Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Today I want to introduce you to a novel project that has been very dear to me for quite some time. I’ve recently discussed my struggle with transitioning into my next novel, and blamed this on my addiction to outlines. A half-dozen ideas are all percolating still in my mind for varying lengths of time, but one project has now crossed the magic 10,000 word threshold for when I consider a novel to actually be in progress. And the two main reasons why this one seemed to pull ahead are that it’s my oldest unwritten projects that I’ve had and because, unlike the rest, it has a fully-fleshed out outline. Old dogs, am I right?
The novel doesn’t yet have a working title, partly due to the fact that titles are a bit of a weak spot of mine (or one link in a chain mail armor of weakness). What it does have is a code title for the document, so for ease-of-reference let’s just use that until something more acceptable comes along than “Maple Vodka”. The reason why I refer to it as “Maple Vodka” will become clear soon enough, but first let me tell you a meandering background tale that I insist, at least to myself, will not bore you to death.
As you’ve seen from my introduction to my first novel, Wake the Drowned, I brew ideas sometimes for years at a time before they ever see their first words committed to paper. Like Wake the Drowned, Maple Vodka has its roots from over a decade ago.
I was still riding the high of having one of my short stories adapted into a short film, an adventure whose telling is best left for another day, and was trying to explore the lucrative screenwriting career I was obviously going to have. Back then, the regrettable Kevin Spacey’s production company, Trigger Street Productions, ran a peer-review site for amateur screenwriters. The premise was if you read and reviewed other people’s scripts, you could eventually post your own script and have it reviewed by complete industry noobs like yourself. For a year I eagerly worked to add my piece of garbage onto the communal landfill (to be perfectly honest, I did read a couple of scripts that were, in my opinion, worthy of Hollywood productions, but the overwhelming majority was similar to my own puerile attempt).
After having that script excoriated by the reviewing community, I decided to move onto my next project. This one would serve two purposes – my next script to be offered up to the Trigger Street masses, and also a way of outlining my next novel. As an outline, this was actually a decent idea because it allowed me to hash out my dialogue, which at the time was by far the weakest point of my writing. So I wrote up the first couple of scenes, made the most skeletal of outlines, and like every other large scale project I touched up until that point, off it went into the Land of the Forgotten, sort of.
When I decided to take Wake the Drowned to an agent, I thought I would hedge my bets. After bits and pieces of my novel swam around in my head for about four years, on a long walk around the city I decided to hash out the same full outline that I did for Wake the Drowned. The idea was snuck into my email to the agent and because they never addressed it, instead choosing to opine on Wake the Drowned, nothing came of that outline, but it sat there for years on my hard drive whispering into my ear every so often.
It's both a project that I’m excited to write, and one that terrifies me in its scope. I describe it simply enough – an alternative biography, a sort of personal alternate history. At least, that’s how it started.
Imagine if, at the age of thirteen, I never moved to Canada. What kind of person would I have become? What parts of my personality and my future were shaped by my environment and what was inherent to me? Could I really be considered the same person? These are all the questions my protagonist, Paul, ponders during one of his identity crises, until one morning he wakes up, and finds out he never actually moved to Canada and has to deal with the person that he became in his native country. You see? Russian immigrant in Canada? Maple Vodka? As far as working titles go, I’ll say this one isn’t half bad.
In the decade since I first thought of this idea, there have been significant changes, both to myself and my story. Firstly, even though it was going to be a literal exploration of what I would have been like if I had not moved, Paul had slowly diverged from me in terms of personal experiences and personality. Sure, he still shares a lot of my childhood experience and certain traits, but changes needed to be made to provide at least some objective separation, and artistic liberty was required.
The novels relationship to the origin/destination dichotomy had also shifted. The novel was conceptualized to show a very obtuse picture of Canada being good and Russia being bad. But the country I had not visited in almost twenty years has changed in unprecedented ways. At least in Moscow, beautification projects have changed the face of the city, modern apartment blocks repaved outdoor farmers’ markets, pedestrian crossings have transformed the streets.
