I remember how excited I was when a real, honest-to-god literary agent agreed to take a look at my novel last year. I had just finished what I thought was a thorough edit of the manuscript, cleaning up the rough spots, correcting little errors, re-writing bits of dialogue and description, and I felt pretty good about it. The agent said he was glad I was doing revisions because many authors don’t bother (he’d apparently seen a lot of ugly manuscripts).
Yeah, I can just imagine, I wrote back, feeling a bit smug. But I’m a professional writer, 20-plus years as a reporter and editor. I got this.
I emailed it to him. Waited a couple of months. Then he wrote back and said “this isn’t my style, sorry.” I asked for more specific feedback. I think my exact words were “I have thick skin, let it fly.” And he did: cut big chunks of this draft; stop trying so hard to be “writerly”; and read some books on how to write fiction (he provided a helpful list).
I was disappointed. But I tried to keep perspective. I’m a beginner, and landing an agent on the first try was probably wishful thinking.
Now that I’ve read the books he suggested and I’m looking at my novel for the first time in nearly a year, I see what he was talking about. It’s a mess.
Which is not easy to say. I thought it was pretty good before I sent it to him. People I trust read it and liked it too.
Last week I went into town and printed out a fresh copy of the manuscript, planning to sit down and read the whole thing in one sitting (that was the advice from one of the books). That didn’t happen. I’ve read through about 10 chapters so far, highlighting parts I want to keep, crossing through big sections that should be cut and making pages of notes on a legal pad as I go. I keep jumping to the laptop and writing down bits of new dialogue and thoughts on how certain chapters should be re-written.
The thing is shot through with flaws. Chapters with no clear point of view or multiple points of view when there should be just one. Long sections of description that are all style and no story.
Like this paragraph:
“How did things go at the factory today?” the father asked, his eyes on the panorama framed through the windshield. The flat valley fell away from the road on all sides. A small boy herded sheep on the grassy fringes. A man on horseback bounced into a trot, black cowboy hat dusted gray. The starved land blurred past the window, whitewashed fenceposts like rib bones poking through skin stretched too thin.
I loved that paragraph when I wrote it, because I’d seen that panorama from a bus during a trip to central Mexico, and like a good journalist I wrote it down. Now I read it and roll my eyes. Three separate images and an overworked simile. And nothing’s happening other than a guy looking through a windshield asking a question that doesn’t provoke a very revealing answer.
I have entire chapters with Border Patrol agents hiking through the brush doing Border Patrol stuff. Which I think is fascinating, but now that I read it again, those chapters don’t go anywhere, they don’t really move the story forward. I need to weave the Border Patrol technique into the main action: there’s a coyote (people smuggler) out there who’s been abandoning people to die in the brush and the agents need to catch him fast. They can’t be walking around for three chapters holding a seminar on how to track people through the badlands of South Texas.
And I haven’t even talked about the one-dimensional characters…
It’s discouraging. Sitting in my little cabin with just my evil little brain for company, I’m hearing the vinegary voices of self-doubt and fear of failure: This? You quit your job for this?
Um, yeah. I did.
I have to keep reminding myself that I wrote this novel with no background in fiction writing, mainly just to see if I could do it. I went at it like a newspaper reporter – I banged out the draft in about three months, then gave it a quick clean-up of an edit, as if it were a really long newspaper story and I was on deadline.
Now I have to tear the whole thing apart and basically start over, using the draft for parts. And trying to see it with the eyes of a fiction writer.
I scribbled out a couple of quotes from Anne Lamott and from the writing conference I attended in June, and taped them to the wall above the folding card table where I work:
Every good novel starts with a shitty first draft
Great novels aren’t written, they’re re-written
So this is apparently normal in the fiction-writing world. Good to know.
But I still need a beer now.