Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Why revision is necessary

I'm kinda stuck on this subject right now, since I'm in the middle of this big novel rewrite, and I am not thinking about much else for a change. But I never cease to be amazed how much of the important work in a novel--more so, perhaps, than a story--happens in, say, the fifth or sixth draft.

I may have posted here before about my perennial experience writing a first novel draft--I cruise along like a bastard for about 150 pages, and then I screech to a halt. Why? Because that's when I finally begin to realize what novel it is I'm trying to write, and it's never the one I've been writing--it's this other one. So the rest of the manuscript is the "right" one, and draft #2 is always about going back and fixing the first 150 pages so that they're actually part of the same novel as the rest.

Draft three is about polishing draft two. Then I pass it around to people--Rhian, Ed, Bob, Brian--and get their opinions. Then I sulk for a couple of weeks (sometimes many months) and decide who to listen to and who not to. Then I write draft number four.

At this point, I'm beginning to discover the stuff that will later hold the book together. Images, themes, recurring secondary characters; familiar turns of phrase, evolving narrative flourishes, parallel plot twists. Today, deep in draft four, I found myself pulling a neat fast one--a prop that figures prominently in a flashback episode late in the novel, I ended up planting earlier on, without explanation. Suddenly there's a line drawing those two parts together, when before there was none. And I spent yesterday eliminating a character and repurposing some of her scenes--one appears in a dream, and another is taken over by somebody else. It turns out I didn't need her after all--in fact, she was all wrong for the book (as Rhian warned me, early on). I will probably end up cutting the dream, even.

Draft five will be another major overhaul, most likely, in the wake of another peer review, and then draft six will go to my agent. Should the thing be accepted by a publisher, I'll do draft seven under an editor's pen, draft eight in the wake of a copyedit, draft nine in loose galleys, and draft ten in bound galleys. And probably another one will sneak in there, somehow--maybe my agent will have some ideas, too.

That's one draft of new writing and nine or ten of revision. The new writing takes six months. The revisions take a year and a half, at least. This is where the pile of pages turns into an actual book. Up until then, it's just a good idea that I ruined by trying to actually write it.

16 comments:

rmellis said...

Not to be a witch, but I don't think taking out all the commas the copyeditor put in counts as a "draft."

Just saying!

jrlennon said...

Oh. My. God.

STET RAGE FLASHBACK!!!!!!

ed said...

And making clay dioramas of important scenes isn't a draft either.

Dreaming about it is, however, a kind of draft.

That slight breeze coming through the floorboards is a fourth draft.

Trevor Jackson said...

Thanks for sharing this. The actual work, the steps, process, is always fascinating to me. It's that "Do you write in the morning" kind of question, but way more focused on just how you make a novel.

Here's a question: In draft #2, how much of it is pushing through to the end and how much is going back and fixing those first 150 pages? Are you doing these two things at the same time, or do you make sure you get a big enough chunk of the "right" novel down before revising?

jrlennon said...

I always push forward to finish the first draft, no matter how bad the first part is. For about 35 pages I'm kinda down about the whole thing, but then I get over it.

Oh man Ed one of these days I have to put Rhian's Mailman diorama on flickr. It's brilliant.

And you remind me, I have to patch over that hole in the basement window.

5 Red Pandas said...

Please, please, please, tell us more about this diorama. Please let this really exist!

Now all I want to do is make a diorama. If it's of an actual revision that you plan to make, does that count? Please let it be so.

jrlennon said...

The diorama in question is real...a few years ago, Rhian, for reasons I am still not clear on, made a diorama, complete with articulated action figures, of a scene from my book Mailman. It is amazing. If it's OK with her, I'll put the photos up later this week...

zoe said...

Do Americans really make dioramas? I thought it was just a joke in The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror.

Christ, do all writers have to do ten drafts? I have neither the patience nor time.

5 Red Pandas said...

This should turn into a Ward Six contest. Screw best book of the year, I want to know, what's the best DIORAMA of the year? Give me the challenge and I'll get to it. I knew I saved all those shoe boxes for a reason!

rmellis said...

I went through a miniatures phase and made tons of tiny food items and tiny books and crap and sold them on eBay. But then I decided I needed some people, and then I made a guy, and he happened to look like Mailman, so I did the whole scene. It wasn't a planned thing!

I think I had the idea I could make mystery boxes: a miniature murder victim surrounded by miniature clues to his or her demise.

Some Americans make dioramas, but I think it's actually more popular in Britain, judging by the Miniatures section of eBay.

rmellis said...

About drafts: I don't think everyone has to do that many drafts. John's method is to write *really* fast, just get anything down -- kind of shoot first, ask questions later. He rewrites fast, too.

Typical exchange around here:
J: Man, I'm going to have to spend three months rewriting my novel.

R: Yeah, right.

ten days later
J: Wow, I can't believe I'm done already!

R: I'm shocked, shocked I tell you.

For slower, more deliberate writers, two to four drafts are sufficient.

zoe said...

There was a CSI episode about miniature murder scenes. Grissom had to solve the mystery using the teeny tiny clues.

I suspect those British diorama people are probably old English Miss Marple types.

I'm going to make all my classes make dioramas after christmas.

5 Red Pandas said...

Dudes. Even though you haven't officially declared the Ward Six Diorama Contest, I went ahead and constructed my entry. It's a simple twenty minute jobber, but I think it represents the scene from my story well. Check it out at my blog:

http://5redpandas.blogspot.com/2007/12/where-craft-and-craft-meet-in-snowstorm.html

jrlennon said...

I'm straining to read what it says on that snow...

rmellis said...

Wow! That's cool. Maybe we *should* have a diorama contest...

Writer, Rejected said...

This is a great take on novel writing. I love it. I am also in my (please) last revision of a novel. It's all I think about. I haven't exactly kept track of the revision number. I like to think of novels like children by how old they are. Mine is ten. It feels like an important year.