Your Novel is Like a House of Cards…
Each piece supports another, each card an integral part of a larger whole. How do you proceed? Can you remove cards from the middle and not have it all fall down? Carefully, carefully slip the offending Joker or deuce from its place. Start at the end and deconstruct backwards – this stupid scene at the end, where did it come from? Trace it back, dig out the rot. Make yourself a smaller tower, a sleeker manse – yes.
But then…wait. No! Not that one…
And then it’s all gone. Your edifice, flawed at its heart, lies flat on the table. Time to start anew. Marshal your strength, steel your resolve. You’re going to have to do it over again.
This is not the first time it has fallen.
Your Novel is Like a Wild Stallion…
It breathes, living and beautiful. It is strong, vital. You made it – with sorcery and wiles you yourself cannot recall the knack of – and yet it cannot stay this way. It must be tamed, somehow. It must be made suitable for others, not just for your own special touch.
And yet, is it not alive? How can you change it without killing what it is? You grasp the mane tightly as it bucks. You try to soothe, but this is not something it will submit to. It loves itself. It loves the free way it tramples prose. The meandering paths of plot and pacing are its familiar paths, wild though they are.
So you build fences and walls. You wield the whip, so terrible the crack, so that it learns respect. And all this while you bleed inside. This is not what you wanted. Not what you intended.
Why cannot the wild thing live free and alone?
But no. That is not what you intended either. It must be broken. The stallion must be broken if a steed it will make. And break it you shall, come what may.
Your Novel is Like a Tree
This thing was not of your doing, you know it. You merely planted the seeds, you watered, and you waited. Day after day, tending the shoots, it has grown into something pretty, but also imperfect.
But how to fix it? Pruning here and pruning there – a careful snip. There is no going back now. The old tree will never return, and you know you cannot grow the same tree twice. And still it grows in ways unexpected. How can you keep a living thing from growing? How dare you?
And what if it dies? No one has use for dead trees, except as fuel, or perhaps sanded down into boards and dull furniture. Stacked in a lumber yard, forgotten.
So you are careful. Respectful. Debating over every cut – how deep an injury will this cause? Because there is no going back, no more seeds to plant. This is the tree, one way or another. And yet it’s still not right.
Perhaps another little cut.
No, still not right.
And so it goes.
Hey everybody! I’m not dead!
Sorry I haven’t posted here in two weeks or so, but I’ve been finishing the rough draft of Book #4 in The Saga of the Redeemed. And guess what? I finished! The currently-titled THE FAR FAR BETTER THING is weighing in at about 123,000 words and does, in fact, tell a mostly coherent story. I wrote it in just under 3 months, start to finish. Go me.
But it is by no means really good, yet. I can’t be – it’s a rough draft.
When you start writing and reading writing guides and hearing writers talk, most of them (possibly all of them) say some variation of the same thing:
The real work – the real writing – happens in revision.
When you’re just starting out, this sounds…unlikely. I mean, do you have any idea how much work goes into writing that rough draft? These writers – these so-called professionals – they must just use a different method, right? They must be writing slapdash crappy drafts. My draft will be perfect. My draft will only need a few minor buffs here, a couple little tweaks here. Like Michelangelo, I am merely revealing the work, fully realized, from the block of uncut marble.
To which I say bullshit.
Look, there are always exceptions, I guess. Sometimes a writer does get that hole-in-one, needs very little revision, and it goes off to be an overnight hit. Most of the time? Like, as in 98-99% of the time? Nope. Not how it works.
The fact that many newer writers have a hard time accepting this is, I feel, one of the various pitfalls that can quickly make completing that draft nearly impossible, or at least vastly more difficult. This is because, if you’re expecting your draft to be perfection in one swing, then every time you make a mistake or see an error or realize that you need to go back and change things, you are suddenly paralyzed.
Sayeth the writer: “What? Go back and change it? Well, I have to do that now, otherwise the rest of the draft will make no sense! Egads, I have to start all over!”
This is how many writers end up writing and re-writing and re-re-writing the first chapter of their novel umpteen billion times and never actually finish the damned book. They’re trapped by a never ending cycle of sanding away at what they think will become the statue’s perfect toe. At that rate, Michelangeo wouldn’t have managed to carve squat, let alone David.
