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Now that we’ve all had a short break in the routine thrummings of our day-to-day lives, I thought it might be a good time for me to share a few observations about the whole process of writing a novel.  A novel idea, you could say.

This is my first attempt at writing a book, as well as my first serious attempt at writing fiction, so I am in the handy position of seeing it all first-hand, with fresh eyes.  In other words, this is the only experience I have to draw on.  Being a novice at something can be a useful thing .  Like when you screw up.  The trick is to have someone who knows more than you do peeking over your shoulder from time to time.  I am fortunate to  have two such literary (as opposed to literal) voyeurs.

Here are my Tips for the First-Time Novelist:

  1. Don’t be put off  just because you haven’t got a clue what to write.
    Just write something;  anything.  Then write something else.  Pretty soon the writing takes over and you find you are just along for the ride.  And what a ride it is!  (A sign on the door, or a message on the answering machine to say “My Muse is IN; call back later”  may help.)
    On the other hand, if you are the sort of person who has the entire storyline,  complete with character descriptions, time line,  plot cul de sacs, and query letter, already mapped out in his head, then none of this will make sense to you.  I can live with that if you can.
  2. Let the characters take over if they want to.
    And they will.  If you are the type of person that other people affectionately refer to as a “control freak,” then you may find it difficult to allow the characters to dictate the terms.  I recommend you take up wood turning.
  3. Be available from time to time to lend a hand if any of the characters start to wander off.
    That happens.  These people have minds of their own, and they don’t always want to do what you or other characters want them to do.  Remember: You are the Team Leader, and sometimes you have to be firm.
  4. Getting inside the heads of your characters may be difficult.
    On the other hand, it is much easier for them to get inside your head.  Be Alert!  Some of the signs that they have formed a boarding party and taken control of your brain are:
    * your entire conversational repertoire consists of your book
    * your laundry has reached alpine proportions
    * the only food in the house is a jar of mustard and some blue cheese that was Wensleydale Cheddar when you bought it
    * you wake up in the morning and rush to the computer to see what’s been happening in the story overnight
    (I found it useful to stick a post-it on my screen that said “Don’t worry, nothing happened while you were away; they’re waiting for you to get back.”  In particularly virulent cases of this sort, such a gentle reminder may not be enough.  You may need to adopt something more authoritative (get it?), like “Remember! YOU are in Charge,  Not Them”)
  5. Keep Your Voice Down.
    I’m not talking about conversations with your cats.  Voice is what the characters say, and how they say it.  It’s what gives the  reader a sense of who the characters  are and what they’re like.   For example, men and women talk differently.  I’m not homophobic — I realize there are exceptions — but if you have a character who you have described as a rugged, manly type,  and he says something like “Oh, I am soooo into yoga; it makes me feel so in tune with my inner self”  who do you think the reader is gonna believe, you or the character?   Voice can convey age, sex,  personality, sense of humor, intelligence, confidence,  all sorts of things.  Each character should have a different voice, and it shouldn’t be yours.
  6. At some point you’re gonna have to let go.
    That can be hard.  After you’ve been hanging out with these people for however many months, they feel like your friends;  you may find it difficult to say goodbye.  Relax.  You don’t have to kill them off;  just start writing the sequel.

A word about editing:  Painful.

When you come to the end, you’re in love with the book.  Sure, you know it is still a bit rough in spots, and needs some editing, but all in all, it’s a triumph.  Bursting with pride and full of expectation, you send it off to your ‘editors’  —  those dear  people  with whom you are  entrusting your precious book.  Not unlike taking your newborn infant to be looked after by his grandparents for a couple hours so you can at last have a night out.  It’s scary, it’s exciting, and it’s even a bit of a relief.  You can’t wait to get the ‘results,’  knowing there might be the odd minor criticism, but confident that everyone will be overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of it.  Then nothing happens.  You wait.   And you wait.   While you’re waiting you try to leave the book alone, to let it ‘go cold’ so you can read it with fresh eyes.  But you are desperately missing your characters.  You’ve been keeping constant company with them for months, after all.  So you sneak the odd peek.  After a couple weeks you give in and dive in, clearing out some typos, smoothing out a few rough edges here and there.  And you continue to wait.   If you are in really bad shape, you start the sequel.  That gives you a chance to play with some of the characters again, and distracts you from checking your email every hour.

The day finally comes.  Comments!  Be still my heart, you think.  Then you read it.  Ohmygod!  Chapter and verse – trouble everywhere.  There must be some mistake; he must have got the wrong book.  These aren’t your characters he’s talking about!  The people he describes sound nothing at all like the friends you’ve been writing about.  It can’t be right.  After all, who would know better than you do what your characters are like?

Gnash those teeth; tear that hair; vent that spleen.  Then settle down and think about it.  Ask yourself:  How did the editor ever get such a wrong impression of your characters?  There’s only one answer:  from you.  That’s how you’ve written them.  It doesn’t matter how you think of them, if you haven’t conveyed that to the reader.   Oh dear.  He’s right after all.  And so the process begins.

Editing the Book:  The Steps So Far:

  1. Comments are received.  Begin significant revisions.
    Start addressing the comments;  at least the ones you agree with.  Think about the ones you don’t agree with;  address the ones you changed your mind about.  Keep going until you’ve responded to as many of the suggestions as you are comfortable with.
  2. Repeat the process with subsequent comments from the same or different editor(s)  however many times it takes.  (Leaving out the teeth-gnashing/hair-tearing/spleen-venting phase.  That lesson should only have to be learned once.)
  3. Observe that the Process has been evolving:
    * from major revisions/re-writes,
    * to cutting out the dead wood, fleshing in details, strengthening characters, building bridges, eliminating errors and inconsistencies,
    * to cleaning up the rough edges, smoothing out and tightening up the language,
    * to cleaning any remaining typos and grammatical errors,
    * to tweaking,
    * to unnecessary fiddling.
  4. A final word about editing
    You, too, are an editor.  Just not an objective one.  If you are receiving critical comment from more than one person, chances are their opinions and advice will vary considerably. Two points to remember:
    * If more than one person makes similar comments on the same issue, pay attention.
    If opinions are contradictory, you get to choose who to listen to, if anyone.  It is your book, after all.

I suppose you’ve guessed by now that I pretty much reckon I’m somewhere between the “tweaking” stage and the “unnecessary fiddling ” stage.  It remains to be seen where my editors place me.  I just hope they know that my teeth can’t take a whole lot more gnashing.                 MM