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“Wagon Wheel,” Revising Novels, & Getting the Rhythm Right

“Wagon Wheel,” Revising Novels, & Getting the Rhythm Right

Yesterday I had a guitar lesson, and I showed off the Pink Floyd song I’ve been working on. “All right,” my teacher said, nodding. “I think you’re ready for another song. You like the Beatles?” 

“Sure.” I tried to generate some enthusiasm . People think you’re weird if you say you don’t like the Beatles. “How can you not like the Beatles?” they say, as if I’m telling them that I don’t like breathing air. And it’s not that I don’t like the Beatles, it’s just I’ve heard all their hits so many times over and over that I’m sick to death of them. Listening to the Beatles “1” album can actually make me feel like vomiting.

“So I think we’ll do “Hey Jude.”” My teacher started looking through his filing cabinet.

Just to make conversation, I said, “oh, you know, I taught myself a song over the weekend.” I wasn’t sure how my teacher would react to this. Was he threatened by all the youtube tutorials out there, taking the place of in-person instruction? Would he be worried that I was going to pick up bad habits or derail his teachings? Or, as I was hoping, would he see this as a positive sign of my interest in the guitar?

“Oh yeah? What’d you learn?”

“Wagon Wheel,” I said. “I mean, the chords are really easy, so…”

“OK, we can do that one instead.” He stuffed the sheet of paper with the “Hey Jude” guitar tabs back into a file and started riffling through the cabinet again.

“Well, I mean…” I wanted to reiterate that I’d already taught myself “Wagon Wheel” and would rather learn a new song, but that seemed rude.

“You’re right, the chords are easy,” my teacher said, looking at the sheet. “But the rhythm is pretty fast. Let me show you.” He started strumming. Turns out, I had been strumming the wrong way, and also way too slow. The real song was a lot harder than I’d thought.

Old Crow Medicine Show — the guys who made “Wagon Wheel” popular. (Did you know it was an unfinished and unreleased Bob Dylan song?) Photo credit.

 I recently finished the first draft of a novel and am in an excruciating period where I’m letting my novel “rest” while I wait to get feedback from a few people. The plan is that in a month or two I’ll have some distance from the manuscript as well as (hopefully) some insightful feedback, and then I’ll be ready to do a big revision. After that, I can start querying agents.

But I hate waiting, and I don’t know what to do with myself right now. I’ve already started another novel.  I’ve also come this-close to going ahead and sending query emails, even though my friend Jeni admonished that I should “absolutely not” query with a first draft. “Don’t you have other novels laying around?” she asked me yesterday. “Maybe you could use this time to revise one of those.”

And yes, she’s absolutely right. At this point I have written five novels, and I haven’t made a real attempt at revising any of them. The first novel I ever completed was a coming-of-age semi-auto-biographical stereotype which I wrote when I was twenty-four. I haven’t looked at it since, and I’m pretty sure if I did, I would cringe in horrible embarrassment.

The second was a YA fantasy novel that my professor at the time encouraged me to write so I could “get on the Twilight train.”  I started to hate the thing when I was halfway through, but I forced myself to finish it back in the fall of 2009. I hated it so much, I could never stomach the thought of going back to revise it.

The third novel I finished last fall, and though I like the way it begins and the way it ends, I cannot for the life of me figure out how to fix the whole middle part – you know, where most of the plot happens.

I wrote another novel over the summer that I liked up until the moment I finished it, and then I decided it was lame.  And now there’s this new one, which I started in the spring and finished just a few weeks ago.  In conclusion — five novels, and I haven’t really revised any of them.

When I think about trying to fix the novels I’ve already written, it seems way too hard and frustrating. I just don’t know where to begin, and it seems overwhelming and impossible, like trying to pat my head and rub my belly at the same time.  I feel like it’s easier to start over with something new.

I was going to record a video of me playing "Wagon Wheel," but it sounded too awful.  I need to practice more first.

I was going to record a video of me playing “Wagon Wheel,” but it sounded too awful. I need to practice more first.

I came home from my guitar lesson last night, excited that I had learned the right way to play “Wagon Wheel.” I have to admit that when I taught myself, I wasn’t entirely accurate. I can be very impatient at times, especially when it comes to watching video tutorials or reading directions. I had watched the video long enough to get the chords, and then I had figured out the strumming on my own.

But I had figured it out incorrectly, of course.

Now, when I sat down to play the song the right way, I realized I couldn’t sing along anymore. Now that the rhythm was faster and required more concentration, I couldn’t get my hands and voice working in unison.

“Aw man!” I threw my pick down in frustration. I wished my teacher had given me “Hey Jude” to learn instead. Here I had thought that I had “Wagon Wheel” in the bag, but it turns out I’d only just begun; I had a lot more practice ahead of me in order to get it right.

I guess I always feel like I’m making more progress when I’m working on something new then when I’m trying to correct something I’ve been doing wrong. But what’s better:  playing a lot of songs half-assed, or practicing fewer songs and getting them to sound really good?

I still don’t know if I can bring myself to revise those old novels of mine. But I do see the value in it. And I’m thankful for the guitar. It’s teaching me some patience I could probably use in other aspects of my life.

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About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

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