To this conundrum, let me give you a mantra – a mantra that I used as recently as yesterday that allowed me to go from zero to complete 123k word draft in about 80 days:
I CAN FIX THAT IN POST!
Say it with me, now:
I CAN FIX THAT IN POST!
As in post-production, as in revision, as in draft number two. Because, if you’re actually going for your best work and/or you actually want to publish this thing, one draft is not gonna cut it. My last book took seven – seven whole drafts. It happens.
Now, yeah, you ought to proceed with some kind of plan and hopefully you don’t need more than two or three drafts of the book before it is in working shape, but you can’t go through that rough draft rewriting every damned chapter and expect to finish it in any kind of timely fashion (not that it’s a race, but still). Mistakes happen, things you overlooked come up, and, yeah, a lot of times you get a better idea halfway through and wish you had incorporated that earlier. When such problems arise, laugh, repeat your mantra, and keep writing.
The wonderful thing about drafts is that nobody else has to read them. They don’t actually need to make sense to anybody other than yourself! Make notes in the margin! Insert little brackets with things like [rename this character later] or [insert flashy chase scene here]. Forgive yourself for writing crappy passages and move on.
Don’t worry – you are going to go back and fix it all, I promise – but for now, the most important thing you need to remember is that you can’t actually fix the book until you have a book. One chapter? Six? 35K of a Nanowrimo entry? Not a book. You need a complete story (or nearly so), no matter how flawed, before you can fashion a good story.
Finish the book first. Make it a good book later.
ACT 1: THE IDEA
Writer: Wait…wait a minute. What’s this here? Why…why it’s a little idea!
Idea: (tiny voice) Water me, and I shall grow!
Writer: LET IT BE DONE!
(weeks of obsessive scribbling in notebooks pass)
Writer: THIS WILL BE THE GREATEST OF BOOKS!
ACT 2: THE DRAFT
Writer: There…outline finished.
Idea: That doesn’t really look like me.
Writer: It does if you tilt your head a little and squint.
Writer: Let’s just start writing this thing and bring it to life. Then you’ll see.
Draft: HELLO! I AM DRAFT!
Idea: That looks nothing like me.
Writer: NO SHIT.
Idea: This is a violation of your promise to make me beautiful.
Writer: IT’S A PROCESS, DICK!
ACT 3: REVISION
Writer: Maybe if we hacked off its arms….
Idea: My arms are my best feature.
Writer: Okay, well, then I guess you’ll have to be purple.
Writer: WORK WITH ME, IDEA!
Idea: I will not compromise my integrity.
Writer (brings out chainsaw): Get on the table.
Writer: DO IT!
A BRIEF INTERLUDE
New Idea: Hi there! I’m a new Idea!
Writer (stooping over bloody corpse of old idea) GO. AWAY.
New Idea: Uhhhh…this seems like a bad time.
Writer: (points) GET IN THAT NOTEBOOK, SCUM!
ACT 3: SECOND DRAFT
Writer: (throws switch) There! LIVE LIIIIVE!
Idea/Draft Hybrid: WE. OBEY.
Writer: (frowning) Nope. Back on the table.
Idea/Draft Hybrid: WE. OBEY.
ACT 4: COMPLETION
Writer: There! All done!
Writer: What? What’s wrong?
Idea: Why am I purple?
Writer: (looks at chainsaw) Hmmmmm…
Idea: No! Purple! Purple’s fine!
In all this talk of writing and revising and revising again and hunting for agents and publishers and book deals and all that jazz, there is something we sometimes neglect to discuss: how psychologically daunting writing a novel can be. And it is. It downright terrifies people – terrifies them into inaction or despair or even cleaning the house over and over again like some kind of deranged amphetamine addict. Writing hurts on a spiritual level. Well, it can, anyway. It often does.
If you’re reading that last bit and saying “ha! When I write, I am FREE!” I have this to say:
The more I write, the more I believe that the great filter that separates those who write from those who wish to write is not one of talent or time or intelligence or training or money or any of that – it is a psychological barrier. You’ve got to sit down and fail. Yes, fail. And not even spectacular failure, either – mundane, limping, ignominious failure. Failure that makes you question your worth. And then you’ve got to get back up, sit down at that desk again, and try to find success in the failure somewhere.
