OK, so it’s an analogy that dates me. But in olden times, when you took your rental tapes[*] back to the video store[*], the clerk with the nose ring would get annoyed if you didn’t rewind them. That was because the next renter would have to rewind the VHS[*] tape and this could take several minutes and wear out his/her VCR[*]. Sometimes you were charged a five dollar fee if you didn’t rewind. Hence the phrase: Be Kind-Rewind.
([*]: younger readers may have to Google these terms.)
This rule happens to be the reverse when it comes to writing a long piece, however – particularly an early draft of a novel.
So you’ve got thirty gifted—but rough—pages and you’ve submitted them to your critique group. They love your quirky Southern novel with its ensemble cast but there are clarity errors (it’s a first draft). And they bring up stuff that simply doesn’t work. And they have a few suggestions for improvements. Great! With their feedback, you’ve even got a few new ideas of your own. So back you go to page 1, to get it all right before you move on. It makes sense. You need a good foundation[**].
Before you know it, revision becomes rewrite.
But you get it all down and resubmit to your workgroup. Or your friends. If you have any left.
And so it goes.
Six months later you find yourself still working your first thirty pages. You need to get them right. It’s important (and it is—eventually). But for some reason you never reach the end of the first draft. The members of your critique group display forced smiles when you resubmit.
If this sounds familiar, you are in good company.
The risks of over-editing the beginning of an early draft are many:
1. You never get to page thirty-one. Or it takes you forever (and you end up changing the first thirty pages anyway, once you finally complete the drafts, now that you’ve driven the entire journey).
2. Your work suffers from workshop bloat. Each subsequent submission adds a layer of earnest explanation to your fiery prose and loses power with the reader, even trained readers like your stalwart writer friends.
3. Suggestions for improvement are sometimes not as valid as they could be as a result of seeing the work too often.
4. Key elements get left out because you cut them. But they are still locked in the minds of you and your critiquers. I had a pair of earrings in a work-in–progress that are essential to the plot yet they somehow disappeared from a scene and a new reader was confused. Previous readers had no issue–the earrings were still on camera because they had been seen before. They were in the first draft. But now they’re gone, thanks to my over-zealous rewriting.
5. The vibrancy fades. The Thrill is Gone, as BB King so bluntly put it. That’s because it suffocated due to premature over-editing, which sounds like something you might take little blue pills for. Remember that Southern novel? I was referring to a dear friend whose book opened with a terrific, wonderful, quirky scene set in a small town square. But there were a lot of characters and it was a little confusing. (It was a first draft.) But subsequent rapid edits without moving forward completely diminished this scene and it got chopped and buried in a lot of narrative that tried to clarify. The magic was gone, unbeknownst to the author.
“I honestly believe that the first draft—your instinctive, heartfelt product—is the best.” Lee Child said this, and he has sold a few (million) books. Make that tens of millions.
You MUST edit—like mad—eventually.
Under-edited books are the bane of the self-publishing world. IMO Indie authors must work even harder to combat the stigma of sloppy self-pubbers. As number two, we have to try harder.
James M. Cain said anyone who wasn’t prepared to rewrite a book fourteen times had no business writing it in the first place, but he was talking about an entire (i.e. completed) book. If the manuscript isn’t finished, don’t do it.
I view submissions like gold and try not to resubmit a section more than twice to my group, and twice only after a period of time has passed.
If you leave off at page thirty, start the next writing session on page twenty-nine (no earlier) and press on, until the draft is finished. If I have group feedback on earlier sections I leave myself a bullet list of notes before the offending section and forge ahead without any immediate revision until I am done and ready for the next draft.
