April 2, 2012

What Have I Done?

Last week I promised to give an in-depth answer to the question "How's your novel coming along?" and the real question "What are you doing to your finished novel that's taking so long?" But first I want to provide the context for my revision by explaining what happened before I got to the current interminable stage of the process.

I came up the seed of the idea for THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE in the summer of 2007. I spent some time planning out the story and researching over the next few months, but I was mostly focused on revising a different novel. That November, during National Novel Writing Month, I wrote a complete first draft of 80,000-plus words in thirty days.

The first draft of DAMAGE wasn't terrible for a novel written in a month. It was my best NaNo effort to date (and would turn out to be the last NaNo novel I was happy with). I shared the manuscript with three or four friends who understood the nature of a NaNo draft and knew that the story and I weren't ready for any serious feedback. Then I returned to the novel I was already revising.

I didn't even look at DAMAGE again for over a year. When I read through it, I was reasonably pleased with what I'd written and started to think about focusing on it again. In the summer of 2009, I began the second draft. Only I didn't want to run into the problem I'd recognized in past revision attempts, when the presence of the original text made me too conservative in my edits. So I decided that I'd essentially write a second first draft that was based on the original story but not comprised of any of the same sentences.

I'm glad I used this method for creating the second version of DAMAGE. The original had some good things going for it, but it was only barely the story I wanted to tell. The plot was simple and contrived, and the behavior of the characters often didn't make a whole lot of sense. By rewriting from scratch, I gave myself the freedom to find the novel's true potential.

It took about eight months to write the second draft. I was very happy with it, and I felt it was stronger than anything I'd written before. But the real test would be sharing it with other readers.

I have wonderful, insightful critique partners who are generous with both praise and complaint. Through sharing and discussing the manuscript, I learned about the novel's strengths and its still considerable flaws. This second version was on the way to being a great book, but it needed more. More connections between the storylines, more coherent character motivations, more reasons for the reader to care about what happened.

While I didn't agree with every single thing my critiquers said, they were mostly on target, and the suggestions they made led me to even more ideas for improvement. I started giving the story a really, really hard look and thinking about what needed to change so that this time, I'd get everything right.

Later this week: The exciting tale of spending a very long time stuck in the revision planning stage.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black offers some dialogue advice at the #amwriting blog: "It's not about how you write the dialogue, but rather, how you decide what the characters should and shouldn't say: rely on shared context. When real people talk to each other, a prime strategy for economizing on words is not to say anything the listener already knows."

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