In my case, I recently finished a draft of a novel (my seventh novel overall, the third in the Saga of the Redeemed). It was the fourth draft of the book and I completed it in about ten weeks or so. I walked away feeling pretty good about myself, let it rest for a week, and then went back to read it.
Oh. Oh God.
The thing is an unutterable train wreck. The external conflict was working okay, but the characters’ motivations were all over the place, the action was boring and predictable, and the twists weren’t telegraphed enough to make any sense. Gah! I’m going to have to rewrite maybe 75% of this damned thing and now the summer (with its blissful days of writerly concentration) is over! No! Soon the students will once again descend upon my mind palace and supplant all this novel-thinking with reams and reams of papers to grade and lectures to deliver and discussions to moderate! I’ve failed to finish the book I swore I’d finish this time around! No!
Honestly, the failure of this draft (complete as it is) has been enough to knock the wind out of my sails in these last days of summer. I feel useless. I threw the novel up on my office wall in color-coded index cards and stare at it bleakly.
But I’m wrong. I didn’t fail. I just didn’t finish yet – I’m one step closer to completion, and I will make that step. It’s just a matter of dusting myself off and fighting for some time to do it. But man, looking at that wall, looking at the orange Xs I crossed through terrible scenes, really hurts. Not physically, but almost so. It’s a knot in my chest I can’t work out, a thing that makes me wince every hour on the hour.
I’ll get over it, though. I’ll ride back into battle with that beast soon enough, and perhaps this time with the wisdom to see myself to victory. As Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers once said:
Once you’ve got a task to do, it’s better to do it than live with the fear of it.
True words, my friends. Sit down. Write the words. Feel the pain.
I’m in the midst of a rough draft of a novel and it isn’t going well. It hasn’t gone well from day one, actually – writing this thing has been like pulling teeth. I know where I want the story to go, but getting it to go there has been very awkward work. I’ll be honest: the book, right now, is a shambles.
But that’s okay, right? Rough drafts are supposed to be terrible. They are you, the author, dragging together a great steaming morass of garbage into one place that, later on, will be mercilessly revised and edited into something awesome. This is tried and true authorial practice – ask anybody. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
You can take that to the bank, friends.
Let us pursue this question one step further, though: assuming we know that the first draft is going to suck and assuming we are aware that it’s purpose is to collect raw material for future drafts, then how much of the first draft do you need to complete before you abandon it and start over?
Let me give you a strictly hypothetical and in no way actual or currently relevant example. Say I’ve got, I dunno, 50,000 words of a rough draft done. Now, going off what my (hypothetical) loose outline dictates, I’m only a third of the way through (which means the book is shaping up to be too long, but that’s not important right now). However, the first third of a novel really needs to be solid in order to support that last two thirds. I mean, if you screw up getting Luke off Tatooine, how much of a story do you have for the later parts? The worse the beginning is, the less likely anything you set up in the end is going to be useful, anyway.
Now, granted, the remaining 70-80K of novel (well, 100K) will probably have its gems, but they’ll be gems buried in a twisted pile of tubular steel – not exactly useful. If I know what’s wrong with the story now (and I needed that 50,000 words to help me figure that out), why not ditch it and circle back? Strong foundations make for strong middle acts, right?
In saying this, I realize I’m flying in the face of a lot of conventional story-writing wisdom. “Finish what you write,” quoth Heinlein. I know, I know – and it is good advice, too. The thing is, though, the purpose behind Heinlein’s second rule is that, until you’ve written the thing through, you supposedly can’t see what needs fixing. But what if you can? Like, I get it, okay? I see where I made the wrong turn and now I’ve gone down this whole other path that leads to pretty much nothing but tea parties and navel-gazing and I needed to go down this other path, where I’d be more likely to find zombie ninjas and fire-breathing unicorns.
For me, writing a novel is a lot like trying to solve a maze. If you make a wrong turn, do you really draw your line to the end of the bad path? I know this one’s a dead end, folks.
If this were a short story, maybe that would be different – how long does it take to write to the end of a short story, anyway? But a novel? That’s another month or two of my life, slogging through the pages to a conclusion that will probably have to change entirely for the book to work. What an incredible waste of time!
Hypothetically speaking, of course.
