When you finish the last sentence of a novel you have written, you’ll sit back from the text and in stunned silence absorb the great thing you’ve just completed. In this moment of what feels like closure, you say to yourself, “I have just written a novel.” And while it’s true you have done something monumental, you haven’t written a novel. If what you truly desire is a complete manuscript, what you have is the first abysmal draft of a possible novel that still needs hours, days, months, possibly years more work to become the thing which you have established it to be already in your mind.
The first time I finished a first draft of a short novel, I printed it, punched it with three holes, and purchased a beautiful binder for the pages. I wrote the title on the spine, along with my name. I made a title page with a dedication! I was nineteen years old, so green you could have cut me open to find flexible, live tree marrow. That is as far as that story ever went.
The second time I finished a first draft, I printed it and put it in a binder, but this time I knew better.
“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.” – Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Doctorow was right, you can only see as far as the headlights. When I finished that second first draft I knew the next step was EDITING. By that time I had started to read memoirs on writing (Stephen King, Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, etc.) and was becoming accustomed to the reality that great literature was created over a long process and that there were only a select few human beings over the course of the history of the world who had cranked out an excellent novel in one try. Researching the writing process became my recreational pastime in my early twenties, and I began to understand that if I did, in fact, want to be a writer, I was not signing up for a blissful career of creating lovely, thrilling stories in my mind and transferring them to digital pages on my MacBook. Great writers referenced the frustration, the highs of molding a paragraph or a dialogue into something truly moving, the lows of staring at blank pages for days and days, unable to fill them, the agonizing discipline of returning to the lonely writing desk, the presence or absence of a muse, the poverty of the process without any promise of payout at the end.
More than anything else, writers speak of the insatiable hunger to narrate life with the written word. The craft is solitary, though not friendless, and many writers are afflicted with troubled spirits. But still, there is that inherent drive to keep on writing.
Reading those words, hearing writers speak on these sentiments, almost always moves me to tears. There is a deep, soul-stirring comfort in knowing that there is a name for those feelings, and a community of human beings who share them.
But the title of this post is “What editing a novel is like.”
I’m on something like the eighth or ninth draft of the novel that’s currently in process. This is my third novel, which I started writing at the age of 23. That was almost six years ago. When I finished the first draft I edited it twice. It all took almost a year and a half, and then I was bored, so I put it away. I started a new novel, the fourth, which I was convinced was “the one.” I thought I would polish it, publish it and a film company would jump on it like a jungle cat, begging me for rights. I’m laughing as I write it, it’s so absurd. LOVE IS BLIND! So are writers smitten with their own creativity. Then I took two years off of writing, unintentionally.
In January of this year, you might recall, I decided that one of those last two books was coming off the shelf for an attempt to finish the process all the way to publication. I read through the last one, the one I’d assumed I would choose, and realized I was uninterested in the plot, which stunned me. How could I have written something so generic? With great fear and trepidation, I took down the other and began to read. What if I felt the same way?
It was sloppy, young, disjointed, poorly framed, riddled with total shit dialogue and a terribly unconvincing romance sub-plot, but the bones were there and they were strong.
I felt my heart swelling as I read, scribbling all over the pages, slashing enormous portions and making notes for possible changes. It was like walking into a beat-up old house with a vision for a lovely remodel. After a week of this, I remember coming out to the living room where Mark was seated on the sofa watching football, and I was positively GLOWING from the inside.
“What?” he said.
“This is going to be amazing.”
Sometimes it is amazing because there are strokes of genius, when the whole of my vocabulary collaborates to form the sentence I mean to say. That’s rare. Usually it’s like shopping for avocados – picking through all the options, feeling them for softness, usually leaving the store with NO avocado because either there wasn’t one soft enough or I didn’t have the patience to find it. Choosing avocados and sentence formation are equally painstaking for me.
Stephen King’s mantra about writing is that it’s a discipline. It’s got less to do with creative genius than good old fashion showing up to your desk, gluing your body to the chair, and refusing to budge. I get up really early, when it’s still dark, peeling my back off the bed, pour myself some coffee, usually eat half a cookie or something, and sit down. It was hard at first, but now it’s a habit, and I find that my creative genius is wide awake at that hour. We are morning persons. Together, we work for an hour and clean up the mess I made with the last draft. We plug our way through, and sometimes I want to cry because it is so bad improvement seems implausible, and sometimes I feel like a hero navigating a Boeing 747 out of the path of a missile. It all depends. Today I came out of my office at 7:14 grinning. Yesterday I told Mark I was going to throw the whole thing out.
I have a friend that’s also a writer who’s editing the crap out of this novel. She tells me when something is brilliant – that’s her word. When she finds those diamonds in the side of the cliff she screams and points like a crazy person. But she’s also tough, and that is what I need. This book would never have gotten more than two feet off the ground without her. She’s sort of ruthless in the BEST way. She edits with guts. It sounds awful but it’s actually wonderful, like pouring alcohol on a cut, it burns like hell, but then it’s clean and the skin can grow again. I’m doing the same thing to her book, so nobody has to feel sorry for either of us. She writes her comments, I take them back to the drawing board and turn draft nine into draft ten.
I have no idea how many drafts it will take, but I think I’m beginning to see the glow of daylight at the end of this proverbial tunnel. I know without the shadow of a doubt that one of these days I’m going to hold this book in my hands, drink in the smell of freshly printed pages, and see every draft pull together in one final draft.
This is what editing a novel is like.