Here’s a hard truth: Each novel teaches the writer how to write it. If you’re a parent, this might sound immediately, intuitively right. You can have a philosophy as a parent of one child but your second child can humble you very quickly. Smart parents know their children teach them how they need to be raised, each one individually.
So, when someone asks me – and it’s a common question – how many drafts I usually write of a novel, I know they’ve likely never written a novel and definitely haven’t written two of them.
Show me a cocky parent or a cocky writer who is steadfast in their one-size-fits-all philosophy on how to write a novel or raise a child and I’ll show you a liar – or a pack of miserable children and/or miserable novels.
Some novels that I’ve written have come out with their structure intact. The foundation is strong. Others need page-one rewrites. One novel took me 90 days to write and came out fairly whole. Another novel took me eighteen years. How many drafts do I usually write? There is no usual.
The most frustrating part, for me, is that I can’t tell which novel will come out relatively easily and which will be brutal.
Writing a first draft of something as architecturally massive as a novel – all that scaffolding, the stone arches, the delicate gargoyle work – is a real achievement. Don’t denigrate that. But as you become a serious novelist, accept that it’s just a first step, that the bulk of the labor will come during revisions.
When I was a new novelist, my work was quickly set in stone. It was hard to make edits. I didn’t have the mental space to hold a novel and turn it in my head. I couldn’t yet think of an edit and immediately – as if the novel were lit up on a CT scan – see the ripple effects of that edit brighten in my mind’s eye. Now I can raise and lower parts of the novel mentally. I see sequences. I can sense imbalance in point of view or structure the way, maybe, a composer knows the arrangement as an orchestral structure held aloft.
There are things that I know now about revision that I wish I’d known then. If you’re reading this because you’re stuck and you don’t know how to begin your revision process, here are a few ideas.
1. If you have another area of expertise, use the transferrable skills. To anyone who has worked in other fields in which there are complex structures that entailed stretching their brains to understand, know that there’s more common ground than you think.
For example, some soccer players can recall a game play-by-play. They can think in general pacing and overall tidal movements of the game. They can think in terms of act-structures – with a midpoint, aka halftime. They can home in on certain passing sequences which completely transfer to the movements of novel sequences and even then down to footwork – nutmegging a defender in the midfield, which can be thought of as the sentence.
Dear chemists, the scene is all about tension and release of tension, positive and negative energy; I could draw you a sketch of the sit-com Friends that looks quite molecular.
Lawyers, the novel can be seen as an argument surrounding a single thematic question.
What I’m saying is this: Don’t see the work you know as foreign to the creative work of writing a novel. Look for shared terrain.
2. The rational and the subconscious mind, use both. First, I’ll talk about the rational mind: Look at the ways that other people have structured large-scale narratives. 40 Notecards. 8 Sequences. Blake Snyder. Hero’s Journey, Dan Harmon’s variation. Maybe you’ve used one of these to help you get that first draft out. Now you might want to switch it up to try to unlock the novel another way.
Like all methods, don’t become rigid. Mainly, I play with different methods to take what only exists as a structure in my mind to create something external and tangible. What I find is that – after I have a first draft – other people’s methods help me make decisions on things that I’m not quite sure of. Squeezing my work into different forms, playing with it in a rational way, allows me to look at it in with some measure of detachment, and cuts can suddenly become obvious.
The subconscious: Create moments of daydreaming. You’re not staring at a screen. You’re not trying to figure out your novel. You’re gazing. You’re drifting. You’re vaguely thinking about the novel – one character, say. But only that light touch. Nothing more. Visualize. Let that character move. Let the world shift around her. Don’t try to shove her around. Follow, dreamily.
I’ve made this a practice. It’s where I get some of my strongest ideas – visually compelling, fully realized. Sometimes they fit into the novel, sometimes not. But I always learn something from allowing time for the desires and fears of my subconscious to take hold.
3. Re-see. Revision is about re-seeing what you think you’re already seeing clearly. I can always tell when my graduate students are writing something with words – but they aren’t actually seeing anything their minds. I can sense it. Before you rewrite a scene, see it in your mind. Replay it. Watch it, listen, let it shift and change. But really and truly see it.
4. Read your scenes concentrating on one idea: Power. Who has power, how do they lose it, how do they get it back?
5. Read your scenes concentrating on the distinctiveness of each character’s voice. Do all the characters sound the same? Make sure they are who they are.
6. Read your scenes concentrating on making sure that your characters are making decisions. Decisions are very active moments. Writers often skip them. The character knows what they want or the choice is too easy. Make the decision tough to make and let’s see them struggle with it.
7. Read for surface tension. The scene can be doing the things that it needs to do, deep characterization, compelling forward movement in the plot, but it lacks something. Think about the physical space. Think about what’s going on around the characters. Make sure that the world is fully realized and creating its own pressure or even, simply, agitation.
For example, I had to ask someone for something recently and felt awful about it. But I had to. And there were lots of wasps, dying ones, collected at the window. I don’t know why. But one had gotten close to us and while I was asking this favor, I was also trying to kill a wasp. But the carpeting was so lush, that each time I tried to press on it, it didn’t work. Trying to kill the dying wasp and not being able to would have made the scene so much more compelling on the page.
8. Consider theme. I hate talking about theme. I despise the central question. But when I’m in rewrites it can be incredibly crystalizing to take time to know these things and write with them in mind. Not at the fore of the mind. The fear is writing them too loudly – a heavy drumbeat that the reader can’t get away from. But just know them so they can seep in.
9. Print out your pages. I know, I know– trees. Single-space it. Double-side it. But I’m telling you, if you print out a chapter and read it on paper, you will find things you simply won’t see on a screen. I don’t know why. But this is true and one day studies will prove it. Maybe they already have. I don’t have time to look up what’s become an undeniable truth. Trust me. Print.
10. Rely on others. This is the most important – and obvious – point. If you’re truly in doubt, of course the best way to reopen a draft that feels closed is to reach out to people you trust. There is nothing as important as a trusted reader, one who truly gets your intentions and aspirations.
There are so many other questions to ask, so many other lenses to hold up to each scene, so many ways to test the integrity of your structure. And just as each child teaches the parent and each novel teaches the novelist, you are not simply a certain kind of writer with a certain kind of process that will remain the same over your career. You are ever-shifting. Your process will evolve. It’s essential to keep finding new ways to crack open your novels but also to crack open yourself as a writer. Don’t allow any one process to become a kind of protective insulation that keeps you from being vulnerable – on the page and in life, as a craftsperson and as a human being.
Have a question, a lens, a test to share? Have you finished more than one novel, and homed in on how each novel taught you something different? We’d love to hear about it.