Novel: First draft, Second draft revision…

scenes on post-its

(above are post-it notes detailing my novel plot–yes, the colors are coded!)

It’s November 1 November 2, the second day of NaNoWriMo (aka National Novel Writing Month, in which writers synchronously set out to write a novel within a month).

I participated in NaNoWriMo exactly once, and what it did was pretty much highlight that writing a novel draft inside of a month is NOT my process. My one and only participation produced in me the most ginormous months-long writer’s bloc I’ve ever experienced.

But I still give NaNoWriMo lots of kudos, because it *is* the process for so many writers. And regardless of whether or not I engage, NaNoWriMo is inspiring to me.

One of the things that helps me most as a writer is knowing that I’m not the only one embarking on this crazy journey and that is why I love to blog and tweet and bond with all my fellow writers; we’re all on our solo treks of course, but to know that in November, we’re all doing it alone, yet together, is such a boost to me as a writer. That I don’t finish a novel on November 30 is no big deal. That we’re all writing is a huge deal to me.

That said–I’m making a concerted effort to get a big chunk of my novel revision done this month (again no concrete goals for November 30). I’ve cleared my schedule. I’ve foregone travel with my husband and made the choice to be on a “mini-residency” at home alone.

My “mini-residency” is off to a weird start; I’ve come down with some vicious stomach ailment. Maybe it’s food poisoning. Or I’ve got an alien growing inside me. I can’t seem to keep anything inside my body. Except for rice and saltine crackers. Which is getting a bit boring. So I’ve ordered some jello, so I can make this rainbow jello concoction. Because I’m sick of eating things that are the color of copier paper, whether it be 92 bright white paper (rice), or vellum (applesauce, saltines) or parchment (toast, ginger ale). All paper. Papery.

Anyway, as I embark on this month of diligent revision, I’ve been thinking about what I did to get to this point in the novel, a hard-earned completed first draft.

I started out years ago by writing the novel in first person, for no better reason than the fact that everything I wrote then was in first person. And yet, my protagonist (and narrator) was someone who wasn’t a very active, self-revealing character. Think of Don Draper (a man who doesn’t like to expose himself for various reasons). Think of him as a first person narrator of his own life. Yahhhhh. Not.

It goes without saying that I struggled with writing the novel in first person. There were scenes that worked. But overall, it was like extruding brick-hard room temperature chocolate through a pasta maker. (Again, think of Don Draper narrating his innermost thoughts). Not happening.

I workshopped excerpts from the novel a couple times. Feedback was across the map–my peers loved my novel, especially its concept…but critique came in the range of “Why does your protagonist speak perfect English?” (my protagonist is an immigrant) or “Your protagonist isn’t telling us what’s happening.”

I worked at rewriting with the intention of targeting the critiques.

Each time I rewrote (and I was revising the first person narrative), I hit a wall at around the midpoint of the novel. It was just difficult, all the way around, to get my narrative down. I just couldn’t get through the wall. I was boring myself. My protagonist was boring. I couldn’t get my narrative to be exciting. The problem of my protagonist had become the problem in my writing. I set the manuscript aside, ready to give up on the thing.

And about two years later–yes, TWO YEARS later, I realized with great relief and exhilaration and pain that this novel was not meant to be written in the first person. It wasn’t about whether or not my protagonist should narrate in Ching-chong-ese Konglish broken English, but whether he should narrate at all.

My novel should have been written in the third person. I pondered drinking for weeks on end at this point.

This unblocked so much for me. I got the voice down. And I restarted the novel.

Then I had a stroke that left me unable to write, let alone order from a menu, let alone figure out how to assemble a peanut butter sandwich. Two years went by as I recovered.

Sometime during the tail end of my recovery, I had a perfectly timed VONA workshop with an amazing writer who focused on novel structure, without whose advice I would never, a year later,  have…completed…my…first…draft. This insight into structure gave shape to my plot and gave me the milestones I needed to strategize my way through the novel, enabling me to do things like hop my way through the novel instead of writing chronologically.

In hindsight, I’d have to say that for a novel’s first draft–the most important things to get down are voice and plot (by way of structure). Get your structure in place. Have a writing buddy–not necessarily someone with whom you write everyday, but someone you can mail your word counts, and someone who will encourage you through your progress. If your writing buddy is also writing a novel, all the better.

And sometimes it takes several years. Some of us have babies in the midst of writing a novel, and some of us get sick, and some of us just take a long time to write.

A good friend of mine told me to celebrate when I finished that first draft, saying that’s the best feeling I’ll have throughout the novel writing process. I think she’s right.

Revision has been difficult. It’s the secret sauce of writing–there are a ton of books out there on “writing a novel,” which is to say that they are books on writing a first draft of a novel. There are no books (none that I can recall) on revision. Revision is where the real writing happens, where you’re all alone in the thicket.

I won’t be able to tell you what worked for me, until I’m done revising. But I’ve waffled between the “I just start over and rewrite” camp of revision and “I divvy up the revision into modules” camp.

I think I’m somewhere in between–there are chapters that need to be rewritten. But even as I rewrite, I am rewriting with certain craft and story elements in mind.

