Revising a Novel and Building your Zen Rock Garden

Like Jeremy Usborne’s soundtrack to a Honda advert, revising a novel fills me with a powerful sense of dread. Some writers edit as they go along, which I don’t understand at all. Editing while writing a new story slows the process down, stifles ideas that are screaming to be put down on the page, makes me forget what the point of writing is at all if I can’t even craft one goddamn paragraph properly without returning to it for the next three days in a row. Instead I do as many writers do and work on a draft-by-draft basis. Generally speaking, Draft One is the only time I’m having fun, because I’m free to do what I like. I can experiment, go off on tangents, crowbar in unsuitably outlandish vocabulary, introduce characters on a whim, dunk my brush into the pot and paint passages of purple prose, sprinkle in arcane references to history and literature and geography and music like they’re cardamom pods in a curry. Nobody cares what I’m doing. I’m not beholden to anyone. I have no reader in mind. It’s brilliant. When I’m done, I tuck the manuscript away in a subfolder and forget about it (and by ‘forget’ I mean go up to literally anyone and say, “yah, so, I’ve finished my novel, yah”).

The problem starts with Draft Two. As the date to commence editing approaches, I imagine the manuscript as a wasteland in a post-apocalyptic movie, all skeletal ideas, narrative threads that have frayed and broken, words that are twisted and ugly and need to be cremated before the stench becomes too much. And I can already see the outlines of Drafts Three, Four, Five and Six on the horizon, an army ready to chop through my defences, invade my plain of confidence, break me down and prevent me from ever creating anything worthwhile ever again. The psychological impact of the drafts overpowered me for my first novel, and that’s why it’s a miserable ugly duckling with more than a few typos still in there despite my having read it through 14 times. For By the Feet of Men, I knew I had to do something different if I was going to offset that powerful sense of dread. And that’s when I decided to visualise the draft process as a 15th century Japanese Zen rock garden.

Ryōan-ji is a Zen temple in Kyoto which is home to one of the best examples of a Japanese rock garden in the world. The garden is so celebrated that it has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. It’s also the product of hundreds of hours of care and diligence. Each day, monks rake the white gravel to form ridges and valleys that surround the boulders sitting at intentionally asymmetrical angles to create something that is simple, refined and aesthetically breathtaking. Writing a novel isn’t so different: you put in the effort day after day, you grapple with the material you have, and you keep coming back until it’s as close to perfect as you can get it at that point in time. Like I said, though, it can become a slog. The constant tailoring can grind you down. It’s easy to forget how far you’ve come already and to cut corners or give up entirely. So here’s how to visualise your novel as a Japanese rock garden:

Draft 1 – Set out your rock formations

Fifteen boulders rise from the sea of white gravel at Ryōan-ji. They anchor the garden, make it unique, give the viewer something distinctive to contemplate while they’re observing its majesty from a bench. Your first job is to set out your own rock formations. In novel terms, these are your characters and major plot points. All you have to do is get the words down on the page. Give it a beginning, middle and end and early incarnations of the people and events that will anchor the story. Nothing else matters at this stage except for those big old rocks.

Draft 2 – Buy a ton of white gravel, shovel it onto the barren earth

This is where the heavy lifting starts. Where you break a sweat. Where you come away from your work with blisters on your hands and tears in your eyes because it hurts so much. The white gravel is structure. It is connection. It surrounds the boulders, clothes them, makes them look larger, grander, more imperious. You need that gravel. If you didn’t spend time shovelling it onto the barren earth, you’d just have a bunch of rocks. And nobody travels far and wide to see a bunch of indefensible rocks. This is the most difficult stage. It’s when you look around at the uneven gravel and wonder just what the hell it is you’re doing. Surely nobody can make something beautiful out of this? But keep slinging. Because the next stage is where things start to take shape.

Draft 3 – Rake the gravel into patterns

So here we are. You’ve got the rock formations (characters, major plot points) and the gravel (everything else). Now it’s time to make the transition from landscaper to monk, from the slog to the spiritual. You have to tease the gravel into patterns that are desirable to look at. Pick up your rake, hold it in both hands and drag those teeth across the ground, meticulous, slow, precise, until stiff white ridges appear. It’s not simple by any means; Zen masters spend countless hours raking the gravel until the lines are perfect. But it’s worth it. When you step back and wipe your brow, you’ll see the difference. It’s far from finished, but no longer is it just a pile of stones of various colours and sizes. Be a little proud. You’re halfway toward creating your own Zen rock garden.

Draft 4 – Vary the patterns

Those (almost) perfectly straight lines look great, don’t they? Rank after rank, file after file, an army fit to rival the Terracotta gang over in Xi’an. But wait. What if you take that trusty rake of yours and change a few of those straight lines into curved ones? Look at that: instant variation. How about doing the same thing around a couple of the boulders to help them stand out even more? You could even carve out a full circle. Literally revolutionary. You don’t want to go too far, of course. If the curves outweigh the straight lines, they lose their ability to attract attention and gimmickry reigns. So rake with care, but with confidence. This is your garden now. You control it (even if it still feels like you don’t). And when you’re done adding your flourishes, make sure to give yourself a chance to admire your handiwork. After all, if you’re not building your garden for yourself, who are you building it for?

Draft 5 – Pick out the errant stones

Ah, the nitty-gritty. Just look at that garden. Sweeping lines, majestic boulders, patterns that demand attention. You created that. Good job, you. Now that the overall picture is looking so promising, it’s relatively simple to pick out the bits that don’t belong. Pebbles that refuse to conform no matter how many times you rake them, for example. If you notice them, everybody else will too, so pick them out and pop them into your pocket. That swirling pattern over there: it seemed like a great idea last time around, but now you’re thinking it might be a touch too rakish. It’s drawing too much attention. No, you don’t want to go to the shed again for the rake, but it’ll be worth it. Tame that last bit of gravel.

Draft 6 – View your finished garden

Now, this isn’t a science. Not every novel is going to be finished with the sixth draft. Some may take fifty. Others may only take one. Everybody’s Zen garden is different. Those gravel lines can be tricky, and while they may seem wonderfully uniform one week, they might be chaos incarnate the next. Six drafts is just a rule of thumb. However many it takes, at the end you’ll have your garden. Pristine, ordered, essential. Now it’s time to take a seat on the stone bench and contemplate what you’ve created. Take it all in, macro and micro. The boulders, the gravel, the ridges, the patterns. Is everything working in perfect harmony and does it all belong? If the answer is yes: you’re done. At least, you’ve gone as far as you can go right now. In time, you’ll create other gardens and view gardens created by others, and when you return to this one the imperfections will jump out like a sign for a Vegas casino. But don’t think about that. And if the answer is no? Then keep tending to your garden. It’ll probably never be perfect. But just remember this: Ryōan-ji has been around for nearly 600 years and the monks still go out with their rakes every day. You don’t have to ask them if they think it’s worth it.

actually a Burmese monk, but I like the photo

actually a Burmese monk, but I like the photo