When are you “ready”?

Hi Y’all,

Did you have a nice weekend? Spring has finally shown its face here in New England, and the hubby and I spent the weekend…gardening! We bought some flowers at Shaw’s (local grocery store) and put them in the backyard. We’re getting ready for Buffetsday, a made-up (by me) holiday where you have a cookout and listen to Jimmy Buffett, patron saint of summer and margaritas. I’ve never really done any gardening before, but Tom and I found we quite liked it. It’s very satisfying, to look at a well-weeded garden and know YOU did that. Maybe Voltaire was on to something.

Anyway, Monday is writing-topic day (anyone have a catchy, alliterative title for Monday?) so we’re going to talk about when your novel is “ready” to be published. The first question on most publishing sites and authors’ sites is, “I just wrote a book! Now what?” The answer is, overwhelmingly, EDIT.

But, you protest-I’ve written the Next Great American Novel!! I need no editing! To which I reply-I totally feel you. Finishing a book is a HUGE accomplishment! Truman Capote once said, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” No joke. So, congrats on shooting a child in the backyard! Or something appropriately less morbid. When I finished my book, I put it away for six months. I didn’t look at it, didn’t think about it, just passed it off as a fever dream. (which it sort of was, being the product of NaNoWriMo. What is NaNoWriMo, you ask? http://www.nanowrimo.org/) Then I took it out and read it, not changing it at all, just experiencing it.

Reading it after being away for so long felt like I was reading someone else’s book, not my own. I was able to experience it much more objectively-see what worked, what didn’t, and really critique the characters. It should be obvious that a book needs to flow from beginning to end, but it took me til that first read-through to realize the pacing was way off.  I selected what I thought was the best part of the book, decided it was the climax, and re-wrote the beginning to build to that point.

There are, roughly, two types of writers: (I’m stealing this from Kurt Vonnegut-I think it was him anyway. Just assume anything good on here is attributable to him in some way. No copyright infringement intended. 🙂 1-people who agonize over each sentence as they write them, not moving on until they’ve achieved perfection, and           2-people who slam out drafts willy-nilly, then edit it all at the end.  I am definitely of the latter persuasion. So my first draft was, essentially, figuring out what kind of novel I wanted to write. I had the a)main character, b) a general idea of the ending, and c) some conflicts when I started out. The second draft was a refinement of the ideas I had. I realized that my book was not an adventure novel, but really about the relationships between mothers and daughters. So I had a lot of adjusting to do.

The six months I took gave me the distance to be ruthless. I cut large parts of the book (about 2/3) completely out and started again. That would not have been possible right after finishing it. You need some space to begin, if I may mangle a metaphor, repeatedly shooting your novel  in the backyard. Sometimes you have to viciously cut things to make the novel better. I loved my ending. Really, really loved it. But I realized that it was totally fanciful and stole some of the gravitas of my story by being too made-for-TV-movie. So I threw out the last forty pages of the book and started again. It was really scary hitting “delete” and watch your page count shrink by 40, but it was so worth it. Fortune favors the brave and all that. And there’s no way I would have been able to do that if I hadn’t taken time away from the novel.

I also made some pretty drastic character changes to almost every character. Reading the first draft, you would have thought the school had ten million students-all with multiple personality disorder. I changed names, forgot what I changed them to, changed physical features and personalities…you name it, I did it. Several times. Mid-novel. My second draft drastically cut down on the cast of characters (from about ten girls to five) and shaped them into (I hope) fully-drawn individuals.

I should mention that, in between the first and second draft, I asked two trusted people to read it and make suggestions. Not “you misspelled this word” suggestions, but “this ending makes no sense” and “this character is really unlikeable” suggestions. I did not take each and every suggestion, but I really pondered them all. I heartily suggest that anyone who wants to write a book find a Beatrice to their Dante-someone to guide them through the Hell that writing sometimes is. 🙂 It will help you realize what’s working and what isn’t. It’s invaluable. Be careful who you choose-make sure you trust them to be honest but fair. And thank them profusely for putting up with your “I’m not sure if I really even want there to be a suicide in the novel…” emails at 3AM.

The Big Edit (that created the 2nd draft) took three months-three times longer than it took to write the book, I should point out. Once that was FINALLY done (and I stopped referring to my novel as That Damn Book), I sent out the draft to a larger circle of friends, who I am hoping will give subjective as well as mechanical criticism. I don’t plan (at this point) to make any major structural changes, but I do need to fix spelling errors, typos, etc. And, of course, I want everyone to tell me I’m brilliant and I’ve written the Next Great American Novel.

So, quick and dirty-1)write book. 2)let it sit as long as you need to be able to hack it into little pieces. 3)hack it into little pieces. 4) reassemble your little pieces (with a little help from your friends).

Hopefully step 5 is Become a Famous and Celebrated Novelist. Stay tuned.

Join us Wednesday for WTF Wednesdays (my rant of the week)!


1 Comment

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One response to “When are you “ready”?

  1. Laura, I just finished reading Stephen King’s “On Writing”. It’s fantastic, and I’ll probably end up mailing a shelf-worn copy to you at some point. Naturally, it’s chock-full of writerly advice, but the most striking to me was this formula: Second Draft = First Draft – 10%. You’ve sort of hit upon this conclusion yourself. You’ve also independently realized some advice I once got from George Saunders, about putting your first draft away and not thinking about it for several months, then coming back to it with fresh eyes. This was a part of what Saunders called “superediting”, something we’ve doubtless talked about in the past.

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