Looking at a novel revision in its entirety is like looking up at the top of a mountain more than 10,000 feet high. How the hell do I get up there? You feel overwhelmed just looking at the tippy top, which is likely obscured by…clouds or perhaps your own limited human vision. It’s enough for you to give up right then and there and walk away in your clean camping clothes, your pack still full of uneaten meals.

When I first started backpacking, I discovered that having a good psyche plus good tactics and strategy were more important than being in shape.

For instance, when I began hiking and struggled up steep switchbacks with a 35 pound pack on my back, a friend told me to take smaller strides. I mean, really small strides. Like, three inch strides, the kind that take you four seconds to go twelve inches. It didn’t matter how fast we went, he said, this was one way up the mountain.

Once, on the last flat mile of the Lost Coast, my husband far ahead of us, probably at the car, another friend and I agonized with every step. Our feet were burrrning. If you don’t know the Lost Coast, it’s a strip of the California coast so rugged that no roads can be built upon it. The landscape elevates 2,000 feet inside of a mile, and then back down 2,000 feet, and then back up 1,000 feet, and then down, and then back up 2,000 feet and then back down that 2,000 feet. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but your feet pay for that access. And we yelped each time we brought our feet down upon the ground, even in excellent hiking shoes.

So my friend heaved a sigh and started walking…backwards.

It was pure genius; I immediately pivoted and started backwards that last flat mile back to the car. Amazing relief. I was still walking and moving forward, but the pressure points were all new, and the pain was mitigated.

The pain gone, I experienced what was probably the biggest endorphin rush in my life when we moonwalked our way to the trailhead, and I laughed in hysterics all the way back, and then all the way back to civilization in the car.

During the most difficult parts of a hike, I break down milestones into tenths of a mile; I spot a tree or a rock up ahead, and put my head down, take eight steps, and look up. By then, the tree is significantly larger. It gave me a vivid perception of movement. Even when a hike is easy, I gauge progress through milestones–a creek, a large tree, a lake.

You have to break things down. And you’ve got to relieve your pain, even at the sacrifice of speed, to move forward.

You can’t just look at a novel in its entirety and say “Revise all of it. At once.”

For my first draft, I needed voice and plot.

For this revision, I’m focusing on character development. I’m going to focus on deepening characters, and their relationship to each other.

And I figure somewhere in the last revision, I’ll be focusing on language (at which point, I hope I have no impulses to rewrite my novel).

How are you doing on your novel revision? What do you do to get through your revisions? And if you are someone who “revises as you go” how do you get through that draft?


Filed under Novel, Revision, Writing

7 responses to “Novel: First draft, Second draft revision…

  1. Thanks for sharing this at this time. I have been writing a longer story now for nearly a month. I am trying to break it down and capture moments within the story I know I want, I’m not sure how far I wil get with this but it has made me less stressed about how many words and the detailed timeline etc. I understand you walking metaphor completely. When walking with others I often have to explain that it is the walking that gets you there not the speed. And if you go slower you are more likely to enjoy the view. I never thought about that in terms of my writing. Normally I write poetry, longer pieces have been a struggle. Even 1500 word short stories!

    I will take heart and persevere, thanks.


  2. This was great advice, and as someone who has 4 versions of 2/3 of a novel, I totally appreciate the need for voice change, time, and not giving up. ou mention above something about advice on structure, but I didn’t quite get that part. What was the advice that your teacher gave you, if you don’t mind me asking.

    Thanks again,
    aka g. martinez cabrera

    • @Jim: Novel writing is hard and it takes a long time–not giving up is part of the deal! 🙂

      @circular runner: structure is a long discussion. i advise you to read lots of novels and examine the ways in which they tell their story and how they treat time and such. if you’d like to read a book on plotting one’s novel, Martha Alderson has written a pretty good book called “Blockbuster Plots” ( she’s not the same writer/mentor who gave me the advice, but her book has incredible value all the same.

  3. I followed almost the same path with my novel- the first draft was mostly about voice, pov, and plot. The second draft was about deepening the characters and the relationships. Then I had two readers read the whole thing and give feedback. This was really helpful for approaching the third draft. It’s as done as I can make it now without the critical eye of a professional editor so I’m seeking agents.

    So now I’m going back to a novel I started before that one that’s a complete mess. I wrote it in 3 months (the one I finished took me two years) and did no plot work ahead of time. I just dove in, wrote 108,000 words and then when I stood back I realized that I’d made this enormous mess. I couldn’t finish the novel because of serious plot issues. I also realized that one of my main characters was completely flat. So I’m feeling overwhelmed at the moment trying to figure out where to start. I’ve decided to sort out the chapters and bits that are really worth keeping and then do a big plot outline. I need to build that structure before I can jump in. It feels a little tedious, and it shouldn’t.

    I took the last few months off from book writing to do a bunch of food preserving but I’m itching to write. I’m feeling inspired by all the writers taking part in NaNoWriMo too and you’ve inspired me as well.

    • @Angelina: good to see I am following a path upon which you have also tread with success. 🙂 Sometimes I wish I were the kind of writer who revises while writing, and ends up with an almost polished first draft!

      And good luck with your manuscript!

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