In this new publishing world I am digging out some novels I wrote awhile ago and dusting them off. Ones I didn’t sell, for whatever reason. Whether I publish them or not depends on if they hold up to my (new and improved?) standards. As writers we can only hope we improve with every book. The one I’m looking at now I wrote before One O’clock Jump (2001). It’s called Night Fever… or maybe Slumberland… and is a thriller about a sleep clinic doc and a sleepwalker who sees (maybe) a murder while roaming the night.
First off, I see it’s almost a historical novel by now. I must have written in about 1997. Phone booths, tape players, and Madonna — oh my! Should I leave them in for “period detail” or edit them out? I think they have to go. So the work begins. And that’s just the superficial stuff, not the meat of the story, the writing itself, the various threads and subplots that all have to work together.
Interesting going through a novel I wrote so long ago. What was I thinking about then? Where was my head? Lots of politics in this novel which means I might have written (or at least started) it in a big election year, maybe 1996. I know that when I wrote Sweet and Lowdown, set in 1940 and involving Wendell Willkie and FDR in a fight for an unprecedented third term in office, I felt the repercussions around me daily. That was the year 2000. Now that was a political year, one that almost didn’t end before the calendar year.
I actually couldn’t remember what the story was about. Of course I skipped to the end and it all came flooding back. Family secrets — still one of my favorite themes. Who are we? A tangled mass of genetic material? The product of a weird family? The product of a loving family? An iconoclast striking out for individual freedom? A lost soul looking for connection? One of the joys of re-reading my own work — that few have clapped eyes on besides me — is the ability to massage those themes, to focus and tighten them, to edit out the crap (as usual.)
Will Night Fever make the cut? I don’t know yet. But I’m glad I copied it off my old PC and got it back in my mental circulation. Anybody who tells you editing something you wrote is harder than the first draft is lying. Slash and burn, here we come.
You hear much about the vaunted “flow” among artistic types. Being in the flow, or the zone, or whatever you call it, means you’re inside the story, seeing it play out in your mind, being a simple conduit to the mystical power of your imagination. Which is wonderful when it happens but isn’t as often as you’d like. Often as a writer you have to simply be there, be present, and hope for the best.
In editing the first draft of my new novel I often find places where the flow was present. Unfortunately that usually means I show (not tell for godssake) my characters moving from place to place, thinking thoughts they’ve already articulated, and generally feeling a bit too much. Logistics, getting people from place to place, are the first to go. They are usually unnecessary. Take them out and see if it still makes sense. (It will.) I remember teaching seventh graders writing and a boy who was completely stumped at how to get his story started without having his character get out of bed, brush his teeth, take a shower, eat breakfast, etc. etc. All the boring parts of living, right? As Elmore Leonard says, take out the boring stuff.
The other thing in editing your second draft is that the first chapter can probably go. It was necessary for your flow when you started. It made you get deep inside the psyche of your character. But now that you’re there don’t burden your readers with it. Let it come out naturally later. I tend to load up my protagonists with heavy baggage so I’ll have something to work with later. Maybe it’s not necessary. Or maybe I can work it in little by little and not load up the poor reader too.
One thing I’ve learned as a reader is that I don’t like serious angst at the start of a book. It’s a turn-off. I’ve done it myself, and I’ve read it. You have to be seriously skilled as a writer to make it work for you, to draw in a reader to care about your damaged character. Depression, sadness, grief: they aren’t attractive to readers. Start elsewhere, young writer. Crack a joke. It’ll get you farther. Then after the story is trotting along dig a little deeper. It’s okay to have damaged people, hey, they’re out there, plenty of them. But draw the gentle reader along, don’t hit him over the head.
Back to the editing. Wish me luck.