sort of a reverse-internship.

A friend of mine once had a health-pumpkin: unexplained headaches, anxiety, racing heart. Doctors were no help until the umpteenth one finally asked the obvious question: How many of those Diet Cokes are you sucking down in a day? As she soon learned, ten or fifteen liters of caffeinated soda a day are going to have an effect. She cut the Coke and immediately improved.

Writing-pumpkins run the gamut. Here’s one of mine: revising a draft before I finish it. In middle school, I revised a single page of a single story for an entire semester. Every day at lunch, I’d head to the writing lab, and—having no sense of how else to begin—I’d start by reading the page I’d already written. Naturally, I saw all kinds of problems with it, so I’d spend the next forty minutes or so fixing them. By the time lunch was over, I’d have the same amount of text, just a bit more polished. Of course, in making all those fixes, I’d introduced new problems, only to be identified the following day. 

It never occurred to me to drive forward to the end of the story before reworking any of it. If someone had pointed that pumpkin out at twelve, I’d probably have written a novel by thirteen.

Now that fewer of us are working in offices, opportunities for this kind of feedback are rarer than ever. There’s only so much a colleague or peer is going to point out over a Zoom call. It’s the wrong context. Too easy to be misunderstood, too easy to accidentally offend. Better to leave the poor bastard to figure it out on their own. 

This is why I’m so jealous of those writers who’ve had the opportunity to work in a newspaper’s bullpen early in their careers. It must be a tremendous learning environment, working in close proximity with dozens of other writers, all pros, all on deadlines. Must have been tremendous, anyway, when bullpens still existed.

The solution might be to stream my writing sessions on Twitch. It’s not the craziest idea, nor is it the first time I’ve fielded it. It just strikes me as masochistic. Authors like Brandon Sanderson have written stories during live broadcasts, but certainly not to elicit suggestions on their craft from the peanut gallery. Besides, I don’t want some random internet person’s opinion. I want to hear from a peer.

Who knows? Maybe that’s my pumpkin.