Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On knowing when to say when

I'm avoiding reworking some pages right now, but I had a thought I'd like to commit to writing (which makes my slackness a virtue in the case, future edification when I look back on this post): When is the book good enough to send out into the world?

I won't be able to make it perfect, no book ever is.  When is a project good enough?  Here are some thoughts I had, along with some explanation:
  1. Have I read 100 books in the last two years?

    How will I be sure if my taste is sharp enough to face the world?  Read books.  Bestsellers, old classics, favorite authors, writers you've never heard of.  In your genre, out of your genre, the books everyone is talking about.  Books you love, books you close after chapter four.  Lots and lots, at least a book a week for two years.  Keep a log or journal of the good ones you read.  Keep a log of the bad ones, too, so you can remember what not to think up for your project.

    You need to know what it is you want in a book before you can write one worth reading.  In my reading, I've discovered I dislike lazy plots (things that go over and over the same material, the same locations, etc. because the writer couldn't think of a better way to tell the story).  I tend to like thinner volumes over fatter ones: means the writer has done more thinking about how to get his book in shape.  I want a recognizable plot: something bad happens in chapter one, twists for the next twenty chapters, and a resolution, unhappy is fine.  I want a book that someone has spent time crafting, filling with incisive analysis of the world (not just beautiful, empty fluff), a phrase or sentence or paragraph every twenty pages so good I have to write it down.
  2. Am I well past the first draft and into rewriting?

    I mean past the third or fourth (or later) draft.  I consider a draft a safe place where the themes may not be clear, where characters may be dismissed like thieving servants, where the plot is still not nailed to the stage.  Everything can and should change.

    The rewriting process (not editing, connotes just a superficial line edit) starts when it's clear there are no more characters needed, no additional threads of plot, no new themes to play with.  Rewriting is the process of weighing small things inside the book.  Should this sentence be expanded into a paragraph?  Should this paragraph disappear?  Are the sentences in this paragraph out of order?  Does this bit of dialogue sound like Character X at all?  The plot still changes, but at a finer level, the level that keeps a reader reading.  Getting all the boring bits out, making sure all the great idea the writer has in his head make it onto the page, taking out any possible confusion.

    Rewriting is the heart of what a writer does.  I had the opportunity and obligation to review typescript drafts of a longish poem by Robert Lowell.  Twenty one or twenty two drafts he saved.  The one with the earliest date bore no resemblance to the finished product except in some of the themes it was to address, some of the settings.  I got to watch his thought process, picking up ideas, playing with them, discarding them.  Assembling things into one order, reordering in the next draft.  The last few drafts (rewriting) were about fine-tuning of words, everything else seemed more settled.  Writing a novel has all the same steps, it's just a much longer undertaking.
  3. Have I conceived a two or three paragraph description of my work?

    If you can't describe your book in a hundred or two hundred words, you don't know what it's about.  Probably means you've got a plot problem.  Perhaps you don't have a plot.  Plot: Stuff happens, characters change, you make readers smile, laugh, cry, scared, angry (at a character in the book, not at the book itself).  You need to make your description irresistible to someone who is thinking about reading your book.  Is there anything worth than standing in a bookstore, getting interested by the book jacket, reading the cover, and not turning to the first pages?

    This description will eventually form a query letter for attracting an agent, but this description should be good enough to sit in the book jacket or press releases about the book, to be the pitch you make when you run into a high school friend at the grocery store and have to explain what your story is about.

    It's hard to condense 80,000 words into 200.  I did maybe 100 versions before I settled on the one I like.  Some of the edits were small, word replacements and comma shifting.  Some were almost starting with a blank page.  These are the words you will agonize over harder than any paragraph in your book.  These ones matter the most.
  4. Can I read the book in one sitting (or one day)?

    This should have been a big warning sign for me in previous projects I've started.  I didn't like what I'd done so I found it hard to read what I'd written.  It'd take me two or three days to finish a book-length project.  I wiggled my face as if I'd be sucking down stinky medicine.  It should have told me to keep working my stories until I did like them.  Instead, in my eagerness, I submitted and got rejections.  Go figure.

    When I hit a rough spot, I mark it in the draft and try to keep going.  Then I know where to focus my next round of rewriting.
  5. Am I rewriting the parts that threw me out of the story?

    There are only two things a writer has to be really good at doing.  We have to read with a writer's eyes.  How did he pull that off?  How would I fix this plot problem?  I wonder if I could make a character like this in my next book?  How did he lay this theme in starting on page one, what a great payoff?  Look at how this scene was put together, I didn't see that coming at all!

    We (also) have to write and rewrite.  If you just want to write a bunch of first drafts, remember what they said about an infinite room with infinite typewriters and infinite monkeys?  You might get something worthwhile, maybe.  But I wouldn't bet on King Lear.

    Most of the writer's work is reading, hating, and rewriting.  Reading, getting confused, rewriting.  Reading, knowing it could be better, rewriting.  Reading, smiling, on to the next paragraph.
  6. Have I shown the book to a disinterested reader?

    Disinterested doesn't mean a 'bored' reader.  It means someone who isn't obligated to say nice things to you.  Not a sister, not a friend, not your mother.  Someone who reads a lot of books, has ideas about what makes for a good one.  Someone who won't hesitate to close the book after chapter four if the book deserves it.

    I'm getting ready to do this step.  It's nerve wracking.  I'm trying to get the story into such good shape that I have no problems with it.  I'm harsh on the project, but I know I have a limited field of view.  What if...  What if...  The doubts are severe.  The comments could come back saying anything at all.  Maybe the part I worked on hardest of all is baffling.  Maybe the characters are cardboard.  Maybe the reader stopped reading after chapter four.

    I won't know what's wrong, what I can't see about my project, until I ask someone to tell me.

    Probably back to rewriting after this step.
  7. Have I taken everything I know, everything my early readers have told me and put it into the rewriting?

    An acquiring editor or a literary agent is an early reader, too, one with some kind of possible financial incentive tied to reading.  Make each page so good that the agent will demand to read the next.  That's about the only way I know to get a novel in the door.

    This is the stage I want to be at before I send this project out the door.  I want to think it's good.  I want a couple other folks to think it's good.  I want to be anxious to read, clear out a block of a couple hours and have a good time.  I want it to turn the pages for me.  If I set high goals, I have a chance to meet them.  (Set low goals and you'll never even think about the high ones.)

    This is when I'd be happy to start trying to get an agent.  Not before.

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