I spent four months this year reworking a novel that now sits in files on this computer. It was a simple story, with a clear plot, and I knew where it was going.
I was reworking it because I had written it years ago. It needed some work.
I rewrote. The hero was more complicated, his story more personal.
It now needed more work than when I started rewriting it.
I rewrote it again. More time passed.
This summer I counted up how many novels I’d written but never got in final shape, never submitted for publication. The number was substantial. (I’m not going to tell you how many. There were more than five. A lot more.)
I set to work on some short stories. I sold some stories years ago, and figured they’d be a good way to get things rolling. I rewrote one, and wrote a new one from scratch.
I had my first computer crisis, ever. (I’ve been writing for decades.) I lost all of those new stories. One month’s work.
Somewhere in here, the thought occurred to me that I could die, and the things I spent my time — my life — writing and not showing were going to end up as nothing but particles wiped from a computer someone sold for a few bucks.
I went to work on that novel, determined to finish it no matter what.
Four months later, I stopped. By a rough estimate, the first full draft, written years ago, was 400 pages, double spaced, @ 50k words. As I sit here, I estimate I wrote a total of 8000 pages. At least.
Last year, after Christmas, I said to someone, “I should start on my Christmas novel now so I won’t be late with it next year.” I had a title, and a vague idea, no more. I messed around a little but didn’t have a story to tell. You’d be surprised how common a problem this is with writers.
In November of this year, after the other novel collapsed, I started that Christmas story. Like an engine on a cold day, it wouldn’t turn over. No heat.
I started to grapple with the idea that I couldn’t write anymore.
I could write, many years ago. I once wrote 20,000 words in a sitting. You wouldn’t know that, because I never published that novel, either. (I was up to five unpublished novels even then.)
If you really want to mess up your life, decide you’re not going to really start it until you’ve sold your first novel. You might end up with nothing more than an expertise in regret, but you’ll have some kind of parody of an artistic life. Won’t be worth the cost, I can tell you.
I happened to read about a book that was nothing like the kind of book I thought of writing. Some of the best sources of original material are descriptions of other people’s books. Without even reading it, a description can get your imagination going. If you act on it creatively, you might think, “No, what *I* would do with that is…”
Then I had the brilliant idea of writing a book I felt like reading. Not the one others might like, but the one that I really, truly wished someone would create so I could enter that made-up world. This is such a basic motor for a book, and it’s behind the initial impulse to write. But sometimes this gets lost when you’re reworking. You sometimes end up in the woods, wondering how you came to be writing this other thing.
When you let go of your desire, your need to write the book that’s going to pull you out of your hole, whatever that hole is — marriage, booze, unemployment, or the much more common hole of despair about how you ended up where you are — and just start the story you’d like to sit down and read for pleasure, you MIGHT have found a path through that very dense, very dark forest.
After working for months on one book, I thought up and wrote a short novel in a little less than three weeks.
Here’s where the trouble usually starts. This time, though, I was aware of it.
I started rewriting this Christmas book.
See, just because I wasn’t going to let myself rework this new book to death, I didn’t have an excuse to vomit out something and then expect anyone would want to read it.
The key was rewriting from the beginning and NOT backing up to fix one or two things. That’s the route to never finishing something. I didn’t stop and make sure this was perfect. I didn’t start inventing new subplots.
I DID combine a couple of characters, better define the characters, tighten the story. I sharpened the descriptions, too.
Someone once warned me that I had a tendency to lose a book when I didn’t know exactly how the ending worked out. I kept that in mind.
The ending of the first draft was just awful, but this time I TRUSTED that I could make it right when I got there the second time. (I’ll end the suspense: to me, the ending is the best, most original part. And I didn’t have it until the third, final draft.)
The first rewrite improved the book. It was messy, and twisted, but something original was on the page — it wasn’t just “And the characters got together, and then they won.” The book doesn’t have a villain, which is a recipe for disaster. It DID have a situation with conflict, but as is often the case, the opponent was inside the characters–in some cases, literally.
This wasn’t turning into anything like a traditional Christmas story. It turned out it was more about the family that comes together in the workplace. And there’s a spirit. And the characters talk a lot about movies.
I wanted to read this book. If you feel this in the rewrite process, you’re on the right path. Keep walking it.
The problem was this: I knew this second draft still wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t going to sell to a publisher. It was just this story about a group of people who worked in a store, and then this ghost comes along. And then Christmas comes, and the hero resolves the conflict.
It was too small. The conflict was there, but it just sort of stopped.
I started to rewrite it again. This is where the movie viewer thinks “Uh oh.” This is where the orchestra comes in low, as the hero just knows he can fix things without screwing them up.
I got to page 100 and gave it to a friend to check out. He liked it. But there were a couple of problems…
Don’t go back, I thought. Just plow ahead.
I went back. I fixed those problems in what I thought was the locked first fifth of the book. I changed a couple of names of minor characters. And really, I should flesh out some descriptions…
I had a cover. Hated it. I reworked it. Hated it. As I continued on the third draft of the book, I took a new approach to the cover. It fit what the book actually was becoming, not what it started out as.
Shopping it to a publisher was a waste of time, for various reasons that don’t matter. What matters is that I needed one in the win column. I had to be able to know, “At least THIS one won’t go into the grave with me.”
The book was first titled NOT THIS CHRISTMAS. I don’t know what the title meant last year, and still don’t. It has some emotional resonance with me, but it no longer fit this more relaxed but fun little book. I came up with a new title. I like it, and it fits the tone.
The book won’t change the world. No one else may enjoy it. I want people to read and enjoy my writing, but that’s soaring, and I’m in a hole right now. Before I can climb up the mountain and leap and fly, I gotta get out of the damned hole.
I finished the book. I did not rewrite it again, even though I could. Instead, I accepted it is imperfect. If I rewrote it fifty times it would be imperfect, but also so tightassed no one could bear reading it.
I put it on Kindle. In minutes I went from third draft to published. Done.
The reason I wrote this, and why I hope you’re reading it, is to tell you this: Your life is going to end before you can accomplish all the things you really burn to do. You must learn when it’s time to let something stand on its own, and then you must move on.
I like the book. That’s the key to it existing now instead of being some vague ideas in my head.
Tomorrow I begin the next book. I don’t know if I’ll try to resurrect one of the others, or just go off and try something I haven’t even thought of as I’m sitting here typing. But it’ll either be making the rounds or be up online by January 1.
What you’re reading is a first draft. With a few minor touch-ups.