Friday, March 25, 2011

The most important thing I've learned so far (about novel writing)

The Guide to Literary Agents blog has a recurring feature called Seven Things I've Learned So Far. Last week, novelist Alexander Yates posted a great list. His #1 is also mine:

1. Revision is important, but finishing your draft is more important. I learned this the hard way. It took me five years to finish writing my novel, but in retrospect two of those years were wasted (or at least used very ineffectively) on obsessive over-revision.

Oh, how I can relate. I would estimate five of the six years I took to finish my first novel were spent on the first 50 pages. And I tossed almost all of that work in the end.

Here's the thing. People did tell me this. I read and heard countless admonishments to first novelists not to fall into this trap. But my excuse was, I had to "understand what I was doing before I could proceed."

Now, there is a point to that. You do need *some* idea of what you're doing before you get too far along; otherwise you could drive your clattering jalopy of a novel right off a cliff. Early on, you will need to do a certain amount of rewriting and redirecting and just plain noodling around. At the same time, it's important to accept that your first several chapters will always be far from perfect. In fact, they will be the farthest from perfect of all your chapters. As Yates says, "first chapters are supposed to stink."

But what do you do, as you're cruising into page 100, and you suddenly realize several events back in the beginning no longer make any sense? Well, in the past, I would have gone back and revised *everything up to page 100*--to the level of line editing. Oh, God, the years! Lament! Howl!

Anyway, the solution in this situation is to *make a note.* Write your notes in a separate file, or by hand in a notebook (I prefer this method). You might say something like: "Necklace cannot be discovered until *after* body is found." If the matter feels particularly urgent, add exclamation points or highlighting or draw a box around the note. Then go back to page 100 and *keep going.*

Because--get this--when you've finished the entire draft, you may realize you were right the first time: the necklace shows up *before* the corpse does, just as you originally suspected. Or you might have come up with a different scenario all together. There was no necklace in the first place! You can delete that entire paragraph! Imagine how painful that would be if you had spent six months rewriting that damn paragraph. As I did.

Anyway, read Yates's whole post. It's good. And I hope we've saved at least one of you out there some time.

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