My very first novel is sitting in a drawer. It is the literary equivalent of a 1978 Chevy Camaro, resting on blocks under a tarp. The print is as faded as an AC/DC sticker, baking in the back window. I wrote the first draft in 30 days. It was part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which takes place every November via the magic of the Internet (and throughout bars, homes and coffeehouses all over the world.)
My novel started as 52,000 words of heartbreak, shady foreign banks, splatting base-jumpers and a touch of romance. I was thrilled when I was done and even more encouraged when my wife, after taking the manuscript nervously said, “This isn’t bad! Um… whew. I mean, wow.”
And then came the very humbling act of editing. It was then that I realized I hadn’t written a novel. Not yet. An unedited novel is no more than unmixed cake ingredients… it doesn’t taste good until everything is properly assembled and baked. Here are the mistakes I made editing that first masterpiece:
Mistake 1: I started with a plot, but no ending. Know where you’re going, my friends. Endings are hard. The sheer number of New York Times best sellers with bad endings tells us this truth.
Mistake 2: I decided to change the point of view from (POV) third person limited to first person. (This involves a bit more than changing all the “he”s to “I”s.) I look back at this exercise now and I shake my head at my own naivety.
Mistake 3: I lopped off the entire third act and extended the book to, ohhhhh…. 95,000 words. So the first half was reworked into a different POV and edited into something that looked like it was translated from Catalan to English by Google Translate. The second half was almost... coherent. By the time I finished I didn't know what was still in the book and what I'd cut. Today, I couldn't write a third grade book report on the thing. The teacher would claim I hadn't read it.
Mistake 4: I didn’t just throw the thing in the trash.
That process took almost a year in fits and starts, and at the end I said, “Goodbye, nameless novel.” (I never even found a name I liked.) It was a great learning experience and I had to take those lessons so I could get the next book right.
So now I’m in the process of putting my edit on my third novel before handing it over to my professional editors. I should be getting good at this. Damn, were those first 50 pages rough.
It’s a sequel, and in a heavy-handed effort not to lose readers who hadn’t read the first book (or just weren’t fresh) I found myself retelling the first book trough awkward conversations. “Gee, Michael, how are you doing today after chasing down those Nazis in Patagonia last month? Golly!” "Swell!"
OK, it wasn’t that bad, but one of my writing buddies was extremely kind (and quick) in pointing this out, and when another writer wastes no time with a critique… you know it’s bad. So I rewrote much of the intro… (all of it) after all, a good opening determines if you have readers. It’s better… not fixed, but coming along. Now that I’m reviewing the meat of the story, things have smoothed out. I’m no longer questioning how I spent my last 12 months of writing. I can get this pile of words in to shape.
The first draft of a book (especially if you write fast) is a mess. Hell, this blog post
is was full of mistakes, ten percent of which will probably make it to the Internet. (Editor's Note: Um, no. No, it won't.) Writing the first draft is about 40% of the work in independent book publishing, and the most important 40%, because you need to write something good. Perfectly edited garbage? It's still garbage.
Which brings me to the point: Editing starts before you write. I repeat: Know where your story is going, because if you try to figure it out halfway through, you will write yourself into a corner, and "editing" becomes "total rewrite." That doesn't mean you'll know every twist and turn when you start page one, and you’ll still stumble on ideas and create exciting new characters and clever surprises.
But when you turn on that spigot of words, know where the pipe ends.
P.S. Be sure to check out my guest post at Amid the Imaginary this week, a blog devoted to reviewing Self Published work. I offer a little insight on persevering as a writer when it pays third world factory wages.
By day Jonathan Kile is a peddler of petroleum products, navigating a Glengarry Glen Ross landscape of cutthroat sales. By night he assumes the identity of novelist and child-wrangler. Jonathan’s first published novel The Grandfather Clock, available on Amazon. He's writing his second and third novels, blogging at Well-Oiled Writer and cursing his editor. You can email him here.