While I get increasingly excited about The Iron Ring being released in a mere two and a half weeks or so and wait for my editing notes for Blood and Iron to come through so I can get that in the can, I have a whole other book to worry about. A book that is not done and that must become done by May 1st. That is Book 3 of The Saga of the Redeemed, and it is called All That Glitters.
The book is currently in its fourth revision. All plot pieces are pretty well in place, all the character arcs are established, and the whole thing makes sense. There is, however, a problem: it is 124,000 words (445 pages or so, for you uninitiated). My editor has informed me that, in no uncertain terms, the longest they will accept is 100,000 and they’d really prefer 85K. That’s between 24K and about 40K words. This is not a matter of trimming vocabulary or cutting the odd paragraph. My book needs to go here:
This represents and interesting (and rather terrifying) new problem for me: I do not have the time to write an entirely new book, but the book I have needs to be about 100 pages shorter. So, can I, Auston Habershaw, loquacious chatterbox extraordinaire, find a way to trim fat from a book that, honestly doesn’t have a hell of a lot of fat? Also: can he do it while teaching four university courses, reading thirteen novels (needed to teach those four courses), and read/grade about 20-30 pages of writing from each of my 100 students?
You watch me.
(Well, no – don’t watch me. That would be weird and creepy.)
I’ve got a plan, actually. I’m going to hack some stuff from the beginning, I’m going to axe two major characters, and then I’m going to try and stitch together the pieces in such a way that nobody notices that it’s gone and I still have a kickass novel on my hands. The real trick is, though, that I need to pull this off in one try. The deadline is too close and I have too much work to do to have this plan fail and to go back to square one.
Accordingly, I am approaching this with all the methodical strategy of a general organizing a campaign. I’ve got the wall of my office covered with index cards representing each individual scene of the novel and, most importantly, that scene’s word count. I’ve never done this before because, prior to having a book deal, I’ve never needed to worry overmuch about word count. If I wrote a 124K book before, I’d say to myself, “Hell, I’ve read plenty of fantasy novels that were 450 pages!” Then I’d pat myself on the back and eat a steak. Now, though, I need to worry about things like contracts and editors and marketing and having a length of book that will fit well in the market and so on. So, no steak for me. Not yet.
Steak is for closers.
The Iron Ring is getting closer and closer to publication. I’m going over my editor’s revision notes, putting on the final rounds of spit and polish, and soon this little dragster of a story is going to hit the road. You know, assuming there are no cataclysmic failures anywhere along the line. Obviously.
Anyway, I’ve had enough people ask me about this in the recent months that I figured I may as well write about it. “Auston”, they ask, “how do you write a novel?” This is a question that probably has as many answers as there are authors, and if you’re going about writing a novel, you’re probably going to do it differently than anybody else. Writing, as everybody and their sister will tell you, is a personal and solitary process and, as such, it is prone to idiosyncrasy.
This, however, doesn’t answer the question to anybody’s satisfaction. I must, therefore, answer it literally: how do I, Auston Habershaw, write a novel. I feel at this juncture it is important for me to note that nobody taught me how to write a novel. Nobody. It’s something I figured out myself, ultimately, and all the novel workshops I attended through my MFA program and before have mostly taught me how to write chapters, which is a very distinct thing from writing a novel at large. This should not mean my teachers were bad at their jobs by any means, but rather reflect upon the limitations of the semester-based (or workshop based) education system for teaching somebody how to do something that takes years to perfect. I’ve written about 7 novels to date, some of which will never see the light of day (and rightly so), but each has taught me a lot through painful trial and error.
Anyway, the point is that my process might not work for you, but it is a process that seems to produce results, so here we go.
Part 1: The Rough Draft
The first thing I do when writing a novel is to write it. Well, not exactly – I do spend an indeterminate period of time thinking about it and getting the novel into a rough shape in my mind. Main characters, a central conflict, and a beginning/middle/end arc are all loosely defined, and then I start writing. I write the whole thing in one shot. I revise nothing (NOTHING). I don’t so much as fix a comma or proofread a paragraph. I learned early on that, if I did that, I’d get trapped in an endless revision loop of fixing what was, essentially, a tiny part of a large work that might just get cut, anyway. I don’t worry a lot about keeping continuity through the draft – if a character stops working and is messing with the story, I let that character drop and leave myself a footnote explaining why I did it to a future, very skeptical me.