But at the same time, whatever hope remained in the 90s seemed to have been sapped. The country has reshaped itself as a pariah, as one against the world, steering the people against external enemies instead of the internal ones sitting at the top of the food chain. Not only that, but I myself have developed a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between person and place. We are a product of our own free will as much as we are about where we are from. The novel has thus become more introspective to the main character.
So as I’m starting to work my way through the first quarter of the novel, all these things are rearing up and threatening to scare me away into safer waters, you know, the ones where I’m bouncing from idea to idea unable to commit. I’ve embraced the challenge of writing about a country I personally haven’t been to for more than half my life, but one that has given me an inexorable part of the soul that longs to write. I’ve got a few windows into Russia I can still use, so I’m not flying completely blind. I also know that this can’t be a long-winded essay about my own opinions. Paul needs to be real to me, he needs to be thrown in this situation and genuinely try to find his way out of it, to genuinely react to the face that he sees in the mirror.
So there it is, what is likely to become my second novel if things go well.
Meanwhile, I should write some outlines, otherwise I’ll have nothing to do once this one is done.
I have recently put the finishing touches on the third draft of my first novel, Wake the Drowned. It’s been a process that has lasted almost two years, so I hope that not only did I improve the manuscript, but actually managed to learn something along the way. So without further introduction, here is an arbitrary number of writing tips I have distilled out of the editing process for draft 3.
Tip 1: Just let it spill out
Self-editing as you go is probably one of the worst sins a writer can commit against themselves. I still find myself, during what should be a breezy first draft, questioning “is this scene dragging on too long?” or “wouldn’t this be better in another part of the book?” or “does this aside actually serve any purpose?” These are all extremely valid questions and answering them will go a long way to improving your work. However, they shouldn’t be asked at the writing stage and are best left for the editing stage.
I spent years writing the first draft of the novel. And then another year editing it into the second draft. You’d think with all the self-editing I did along the way, everything would have come together by then. Wrong. So much of draft 3 did not just involve editing for phrasing or brevity. I was moving around chapters, adding new chapters, merging chapters from different parts of the book into each other. All that time that I spent overthinking as I wrote was largely wasted, because difficult decisions are being made right now.
So when you’re writing that first draft, just write. Put down every scene you think of writing onto the page. At least now it’s there, saved, and ready to be dealt with later. Then, when you’re editing, apply a liberal does of the following tip, and then you’ve done yourself and your work a great favour.
Tip 2: Be merciless
My first draft clocked in at about 95,000 words, and after the first set of revisions, the second draft came it at around 73,000 – that’s almost a quarter of the original manuscript gone, so I thought I was in a good spot.
The third draft of the novel included additional chapters and material that amounted to approximately ten thousand words, yet the length of the manuscript remained unchanged. That means through this edit, another 10,000 words came off the books. Now a full third of the original was gone. Granted, this process was gradual and didn’t feel so drastic, but think about what this means. Imagine writing 32,000 words and then just … deleting them.
Not everything you write will be gold, and part of editing is panning for that gold so that the end product is a distillation of your writing. Imagine yourself as an athlete with the ability to take away some of your failed attempts. Imagine the career you could have. This is presented to you as an option in writing, so it would be a crime against yourself to not seize the opportunity. Cut. And don’t let the writer you used to be dictate what your writing should look like.
Tip 3: There no such thing as too slow
Slow and steady wins the race. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. On the surface, all platitudes to make yourself feel better about procrastination, but I found them to be strangely true.
Yes, looking back at the fact that I finished writing the first draft in 2015 and it’s been more than three years later and I’ve only made it through two major revision cycles may sound a wee bit discouraging, but what’s the rush? I’ve got a day job, a family, *gasp* other hobbies. I can’t afford to throw myself in, to marry myself to the “writer’s lifestyle” whatever that might mean to you. So why should I be hard on myself for taking my time?
I’m in my early thirties. I’m still learning life, still reading, still improving my writing. They still make “Top 40 Writers Under 40” lists so I’ve got a lot of room here. No one wins a lifetime achievement awards for a decade worth of work. No one writes an autobiography before they’re twenty. Okay, that last one may not be true, but you get the point.
