Pain of Publication: Writing to Revise

Previously I’ve talked about my previous novel attempts, difficult revisions and cutting, actually getting work done, reviewed Low Town and Alloy of Law.

Having written three novels to completion, and having none of them published, provides ample opportunity for self-reflection. One thing that consistently impresses me is how bad my first drafts are. There is a startling lack of crispness and terrible sagging portions of the book that really don’t tie together. Even though revisions are a pain in the ass, there’s a feeling of wizardry when you combine two throwaway characters into one quirky minor character or change a few proper nouns around to create foreshadowing. It almost feels like cheating. Knowing that revisions will be made should inform how you write a draft. I have learned to prioritize certain aspects of writing in my first draft and give other considerations lower priority.

Characterization

Don’t expect every character to be fully defined from the moment they walk into your story, but as you go forward, develop a feel for each character. Get comfortable stepping into their skin, internalizing their values, and understanding their point of view. Ideally, as the plot moves forward, you want to be able to look through each character’s lens and judge events. The plot is not monolithic and you may find the the character you have crafted does not fit as neatly into the story as you had expected. If you recognize this as you are writing, adjust the character’s role in the plot accordingly, but more importantly, by the time you have a draft you should have mastered the character. Pay attention to make sure that each character behaves appropriately throughout the story. Ultimately, if you throw tough situations and drama at well-developed characters you will gain an understanding on how they would react. Well-developed protagonists will begin to move the plot along seemingly of their own volition as you intuitively know what they would do given the trouble you have cooked up for them. It’s this internal sense when cultivated in a draft which shine through on later revisions.

Overarching Plot

Although you can always change your story around, its useful to have a destination in mind. Its even better to know a few plot beats along the way. A few early plot points guide the early stages of the writing process. Whereas characterization is an ongoing endeavor that evolves in strange ways, the plot itself should have a strong impetus at the start of the writing process. Start with a major “event” in mind that kicks off the heart of the story and work on building succinctly to that point while keeping the reader intrigued. Once the first major plot beat has been reached, figure out what consequences make sense and set your goal for the next one.
Oftentimes, starting with limp plotting leads to uncertainty about what to do next and leads to the dreadful feeling of writer’s block.

For me, writer’s block comes in two varieties. The first is when you know approximately what you want to happen but its hard to get words down. The second is when you stare at what you have written and are unsure about what to do next. Lack of an overarching plot can cause this dilemma. While the former writer’s block is frustrating the latter suggests that you still need to do some serious work on the planning stages of your book. For me, that is very frustrating and discouraging to have happen early on. Even worse is when you have most of a story and no clue how to tie it up. That process of revisiting and restructuring the entirety of your novel can be even more time consuming and exhausting than writing it in the first place.

Dialects, Details, Speech Syntax

Meticulous plotting and over-planning aside, at some point you just have to sit down and write. For me, I find that that by not sweating the small stuff I can approach my first draft with a bit more vigor. Your characters may be outlined, and you ought to be working on developing them, but as long as they are kept true to their core its less important to worry about them sounding precisely as they should be. Similarly, worrying about specific details of setting and continuity issues as you are writing can be crippling. It’s important to get a story down on paper first. It’s often easier to fill in the details and polish the continuity later.

One of areas I found this to be most helpful was developing the setting specific proper nouns, slang, expletives, and flavor. I have tried them before and only ended up with hokey “gadzooks!” moments, but in one instance I wrote colloquially. My first draft was peppered with all sorts of phrases and words that, in all likelihood, would not be appropriate for my setting. Rather than dwell on my characters using decidedly out of place modern idioms, I powered through. And lo and behold, a few powerful themes, historical events, and elements of back story emerged with more clarity. From there I created a whole lexicon and plugged them back into my story where it was appropriate.

Pacing

Pacing is a fine art and requires a lot of polish. Having a moment of brevity in an otherwise tense novel, or interspersing some character drama during an action set piece can not only give readers a nice change of pace, but help the writing around it shine. The trick is, first drafts change a lot. For me, the term rough draft is perhaps too generous a term. My first draft is a lamb conceived for a red ink slaughter As such, the attempts at balancing the action may well be useless or undermined by significant changes that occur later on. By no means ignore your instinct in this regard, but it’s not worth fretting over perceived issues as you cobble together a first draft. There will be plenty of time to get the pacing right once you pull out your red pen.

Ultimately, as you work through the process you will find your own areas to focus on and gloss over, but I believe if I had followed this advice with my past work it would have strengthened and streamlined my revisions.  By prioritizing aspects for a first draft and saving others for the inevitable revision process, you can help save work for yourself down the road all the while crafting a better novel.