The walls of my Wrigleyville office are shaking because the building next door is being torn down. Another vintage home giving way to the bulldozer and making way for a new, luxury, single-family home. Before it was bought by a developer, the house was a fully occupied four-flat. There was nothing wrong with the building, but rehabbing is not an option when you aim to sell a house for over $2 million. Personally, I’m not a fan of the mansionalization of Wrigleyville, which serves to displace renters and detract from the neighborhood’s eclectic charm. Others point out that the return of the teardown is a sign of the recovering economy. I suppose, but even so, the sound of the bulldozer does little to cheer me. The teardown does, however, provide an apt metaphor for the work of rewriting a novel. As with an old house, sometimes you can fix up a manuscript only so much; other times you have to be ruthless, tear that novel to pieces, and start over.
Rewriting a book can be a painful process for a writer. You’ve been working for months, often years, and you thought you were done. Then you hand over your baby to an editor, agent, or friend, and suddenly you discover your work is fatally flawed. It’s not a matter of rewriting a chapter or two or strengthening a character or polishing the prose; the novel just doesn’t work, and it’s back to the lonely exile in the desert of the writer’s office for many more months.
The first draft of Alchemy’s Daughter, forthcoming in May 2015, was actually written before my first published novel, Nonna’s Book of Mysteries. Back in 2001, the book that would eventually morph into Alchemy’s Daughter was entitled The Cloth Merchant’s Daughter. Over the process of fourteen years, the book was not just revised, it was broadly re-envisioned to incorporate a new plot structure and new characters. More than once I thought I was done, and more than once I chose to listen to my honest critics and change the parts of the book that just didn’t work.
It might seem ridiculous to spend so much time on a single novel. (Although during those fourteen years, I sometimes set the manuscript aside entirely and focused instead on other projects.) But tearing Alchemy’s Daughter apart and rewriting it again and again proved to be a good decision. I know how regretful I’d feel if the book had been published in one of its earlier versions. I suppose most books fall short of perfect, and a writer could go on polishing prose forever. Nonetheless, there comes a point when the art approaches the height of the original vision, and you can let it fly.