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Writing the Novel is the Easy Part

For someone writing their first novel, it may be the hardest thing they’ve ever done. Maybe that’s why so many new writers feel justified in publishing without doing any further work. Surely, all that effort must be worth something, and having completed the project is proof that you are, indeed, a writer — an author.

But the truth is that when you’ve written the last word, the easy part is over and it’s time for the hard work. Even after having written and published three novels, I know that’s still true. It does get easier as you hone your editing skills and your ability to keep your eye on both the big picture and the tiny details — the forest and the trees. Easier, yes. But I’m not sure it ever becomes easy. Maybe it does for those who write formula genre fiction, but even they have to work hard to get to that point.

Revising a novel that I wrote almost three years ago, when I didn’t know squat about writing novels, is an ongoing learning experience. It’s frustrating, boring, exciting, inspiring. It was a “I’m going to do this, come hell or high water” project, and it has every flaw that a beginning novelist could possibly be guilty of. It’s a measure of how much I’ve learned since I wrote it, and proof that certain aspects of writing may never become anything like easy.

Many posts ago, I wrote about discovering that one of the book’s most important characters fitted the description of the stereotypical evil scientist. Well, the guy is evil and there’s nothing I can do to change that. What the first draft failed to do is explain how he came to be evil. Of course, I didn’t know him very well back then. Now I know what characteristics gave him the potential, right from the start, to do evil deeds if the right circumstances came along. His acts are both logical, and deeply irrational, but it’s possible to understand the contradiction. He’s still evil, even insane, but we can understand how all that came to be. And we can rejoice when he gets what’s coming to him.

Then there are a couple of minor characters who disappear and then reappear later on, becoming somewhat more important. Because of their role, it’s important to know where they’ve been all the time they were offstage. They can’t just pop back up like a jack in the box. Their role made it clear that they should have cleared out and done their best never to be found. In the chapter I’m working on now, they do pop back up, and that has to be corrected, which means that I have to fit in some back story.

The novel is full of problems like that: plot holes, continuity, weak characterization, switches in POV, too much telling instead of showing. And then there are the problems that a lot of writers don’t deal with at all, like awkward sentence structure, poor vocabulary choices, over or under-attribution. unrealistic dialogue. What’s really frustrating is that, even with something like a half million words under my belt, I can see a problem, and spend days banging my head against the wall before I can figure out the solution. Maybe another half million words will make it easier. Maybe.

 

6 Comments

  1. I also thought that writing the book was the hard part, but now I long for more time for fresh writing, because when it come right down to it, the writing IS the most fun.

    I like how you’ve wrapped up the supporting characters’ history and motivation piece. That’s a hard one (for me, at least) because a lot of what I think and say about them is for me, and only show up to the reader in how rounded these characters appear.

    Nice job.

    • Thanks, Richard. I’m pretty frustrated right now. I’m determined to finish up several pieces and get them published, but with new ideas begging to be started, the rewriting and editing are really a drag some days. Especially when I hit a bad spot that refuses to be fixed. But there’s no point in writing if I’m not going to do the work that makes it *good* writing.

  2. I think there’s nothing harder, Catana, than trying to rescue that first beloved novel, even with the advantage of hindsight. I spent all last year doing that, and still, there are things I can’t fix. My problems are structural in the early stage and POV: should it be 1st or 2nd? I can’t believe I still don’t know the answer to that! Anyway, although I love the thing and it ALMOST won the Byron Bay Writers Festival Unpublished Award last year (shortlist of 4), I’ve decided to put it away until after I put out a completely different book, which I wrote many years later, and which has got a good sound structure, and solid characters.
    You know enough not to need my advice not to bog down in it – something I’ve seen many less experienced writers do. So good luck, Catana. And do remember: some bits probably can’t be fixed, but the reader will forgive you if the rest is good.

    • It’s turned out to be a good thing that I put the story away for such a long time. It’s worth rescuing, but I don’t think I would have known how to do it right away. Most of the time, it’s kind of exciting to see the problems work themselves out. Of course, I’ve had to strip out parts that I would have been tempted to keep when I knew less. You know, those bits that you just hate to lose, but you have to kill for the story’s benefit.

  3. Oops, should have written: it be 1st or 3rd? Sorry.

  4. Reblogged this on lorageneva and commented:
    This is a great explanation of not only plot development but also the need for careful revision once the novel is completed. Amazing information for those new to novel writing. I wish I had had this information with my first novel. Luckily, I put it in the drawer and am working on the revision as we speak.

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