The point of the rough draft is to toss as much junk on the table as possible. The plot usually winds up an ungodly tangle, there are all kinds of pointless tangents, and a lot of things make no sense. That’s okay – the objective is the generation of an entire book’s worth of raw material. It is very hard to tell precisely what will be useful or useless in the future, so I don’t worry too much about it. The point is to get the whole thing done.
Now, I realize there are people out there who extensively outline and, thereby, sort of side-step this. Well, in theory, I guess. Me, I’ve found extensive outlining at this stage hobbles the novel for me – it restricts my ability to improvise and allow the story to grow organically.
Part 2: The Chainsaw Stage
The second draft (and sometimes a third draft, too) involves chopping apart that pile of trash until you’ve got a workable plot and have the general pacing of the novel under control. I call this the Chainsaw Stage, as it often involved hacking out big hunks of stuff you wrote. Other people call this the “Killing Your Babies” stage, as it often involves killing things you love for the sake of the whole. It might be a lovely little tumor, but it’s still a tumor – hack it out.
Of course, once you’ve hacked a bunch of stuff out, you need to fill in those gaping holes you left. This involves writing new scenes that shore up and improve all the stuff you’re keeping. This very process – the act of hacking up and pasting back in – is why I can’t revise until I have a complete or essentially complete rough draft: until I see the story in total, I can’t make responsible decisions of what must go and what must stay. The Chainsaw Stage is only as successful as the Rough Draft is.
These two steps comprise, what I feel, is the lion’s share of the work in novel writing. The first part is tons of fun, though the result is disheartening. The second part is enormously difficult and painful, but the result is incredibly satisfactory. These two parts should (for me) solve all the major problems of the novel. After this point, I know what the story is, I have all the character arcs, conflicts, and resolutions roughly in place, and I have a draft that might actually be readable by outsiders (you know, if they forced me).
Part 3: Buff, Wax, and Polish
The last part (well, discounting what your editor wants you to revise and so on) primarily involves buffing out the stuff you’ve already got. Most of the new scene writing is behind you. Yeah, you might insert a little thing here or there, but generally all the bones of the book are firmly in place. This is when I start to actually worry about style and really start proofreading the thing. This is when I start fiddling with particular words or set rules for the spelling of certain specialized terms (I’m a fantasy author, remember?). I rewrite dialogue a lot (I know what I want them to say, but they can always say it better) and revise action sequences (Quoth George Lucas: Faster! More intensely!).
This stage takes a surprisingly long time, since it is very easy to fiddle. I put it off for two or three drafts prior to this, so finally indulging can be cathartic. I strive to keep myself under control, honestly. Stage 4 kills a lot of the point of fiddling sometimes.
Part 4: Professional Editor
By the end of Stage 3, the book should be about as good as I can possibly make it. At some point it becomes clear that all my edits are lateral moves – nothing is getting better, just slightly different. By then, it is time to submit it. If you’re very persistent and very lucky (as I have been), you’ll actually get a professional to look at the thing and tell you what to change. In my (extremely brief) experience, they are almost always right. You fix as directed.
This is the stage I am currently at. I know there are other stages, but all of those are involved in the professional publication end of this spectrum – copy editing, marketing, etc.. By that point, I obviously already have a novel (and have had one for some time), and the question was “how do I write a novel,” not “how does the publishing business work.” As far as that second one is concerned, I have legitimately no idea what I am doing.
Wish me luck!
It is August, which means the Fall approaches, which means the Fall Semester looms. My time for writing and revising grows short. The hour is later than I think, sayeth Saruman. In the next three weeks, I’ve got a small pile of meetings to attend, four classes to prepare, and most of a novel to revise. Also, my editor could shoot me an e-mail at any time between now and October in which she will give me the revision notes for an entirely different novel, which I will then need to revise by October.
Accordingly, I think it perhaps prudent that this blog goes on a little hiatus until the dust settles a bit. I will be certain to post and update you good readers on any further publishing or release news regarding my short fiction exploits, The Oldest Trick, etc, but otherwise I need to put my nose to the grindstone and get the real work done. No more pointless rambling from yours truly until I’m out of the woods.
See you, hopefully, in September. Or, perhaps, I will lose you to a summer love. Either way.
I bid you all a temporary and fair adieu. Fare thee well, wherever you fare. Peace out.