The First Edit

To begin with, writing a novel, particularly if one has literary as opposed to purely commercial pretensions, is an act of, if not hubris, at least egotism.

To believe that one has something important or worthwhile to say and the ability to say it in a compelling way, a way that engages the reader and seduces them into investing their time and maybe coin to enter that created world, to become complicit in that story, may be the height of folly. Unless one is a genius, which I am not.

Nevertheless, you have a story, and you have characters, and you have lived with it long enough, through fits and starts, until the day comes, the compulsion overwhelms you, and you sit down and seriously set to work. And it is hard. As hard, as arduous, as frustrating, as rewarding as anything you have ever done, but the compulsion has become an obsession, and you keep writing, through the inspired stretches and the dull slogs.

Days, weeks, months pass, and eventually you type “THE END” at the bottom of your manuscript. You have strung together over 100,000 words in some sort of coherent fashion. You stretch your stiff back and sigh, filled with a sense of accomplishment and more than a little emptiness, as at the end of a long anticipated and fulfilling journey.

It is your first novel, and you think it is good. You do not have an editor much less a publisher, so maybe you share it with a circle of writer friends or with family and friends whose opinion you value, but share it you do, and you receive feedback.

Feedback and a healthy dose of humility. Your readers generally profess to like your novel, some of them a lot, but for some reason they do not think your novel is as perfect as you do. Almost every one of them has at least one recommendation that will make your novel better, which leads to one of two responses. Either your hackles rise, your neck stiffens, and you swear you will never change one word, not one jot, not a single iota. After all, what do they know? They’ve never written a novel. Or you pause, take a deep breath, and ask yourself why several readers have made similar observations.

Perhaps a few found you syntax convoluted at times or thought they had to look up too many words. Maybe some readers were caught off guard by a character’s action which which they were unprepared. Or maybe some expected a particular scene to be more fleshed out, more dramatic, and felt let down when it was not.

So you print out a hard copy for yourself, close the laptop, and sit down to actually read your novel as a reader would, to read it straight through without making minor edits along the way. Maybe you keep a pencil handy to make notes in the margins. That’s acceptable. And it slowly dawns on you that maybe some of those comments have merit.

First there is the style thing. Writing, for me at least, is an ongoing tension between the workings of my subconscious and the discipline of craft. Words, phrases, and sentences bubble up unbidden. I know what I want to say, but how I say it springs from some place deep inside, shaped by a lifetime of reading, hopefully more influenced by the better writers I have read. The conscious part, the craft, is the struggle to wrangle those words and phrases into some sort of coherent, cohesive, hopefully lucid form.

Your read-through reinforces what you felt during the writing: the flow of words, the rhythms and subtle meter of the prose is exactly what you wanted. That will not change.

But you do notice that the actions of one of your characters especially really does seem to come out of the blue, the emotional trigger never fully explained. You realize that you have lived with your characters for so long, know and understand their desires and demons so well, that every decision and action seems logical and crystal clear to you, but you have not explained all of that to the reader. His actions can still come as a shock that only makes sense in retrospection. You make a note.

You reread one of the climactic scenes and realize that it is a bit anti-climactic. It was fraught with possibilities you ignored in order to get on to the next, more dramatic passage.  You make another note. You notice a loose thread, an unresolved piece of business. You make another note.

Looking back over these notes, you end up making even more notes. You begin writing new scenes clarifying motives. You flesh out other scenes. You rearrange one scene, then another. Each change creates a cascade of other changes, some minor, some profound. some passages need to be completely rewritten.

A new or redrawn scene, a passage that would never have existed had you not listened to one of your readers, becomes one of your favorites. It throbs with a tension only realized when you let it play out. It ebbs and flows with unspoken conflict and resolution between several characters, closes multiple loops simultaneously.

You put in the work. You hone this, trim that, flesh out the other, and before you know you know it you have finished the first full edit of your novel, and again you sit back, stretch, and sigh. Then you pull the trigger and make it available as a free .epub download from lulu.com and set it up to channel out to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others.

This blog started out as both a thank you note to my wife and step-sons and close friends who took the time to read my first draft and share their thoughts and an announcement of the new version’s publication, but then it morphed to include an unusually long and rambling rumination on writing in general. It seems ironic that a pursuit as lonely and solitary as writing a novel eventually acquires aspects that are, if not collaborative, at least participatory, in nature. There is no doubt that it is a better novel for their input, more complete, more robust. I will never be able to thank them enough.

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