Tip 4: You are not an ostrich
It’s easy to breeze through an edit, correcting typos, changing wording, maybe even tweaking dialogue to make it more natural. But then you get to a page, or maybe a whole scene, and something just doesn’t feel right. Maybe it’s the pacing, or maybe it doesn’t serve the plot, or maybe the tone is wrong or the characterization is inconsistent. Maybe it’s just a feeling that something is amiss. Do you a) wrack your brains about how to fix the problem, or b) do you stick your head in thee send and pretend you didn’t see anything.
I’ve certainly done the latter with some of my previous edits and have paid for it in this draft. I’ve already got my eye on the next draft and have a feeling I know what I need to tackle. For years I’ve ignored an uncomfortable feeling about a certain aspect or my story. But now that we’re squarely in 2018, I find myself needing to make some significant edits to avoid what I find to be cultural appropriation.
I won’t be happy until all those wrinkles are ironed out. So why dodge it? If something doesn’t feel right, try to figure out why, and how to fix it.
Tip 5: You didn’t marry your outline
I’ve already lamented about how I seem to be unable to start a project without a robust outline in place. While this so far appears to be a prerequisite for me to actually get writing, the outline is just a skeleton of the work. But bones break, get re-set, limbs are amputated, okay, maybe the choice of metaphor was a mistake, but in any case, what you thought your story would look like before you even started writing it should not dictate how your story should develop.
I’ve already gone at length about at the transformations Wake the Drowned has taken over the years, and it only really took off once an outline was in place. So I owe that much to it. But I recently found one of my early outlines for it and almost laughed at how much it has changed.
For this particular draft, I found significant “dead zones” in the plot, or as I like to call them “doldrums” where there’s neither moving action nor character developed (I’ll go into more detail about my plot graphs some other time). I worked hard to whittle these down and yet the problem was right there from the beginning – so much of my outline was basically “and then Charlie walks around for a while and basically does fuck all”. How I thought that would make for engaging story, I’ll never know.
So once the first draft is complete, the outline has served its purpose. Your story is now an organic entity in your hands and you need to help its development. If that means throwing your original plot twists into the dumpster, that’s fine. Save them onto a file somewhere on your computer so you can maybe go back and be inspired by them later.
So that’s about all the drops of wisdom I have to share – felt like juicing a turnip with your bare hands. Hopefully this will make the road through draft 4 a less painful affair.
Let me first preface this with the disclaimer that I had completely lost track of how long it had been since my last entry. I guess between work and some issues that required my full attention on the Board of our Housing Co-operative, I was all tapped-out for creativity. I had told myself when I started this endevour that I wouldn’t let my entries lapse this badly and I had a good streak going for about two months. Hopefully this is just an aberration that will result in some lessons learned and I won’t go this long without an update again.
Now, getting back to the entry I first started writing almost a month ago, I find it a bit amusing that despite it being my major current project, I have actually devoted very little time to discussing my novel. I kind of mentioned it towards the end of my first blog entry, but beyond that, I don’t think I’ve given it much attention. I suppose one of the reasons is that I’m currently in a love-and-hate struggle with it, but the bottom line is I was about to sit down to share with you some of my editing struggles and realized that I haven’t actually provided any context to what has been a decade-long process.
The novel I’m trying to finish, whose working title is Wake the Drowned though my wife has informed me it sounds like the title of a high school essay, has its roots in one simple image. I was no older than seventeen, likely still in high school, taking out the trash in the parking garage of the condo complex we were living in, and whistling some unnamed tune. I locked onto that image, of whistling a tune while walking through a long tunnel, and somebody waiting on the other side to meet the mysterious source of that tune. That’s it. That’s all it was. Not particularly original or awe-inspiring but it was the spark that ignited a fire that was very slow to catch.
