The End of the Beginning

Three nights ago, I finished the first draft of my second novel. Writing “The End” beneath the last paragraph brought an end to approximately four months of almost-nightly labor. At around 65k words, it is almost half the size of my first attempt at writing a novel, but I also think it is much better than my first. A big story in a small package.

Now, the hard part begins.

When I finished my first novel, I did as I was instructed by many experts in the publishing industry and let it sit for a few weeks before I dove back in to start the editing process. Halfway through editing, my computer died and, in my foolishness, I had not made a backup of the revised work. The rough draft rests peacefully on my new computer, likely to never see the light of day. Like a summer romance, my first novel was a great relationship while it lasted, but there was never anything permanent, nothing to stick with for the long haul. I’ve fallen out of love with it and in love with my new project.

When editing begins on the new story, I already have several things I want to change. My writing process consists of getting everything down in the first draft, then closing any gaps during the rewrite. There were times, fewer with this novel than the last, when I knew as I was writing that I would have to revisit the passages, even as they appeared on my computer screen, would have to go back and clarify what I was trying to say or find a better way to describe what was happening. There were also times, more with this work, that I looked at what I had written with the kind of pride that only comes when you surpass what you believed to be your limits. These lines, whether for their poetry or their wit, make the process of writing seem less like work and more like what it is–an act of passion.

Now, the job turns from basic construction to making every line feel special. All the awkward transition, the phony-sounding dialogue, the ham-handed descriptions, have to go in order to achieve a manuscript that I will be proud to submit to agents and publishers. In On Writing, Stephen King describes himself as a “putter-inner,” someone who adds more detail than is needed to story, then must cut it out to achieve the resonance he is looking for. I, on the other hand, am a “leaver-outter.” There are several scenes that I need to go back and add to better explain what is going on, including one that bears directly on the climax where I added a critical character I had neglected to place earlier in the story.

However, editing is a dangerous thing. The temptation comes from wanting to add too much, from not knowing when you have done enough and not giving in to the urge to over explain. When I write, I tend to be a bit “alpha-omega” in my basic design. I know how to start and how to finish the story, but getting from the former to the latter is a difficult road that often comes out half-formed on the page. In these cases, I realize even during the act of composition that I will have to go back and add scenes. I suppose that I could go back and make the changes as soon as I realize they are needed, but I’m scared of interrupting the narrative flow I’m counting on to get me to the end of the story.

In the meantime, you must also part with as much of the story as necessary, an act of addition by subtraction. This process is similar to a game of Jenga. In this popular game, the object is to remove wooden blocks from a tower constructed of them without knocking over the whole. The first draft is building the tower, stacking the blocks as quickly and as efficiently as possible in order to play the game. Editing is removing the blocks. Like in Jenga, you want to take out as much as possible without toppling the tower. Every word takes up valuable space in your manuscript and every last adjective, adverb, and prepositional phrase must pay for itself in the balance sheet of your story. Nothing extraneous must be allowed to remain.

That is the advantage of the first draft. When you finish, you can look back and see all the holes in your story, all the mistakes in the design, all the places that do not shine.

I’m looking forward to editing my book. As happy as I am with the rough draft, I do accept that it is just that–rough. There are elements that I want to add, places where I need to add, places I need to subtract. There are true groaners that, under closer scrutiny, will seem like pure ineptitude. Still, I accept the challenges these present. I accept the chance to shine.

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About Lee Smiley

I write things. Maybe you'll read them.
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