Saturday, May 01, 2010

Reading my novel

Having waited the requisite 6+ weeks,* I spent the last day and a half reading a printout of the first draft of my novel, and taking notes. First, I will say it is gratifying to hold that heavy pile of paper in my hands. The thing has heft--physically, if not yet in other ways. Second, this was an exhausting task. I did not expect to be so exhausted. I was hoping more for exhilaration, but that seems to be in short supply.

I now limp into the light to pass along a few discoveries, which may be applicable for fellow writers.
  • I have heard other novelists say this, and now I know it's true. The first fifty pages are the worst. I can literally feel the novel picking up at almost that very boundary. Sadly, those are the pages I've sent out to a few people who could have had some influence over my literary career. Advice to those who follow me: don't send out your first fifty pages until your novel is really, truly done. These may be the pages you love the most, but this is especially why you shouldn't send them out (see third bullet point, below).

  • There is way too much staring in my novel. Anytime a character is surprised or upset, she or he "stares" at whoever or whatever. I recently noticed this same phenomenon in a published and very popular novel, which just won a big award (no, not that one)--a whole ton of staring, or looking at. I think this is a way of creating "beats" in dialog, though it's almost as egregious as saying, "He paused a beat." I also think it's drawn from real life--we really do stare when we're surprised. But I think it's better just to describe what the person sees when she is staring. Or have them do something else.

  • The parts I thought were the best when I was writing them are now the ones I like least. The reverse is also true. The stuff I was "just jotting down to fix later" actually jogs along quite nicely. This has to be the result of a lack of pressure and self-consciousness. The stuff I loved, I over-crafted.

  • I over-explain in first drafts. As Richard Russo (also a former academic) once said, I write the novel, and then I write the Cliff Notes. I suppose that's part of trying to understand, myself, what's going on. But the Cliff Notes must now go.
My overall impression: the novel is both better and worse than I remembered. On the plus side, some stuff I had no idea how to fix now seems relatively simple. Some changes I thought were too big to make are not that big. But...will it be enough to make people care?

*Per Stephen King's instructions, in On Writing.

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