Why Editing a Novel is Like Bombing a Village

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I was never a big fan of math. The concreteness and exactness of it always intimidated me, and I hated the fact that one tiny mistake had the power to nullify all my other good work.

I did receive an incredible life lesson from my seventh grade pre-Algebra teacher, however, and it has always stuck with me. (That, and the longhand method to figure out percentages. And the realization that 68 degrees is really way too cold for a Florida classroom. Oh, and the proper way to sword fight, but that's another blog post.)

Mr. Dooley was a retired Air Force pilot, and he loved war stories almost as much as he loved math. He had an allegorical way of explaining things, and maybe that's one of the reasons I liked him so much.

When it came time for him to teach us how to solve a complicated problem, he told us the first step was never to be intimidated by it. Instead of viewing it as one huge problem, view it as many, many tiny problems all bunched together.

Take fighter pilots for example, he said. Do you think they take out an entire enemy village in one fell swoop? No. They break the enemy compound into several areas of interest. During their first pass, they take out the most critical structures, like the look-out posts and weapon stations. During their second pass, they take out weapon storage areas and communication infrastructure. During their third pass, they look to the garages and barracks. And so on and so on, until they have successfully taken out an entire enemy village.

At age thirteen, I remember thinking Mr. Dooley's analogy was unnecessarily violent and self-elevated. I was just solving a stupid pre-Algebra problem here, not changing the world.

But I can't tell you how many times I have returned to his fighter pilot analogy as I have tackled some of the most overwhelming problems in my life: "I want to move to Australia and work as an apprentice chef for awhile." "I want to live in Yosemite National Park for an entire summer AND pay off the debt I owe my parents." "I want to write a novel while simultaneously working full time and commuting 80 miles a day."

Instead of allowing myself to be overwhelmed by the prospects, I have simply broken the problems into many tiny steps. And for the most part, this approach has worked. (Another applicable lesson is the quote, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," but come on. Would you rather be walking or blowing up things??)

Right now, I am in the midst of novel revisions with my wonderful agent, Hannah Bowman. And here's the thing. Hannah asks great questions. DIFFICULT questions. Questions that make my brain feel like it has just run a marathon.

The whiny part of me sometimes thinks, "What? I don't know the answer to that! Stop asking hard questions!" But the writer part of me is beyond thankful, because her questions are going to push me into making my story what it is supposed to be.

And whenever I feel overwhelmed, I can always think about fighter pilots.