The image kept coming back to me, time and time again, until I figured out who would be emerging out of that tunnel and who was waiting for them (I would say who that would be here, but I’ll let you savour the moment if my novel ever sees light of day). And so other ideas built on top of that. The protagonist formed soon enough, a loitering man-child whose character became more and more nuanced until the “man-child” concept was dropped and reworked into something different. The tunnel became the exit out of a perfect little town called Middleton, and contrary to the first line of the novel, Middleton quickly stopped being so perfect.
Most of these concepts were churning freely in my head for many years, all through undergrad and into law school. It was then, in our little first-floor studio apartment in downtown Toronto when I finally sat down to write the short story that had been stuck in development hell until that point. This must have been about ten years ago.
The reason it started as a short story is that short stories were kind of my thing, and they still make up a good portion of the words I commit to paper. I’ve flirted with novels before, and as recently as the summer before law school managed to get almost 50,000 words into a manuscript about a love affair between a Russian Count and the poor relation of a powerful Countess (that one is still officially a work in progress). So when I set out to finally write down the ideas that would form my novel, I very much intended it to be a short story.
That is, until I found myself 5,000 words in and not even having scraped the plot at that point. This was a curious sensation. Probably one of the first times something in my writing had organically developed without me intending to. I wanted to know where it would lead me, and over the next few years and many distracting shiny projects (some of which had now been accepted for publication, so yay!) I decided that about 18,000 words in, I would try my hand at finding the book an agent.
The sheer audacity and naiveté of sending an unfished (let’s be honest, barely started) book to an agent is both impressive and mortifying. But I was greeted with kindness, and though she politely told me to come back with a finished manuscript, she had given me many important pointers that have blown the book wide open. Five chapters in and I was already heading for massive rewrites. This was around 2012 and of course with that much reworking, I had lost steam and motivation, and the book mostly lingered for the next couple of years.
That is, until I hit another breakthrough and the final piece of the puzzle slid into place. The “what” that my novel is about had been made clear to me. It was a work that snowballed atop a single image, but it had not found its purpose. Only after my own thankfully brief struggle with PTSD did I realize what story the novel needed to tell. It needed to be about mental illness, it needed to be about alienation and how we sometimes fail those in need, even the ones we love. The realization was so striking that I remember where I was when it had, driving in the evening over the Oak Street bridge heading home.
That’s when the floodgates opened, and chapter upon chapter poured out of me. The first draft of the novel was complete within a year of my epiphany, after having not even been a quarter-finished six years after I had started writing it.
And that, of course, is when the hard part actually began.
Brimming with excitement over my first finished novel, I subjected my poor supportive wife to it. She read it, but informed me that instead of pancakes I had given her raw pancake batter and to never do anything so horrifying to her ever again. The point was taken, even if it was a hard pill to swallow.
But I believed there was yet a finished pancake underneath all that batter, and so I set to it, reading through it with the most critical eye I could muster. There are plenty of editing techniques other than just rereading that I employed. I’ve already discussed my use of word clouds, and at some point I’ll talk about my plot graphs and dialogue editing. In the first edit I managed to get a 95,000 word manuscript down to 75,000. Just imagine typing out 20,000 words and then deleting them. It felt both jarring and somehow liberating.
It’s that second draft that I’m currently butchering into a stubborn third draft. I’ve added about 10,000 words worth of new chapters while the overall word count has remained steady. Which means now more than a third of the original manuscript is completely gone while the rest is heavily rewritten. Chapters are being cannibalized into three or four other chapters, some getting moved from the last third to the first third of the novel.
It’s like a renovation project for a house – completely overwhelming and just when you’ve torn out all the drywall you think you’ll never be able to finish. But as you move along, and the house starts looking almost habitable, hope blossoms.
I’ve been in the editing stage for almost three years for a number of reasons, and the fact that editing is a whole new beast I needed to learn is one of them. The other is simply life. I’ve got two kids now. My father passed away last year and I’ve gone through three jobs in two years with hopefully having found some stability now. I’m feeling better about Wake the Drowned and I’m ready to finish that third draft and dive straight back into the fourth. I look forward to sharing my work with other people, but I have to be patient and take it one day at a time.
And thanks for joining me on that journey.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.