Baby steps. In my other life I am a software engineer. People think I’m crazy when I say this but there are many similarities to writing a novel and writing a computer program. In software engineering there is the concept of ‘iterative development’, which boils down to ‘don’t try to do it all at once’. Write small improvements to the program with each successive iteration, making sure each ‘draft’ works until it all functions efficiently. Try to do it in one or two passes and most mortals will fail–or write a crappy program. I apply the same methodology to my fiction writing after my first drafts—(usually two). Sometimes I do temporal adjustment, getting all the dates and times in sync. Sometimes I just do dialog tags. A draft like that can take mere hours. Sometimes I flesh out a single character’s POV over a specific topic in a single draft and not bother with other themes or characters just yet. I do a lot of drafts but they feel manageable.
Be prepared to fail. Be prepared to write an entire novel that isn’t worth a second draft. I’ve done it, more than once, I’m sorry to say. But so have many successful authors. I once wrote a horror novel (I thought I wanted to write a horror novel and thought I could) but it simply didn’t work. It’s sitting somewhere on my hard drive collecting digital dust. But I don’t regret it (too much) and I didn’t spend a year on the first thirty pages. Henning Mankell said you have to write a lot of crap if you want to write something good. The Rolling Stones used to spend months in the studio just to come up with one three-minute gem. Be prepared to fail.
You’re not the first author to have the OCD early editing problem. The temptation to go back and revise is huge. It’s natural.
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story,” said Terry Pratchett. They made him a knight so I guess he knows what he’s talking about. There’s no need to get your story right for everyone until you tell it to yourself. That can take a draft. Or even two.
In the age of word processors it’s too easy to over-revise, and risk not finishing, or wind up with some brown sludge that doesn’t do anything for anyone. Shakespeare and Hemingway did not have the physical capability to rewrite that you and I do. I’m going to bet they probably didn’t keep going back to page one as often as we did because they didn’t have the technology. Seems like they didn’t need it.
¡viven los escritores!
** – not always – see my post first draft jitters and driving at night
“There’s too much description, not enough conflict and your protagonist is vague.”
As authors, we are all guilty…
This week I am channeling Jim Frey, writing mentor and friend (not to be confused with the James Frey of Oprah fame). If my work has any of the ingredients required of a damn good novel (a Jim Frey term) i.e. conflict, drama, plot, then it is because Jim kindly showed me the error of my ways when I turned out page after page of over-descriptive, confusing, navel-contemplating prose (which I, of course, knew to be brilliant at the time).
1. There’s too much description:
As you write your draft, the tendency will be to write long passages of description leading up to the actual scene (hopefully there is a scene coming and not just more long beautiful descriptive passages, but we’ve all done that too). This is known as ‘warming up your engines’, the need for a writer to set the scene for himself and immerse himself in the story which will one day be a fantastic novel. The answer? As you rewrite (remember: anyone can write but only a writer can rewrite) target these sections brutally and cut. If something is just too precious, even more so. “Kill your darlings,” as William Faulkner said. Elmore Leonard put it more directly: “Leave out the parts people skip over”. More often than not, that means long chunks of description.
2. Not enough conflict:
Conflict is the key to good drama and we, as writers, tend to avoid it, especially during early drafts. We’re sitting in our little caves with the lights down low, banging out a masterpiece. For us the work is superb as is—unlike other novel drafts. As humans, we shy away from conflict. But conflict is what defines character and drives your plot. Every line of your novel should in some way be contributing to the conflict of the story. Scenes where your protagonist remembers a pleasant time from her youth (with lots of description) when the main story is a mystery are to be heavily considered for the chopping block. If your writing does not create conflict (and also create meaningful conflict) chop and reread. Also, when searching for scenes that sag, look for the dreaded flashback.
3. Your protagonist is vague:
Hard to believe that this wonderful character you have created is, well, kind of blah and hard to fathom for others. She’s not nuanced, has no real physical characteristics, no sharp inner turmoil (wound) that drives her to seek justice. Why is that—especially when your secondary characters might be the opposite? Because as authors we tend to live in our protagonist’s head. We know exactly what she is thinking, feeling, and about to do next. It’s painfully obvious—to us. It’s so obvious we don’t even put it down on the page. Maybe we should.
viva los escritores!