FOR NEW WRITERS ONLY (or My Relatives)
“What’s happening with your book?”
I’ve been getting this question a lot so I decided to share an update. For those of you feigning interest (family and friends) or for new writers wondering what happens after the first draft of a first novel, read on for some insight into the process.
Sh*tty First Draft
Turns out, completing the first draft of a novel is just the beginning.
When I triumphantly typed “The End” and climbed out of my writing cave, I strode into the kitchen with tears in my eyes. I demanded a hug from my perpetually perplexed husband and told him “this is a big deal.” And it was.
But it wasn’t the whole deal.
One axiom shared by writers of all genres and all levels of expertise is: The first draft is sh*t. Just ask Hemingway or Anne Lamott. (If you’re a new writer and you don’t know who she is WHY ARE YOU READING THIS? Drop everything and run, run I tell you – to get Bird by Bird.)
Another rule of thumb is that after you finish a first draft, you are supposed to hide it. Distance yourself so you can come back to it with a more objective outlook.
I finished “Tell Me What You Want” on August 31. It’s on the shorter side for a novel at 65,000 words (245 pages). Turns out there’s guidelines for stuff like that. A novel is typically 80,000 + words. Who knew?
The First Read Through
It wasn’t until the second week of October that I read it through for the first time. I’d sent a copy to both of my sisters and my best friend knowing they would all be supportive. I felt a panic attack coming on when I got ready to read it myself.
My chief concerns were in this order:
- It will suck
- It will suck so bad, I won’t even finish reading it.
- It will suck so bad I will never write another thing.
Completely daunted, I read it as a reader. Without editing as I went. All of my fears were not unfounded. Parts of it sucked a lot.
But some parts were decidedly un-sucky. These parts are what is known in the industry as “my darlings” and the general wisdom is that these darlings must eventually be slaughtered (or for the less dramatic of you, deleted).
Does This Novel Make Me Look Fat?
What most writers need is honest, experienced critique partners and I don’t have those yet. What I did have was a couple of published authors that I had met and who, as part of a class and later a writing retreat, offered to edit excerpts of works in progress.
The feedback I received was helpful, depressing and amazing often on the same page. Turns out, I have a “voice” – again, who knew? Also turns out I knew next to nothing about how a novel is constructed.
If I’m being honest, this came as a little bit of a surprise. I mean, I’ve read thousands of novels. I’ve studied English Lit and even tested out of a couple of college literature courses. None of these prepared me for the fact that a novel is a very specific thing with specific rules that you have to follow unless you’re good enough to break all the rules.
Novel construction was not something taught in any of my previous courses. Most of them were about awakening your creativity. That’s not where I needed help.
Under Construction – Danger Falling Hopes and Dreams
To start with, if you’re a casual or even avid reader, it might not occur to you that novels are written in scenes. Like a screenplay but different. Go on, go get that trashy romance novel or mystery with the cat on the cover. Alternatively, grab that suspense novel with the shadowy trees and bloody hand. Either will do.
If it kept you reading until the end, it’s a pretty safe bet that the book you’re reading is made up of scenes – interactions between characters or a single character doing something. They have thoughts, sure, but 20 pages of your heroine describing the grass and flower beds does not a published book make.
A lot of this stuff about how novels are made I began to learn during the process of writing the first draft. Logically, the last third of my book is better than the first third. That’s a relief.
Writing IS Re-Writing
Another axiom for writers is that writing is a craft that can be learned, and each stab you take at it usually improves the product. I tried not to think of stabbing myself when I thought of the time required to rewrite what I’d just written.
On the advice of some of the pros I’ve recently met, I decided to send my manuscript to an editor for an assessment. Editors offer different levels of services and what I was looking for is a complete read-through of my draft. The result will be a professional (if subjective) evaluation of what is working in my book, what needs to be reworked and recommendations on the best way to approach a rewrite.
Did you know that Tolstoy rewrote War and Peace 10 times? Ten complete drafts of the same giant book. Listening to some of my favorite author interviews confirms that at a minimum, four or five drafts are common. One author recently published a critically acclaimed novel after 19 drafts.
Don’t Fall for the New Project
Maybe I’ll Just Start a New One…
Working authors caution against the siren song of the new project. Seems that a majority of writers agree. It’s easier to get started and write the first draft of a project than to go back and revise a work in progress.
There are a few exceptions to every rule but I know my own weaknesses. To me, the act of sitting down and spewing out my brain-droppings on the page or screen is a little bit like magic. I see a prompt or wake up with an idea, a blank page, and my fingers just start dancing. Invariably, the alarm goes off and I shut down the laptop to head off to my day job, leaving the tail end of my thoughts and a project likely to remain unfinished.
In other words, I’ve decided not to start another full-length book project until I make some decisions about this one. I will hear back from my editor in a month or so and have pretty much committed to at least one more complete draft.
Never Never Never Give Up!
I have much to learn and I want to see something I’ve molded take shape into a better version. In the meantime, I continue to write most every day. I have a couple of short stories and essays in the works. I update my blog, review books, interview authors and keep my ideas for new projects in special notebooks until their time comes. I continue to study the craft.
With the help of a friend, we created a working cover for the novel so I could remind myself that I did write an entire book. I share that cover with you now. Many first novels languish in drawers as writers take what they’ve learned and apply it to sophomore efforts they are less embarrassed to share with the masses.
I’m not embarrassed at all. Even the crappy parts of this first effort are all mine. They’re proof. I put out effort and the result was a book. I wrote a book. Yay me! You can too.