Monday, April 25, 2011

Letting the Manuscript Rest

Hooray! On Saturday, I finished the First Round of Deep Revisions to Book 3 of WATERSPELL. Now I must allow the manuscript to rest for at least three weeks before I begin the Second Round of Revisions. I know there are still some plot issues that I must address: This being the third book of the WATERSPELL trilogy, I must be certain to tie up loose ends. Things were hinted at in the first two books, and all must be resolved by the final page of Book 3, THE WISEWOMAN.

Or, perhaps they won't all be resolved. I'm deliberately leaving a couple of threads to work into a sequel, if I decide to revisit this world and these characters, sometime in the future.

Wow! It's a real feeling of accomplishment, to have an end in sight for all three books. Years ago, I took a run at Book 3 and produced 200 unusable pages. I shelved the whole project then, and went on with my life. But deep in my subconscious, this long, complex story continued to percolate.

And on a Sunday morning more than a year ago, I awoke with Book 3 (Version 2) running through my brain. With fingers flying over the keyboard, I got it down in rough-draft fashion: 111,000 words. Then I let the manuscript sit for months while I went about the business of earning a living and allowed myself to forget what I wrote. That's the only way, I've discovered, to approach the work as an editor -- seeing it "cold," bringing an objective eye to bear.

What I've Learned From Writing a Fantasy Trilogy

Writing the third book has been a radically different experience from writing the first two. When I began this work, I was a long-published (in nonfiction) journalist making the transition to fiction. Alas, I allowed some journalistic expectations and norms to interfere with my creative impulses.

Most damaging, as hindsight now reveals, was my effort to "get it right the first time." When reporting for newspapers and writing feature articles for magazines, I didn't have time to rework multiple drafts. I had to slap the words down, make quick corrections, then hand my writing off for publication.

It never occurred to me, as I took my first tentative steps as a novelist, that I didn't have to get it anywhere NEAR "right" the first time. I could take years to perfect and polish my prose.

I wasted lots of time fussing and fretting over my opening chapters, especially for Book 1, THE WARLOCK. It all came together more fluidly when I finally threw up my hands and gave myself permission to move forward and finish the danged book! You know: "Just write it!"

With Book 2, THE WYSARD, my writing moved along more briskly, because I was beginning to understand that I'd have lots of opportunities to revise and rewrite. Even so, I got bogged down with bits that were destined not to make the cut. I struggled with sections that I should have just bracketed, with a note to myself: "Revise when Book 3 is done and you actually know what relevance this material has to the story as a whole!"

It was only when I finally got Book 3 down on paper -- roughly, but with most of the plot strings threaded through the narrative -- that I was able to reread Books 1 and 2 with a focused eye. Having the whole story complete in my head, I realized why I'd had such a struggle with the problem sections in Book 2: They weren't part of the story. I ended up cutting chunks that I'd labored over.

Such a waste! With Book 3, I finally understood:
  • Write fiction fast and rough. Don't spend time editing and polishing material that may, later on, hit the cutting-room floor.
  • And relax! The rough draft can be pretty awful. That doesn't matter. Each succeeding draft, each round of revisions fixes problems and brings the work closer to a "finished" state.
"Finished" in quote marks, because I'm not sure a writer can ever really finish a novel. The time comes, however, when it's as good as the writer can make it (with the help of his or her critique partners) and it must be revealed to the reading public.

That, I believe, is what makes a writer a professional: How many revisions the writer is willing to undertake before finally "killing the monster and flinging it to the public," to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

I long ago lost track of how many times I revised Books 1 and 2. But having learned from my wildly inefficient approach to those manuscripts that a better way exists, I've applied those lessons to Book 3 and I might actually finish this thing by the end of 2011.

And then I'll begin my e-publishing adventure, joining my forward-looking colleagues in exploring our brave new "text meets tech" world.

For now, though, I must force myself to stay away from my Book 3 manuscript. I'm just TINGLING to have at it again. I'm so close -- so close to finishing this story that's been demanding my attention for so many years now.

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