Drafting a Novel: Lessons Learned, Albatrosses Groomed and the First Day of Kindergarten

I finished the full draft of my novel last week-- that loose-leaf albatross that's kept me company for many months, hanging around my neck and weighing heavily on my mind.

And now that I've shed it, and started the serious Albatross Grooming Process we call "Editing Like Ya Mean It," I thought I'd share a few favorite things I learned along the way.

Everyone you know is also writing a book...
Or has a Best-Selling Idea for a book...

Or has been thinking they might think about writing their memoirs of that one wacky time in college with the thing and the stuff.

It's pretty cool to learn that the only thing holding 75% of our populace back from winning the Pulitzer Prize for literature-- or kicking Dan Brown's symbolically-coded butt off the NYTimes list-- is that this material just hasn't been committed to paper yet.

So be prepared that when folks ask where you've been hiding yourself away lately, and you mention the novel, everyone from your cousin to your mail carrier will reveal themselves to be the next Rowlingpalinclancykerouac.

Thankfully, there is room for everyone.

You'll start rewriting history for your characters, like you were PR for a political candidate.
With the whole book together, you start to see scenes where your character is saying and doing things he never would have done once you actually got to know him, on page 521. Maybe it was the day you drank too much coffee. Or weren't feeling the motivation. Or you were distracted by... oh... a really noisy SunChip bag.

So you sit your character down and tell him, "No, you didn't say that. You said this. This is more you." He might recall very well having once held strong opinions on migrant workers or a new ketchup bottle, and now it's wiped away.

But like in politics, soon with careful attention, spin, and the Wonders of Word Processing, you'll make him forget-- as if it never was. There might only be some lingering discomfort.

There is a special panicky moment when you realize someone might read what you've written.
Talking about the writing process is always fun. It's safe. It's intangible. "It's a work-in-progress," you say fleet-footedly. "It's too soon."

You can stall so nicely with vagaries to the point your material gains in Fabulousness an amount inversely proportionate to the quantity of people who never, ever see it.

But once the novel's actually done, and all your friends have been hearing the blah-blah about it for years, suddenly they get this idea they might want to...oh, I dunno... read it.

And it turns into the first day of kindergarten for your novel. As in, you know very well the novel might still pick its nose in public and may not always use its Indoor Voice. But you have to let go sometime, right?

You begin creating elaborate scenarios of how people will misread what you've written.
The less you describe, the more readers will grab onto what you did say and try to interpret it their own way. And you start to worry your demure heroine will become rumored to be a crack-smoking Lady of the Evening with narcolepsy. And her dog will suddenly become symbolic of her desperate need for control in a male-dominated society.

You envision your simple childrens book about a squirrel who forgot where he buried his nuts will become your personal treatise about the nation's hoarding problem.

Once it's on paper and before eyeballs, it's out of your control.

You realize you've been on a Manuscript One-Arm Strength Training Program, from carrying 500+ page double-spaced draft everywhere you go.
Fifty pounds of dog kibble will seem like cotton swabs to your mighty physical power now.

You will have to boil down years' worth of blood, sweat, snot and brain oozage into a few heart-pounding, eye-popping, irresistable sentences if any agents or editors are ever going to pay attention to it. The giant stack of manuscript pages will seem like a happy day at the beach compared to this. It's fitting War and Peace on a fortune cookie. And you don't get room for that nifty Chinese Word of the Day either.

No one will understand why it's taken you so long to write the damned thing, because, heck, James Caan only spent a few weeks writing that whole Misery Chastaine novel-- his best one ever-- and he even spent half his day trying to break out of Kathy Bates' house.


Robert Crane said...

Then after all the re-writes and the editing and getting the characters to behave and sifting through they're/there, its/it's, and blah/bl'ah, it's time to tackle the single page query letter, the three paragraph sell job that has to crackle like a goddam timber burn. You thought writing the novel was hard. Prepare yourself for the misery of it all. The query letter is what did me in. I should have written it first. It took more time than the novel.

So I blog now! You don't need no stinkin' query letter for that.

Seriously though, congrats and best of luck!!!!

Jenn Thorson said...

Bob- Oh, I KNOW it's a-coming. (Shudder!) I do so much marketing for work I'm HOPING I will be able to get it distilled to that level and make it zingy. I mean, I do this sort of thing all the time for folks who AREN'T me...

But still.

I also know they usually want a chapter summary, and I need to look into doing that. I have one I used for my own benefit. But it doesn't read entertainingly. In fact, it's probably cryptic outside of my brain, at best.

Thanks for the luck, Bob! I will be glad to have it.

ReformingGeek said...

YIPPEE! Congrats on finishing your draft.

Melanie said...

Three cheers for Jenn the brave! Congrats on finishing.
At this point in my life I can't even imagine handing over something I've committed to paper to (gasp) other eyes! You've got my utmost admiration. Good luck with the query letter and summary and all that.

Jenn Thorson said...

Reforming Geek- Hey, thank you! I'm pretty psyched!

Melanie- It does always make me nervous when I finish something and realize people will be READING it. Which is, of course, kind of irrational given I write stuff for it to be read.

I don't have this issue with blog posts, but my fiction feels like a whole different thing.

Thanks for the well-wishes with it!

JD at I Do Things said...

Dang, you mean other people are writing about the thing and the stuff?

It hurts so bad to see "palin" scrunched in there between "rowling" and "kerouac" (I'm ignoring "clancy.")

So what I got out of this is that in order to write in a timely fashion, you should be hobbled by Kathy Bates in a snowy isolated cabin. I'm on it!


Jenn Thorson said...

JD- I was going for diversity of author's works rather than necessarily personal faves... (I add quickly!) :)

Please don't post "I get hobbled by a psychopath so you don't have to." :)

Deray said...

Hey it's almost the same with my doctoral proposal! jajajaja Best of luck with the agents Jenn! :D

MA Fat Woman said...

Can I read it?

MA Fat Woman said...

Can I read it?

Jenn Thorson said...

Deray- I can see where it would be really similar to the doctoral thesis issues! And I don't envy you having to defend. At least with sending a novel out, we don't have to be there when the editor/agent reads it and then have to explain ourselves. :)

MA Fat Woman- Heh, hopefully soon.

Happily, having gone over half of it thoroughly now, it doesn't SEEM to be picking its nose much, so it's on its way to being fit for company. :)