Let me start by saying, Never write a novel. Probably, this milestone is on seventy percent of folk’s punch list of life. Climb a mountain, run a marathon, visit the Eternal City, and then this task that some think is a solid idea. My list used to read visit Machu Picchu, write a novel, see the Great Wall of China, and run for public office (Yes, everyone should do public service once in their life). Some of these I’ve done, others are still on the list, and one I decided to pass on for a variety of reasons.
Everyone dreams of seeing their name in print. But most don’t understand the level of work it takes. Not necessarily to start but to really finish. And for those that use ghostwriters–those political types–they haven’t really written a book. They’ve contracted out the work to someone else to do it. Maybe, they are smarter than the news channels say.
I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid when I started using pen and paper and then moved on to a rudimentary word processing program on an old Tandy computer. My first crack at a novel could be described as “poor at best.” It was a fantasy novel about a sorcerer’s diary. I was into Tolkien and Brooks at the time. The Sword of Shannara remains one of my favorite reads–the first book over a thousand pages I devoured. I still remember showing a few of my friends the beginnings of my fantasy opus and getting laughed at. There was probably reason for it. Confidence is another issue in this line of work that only happens with experience. I have little of both.
And of course, rolling out work before it is truly ready can be problematic. I did this often growing up. I think I looked for feedback after three or four rough chapters. That’s never a good strategy, but I just wanted someone to see the same vision I had. I still remember when the Dave Matthew’s Band Lillywhite Sessions found its way onto the internet. It was around the time when Napster was making headlines, and I jumped at it. I can still see that 28.8K modem humming along bit by bit. I felt lucky to get the songs before it was taken down. And I was excited to hear Dave again, but he was less than enthusiastic about the entire affair–for good reason. I think he used the word “stolen.” He wasn’t referring to the work but that the fans saw something before it was ready. It’s too bad that the eventual Busted Stuff gets compared to the Lillywhite Sessions. After Busted Stuff came out, I deleted the other unfinished work. You should never steal another’s work. I still regret downloading it.
I started work on the Jason Sheridan Chronicles years ago. It started as a short story written in high school and then later updated in college. Later, I scrapped it when my wife felt it wasn’t coming from me; rather, it felt like a retread horror/fantasy novel. That was good advice, and I started down a new and different road. I played around with multiple outlines until I saw Jason Sheridan jump over the outfield wall in my head. Then the hard work began. It took me about four years to finish the first draft. And it probably took me another year to write the next draft.
I looked over my bookshelf the other day, and I have a bound copy of each draft I’ve completed. They are my keepsakes for all the blood, sweat, and tears. When I came to draft six, the work clocked in at around 180,000 words, and I felt I had a work of art.
I still remember thinking that I would have a college professor or editor look at the work. I cold-called multiple universities before finding one that (1) had solid credentials to actually do the work and (2) was actually willing to take a look at such a large work. When I hired the professor, I actually thought they would pronounce my works as the Great American Novel, make a few small grammar changes, and I would be off to the races.
Now, college professors shred all comer’s work. Being out of college for so long, it was a rule in the handbook easily forgotten. Also, it’s rather hard to judge your own work. Getting feedback can be difficult. I still remember looking through line after line of suggested edits, grammar adjustments, etc., My first thought was that this couldn’t be right. My test was scored wrong. It was devastating and daunting to look at what had to happen, and I almost threw in the towel.
Yet, I didn’t. For some reason, I kept at it. I took most of the feedback to heart, took a fresh look at the work, and in the process trimmed about a third of the novel (I owe the professor many thanks). If you’re doing the math, that’s approximately 60,000 words. Carefully crafted sentences are painful to see go. I remember telling my wife one day how much I cut, and she laughed. “Get to the point faster,” she said. “You are a bit wordy.” There is something to be said for this.
It took me well over two years to make the changes. It’s hard to make these adjustments when you have a day job. Going to work, taking care of the family, and keeping the house in order take priority. Writing falls close to the bottom on Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy. That doesn’t mean I’m not passionate about it. It’s just the way it is. Many passions are hard to juggle. You have to compartmentalize the stories and put them in a corner of your mind until you can really work on them.
Because of the ever-changing priority list, it makes editing a challenge. Knights of Legend is a spiderweb of a work. That’s by design but also creates challenges when even small edits have an impact across many parts of the book. It’s one of the novel’s greatest strengths and weaknesses at the same time. I’m still not sure I got it right. I’m betting I’m close though.
After this process was completed, I had the book line edited by two MFA candidates and then looked over by a former staff member at a local newspaper. Multiple friends and family members read the work through the years as well. Respectively, these were drafts 7, 8, and 9. Compared to the massive changes between drafts 6 and 7, these changes were minor, but still relatively important.
If you take anything away from reading this, it should be that this is a well-thought-out and worked manuscript. It’s been researched and battle-tested. It is a work with a significant amount of care. Sometimes, I think it has been reviewed too many times. Perhaps, the rawness of the work was lost.
Toward the end of the process, I ran into a few problems in the typesetting process that caused draft 10 to be created because some final changes were lost. I almost threw in the towel at this point. It’s hard to be at end of job and then realize you have to go back and review the manuscript yet again.
In the end, I came back to the book. I don’t think there was any question I would. But it took the same person that told me “I’m wordy,” to get back on the horse again. Your wife is the person you go to war with every day, and I thank her for getting me in gear again. You always need someone in life that sees the field better than you do at times. I hope this works both ways, but I doubt it.
The setback also gave me some time to get a few items adjusted that I wanted to handle before the book went to the printer. When Steven Spielberg talked about the remake of E.T., he edited out the guns the police officers ran around with chasing the kids. Apparently, it had bothered him for years. I had one of these moments as well. A character didn’t react quite right in one of the scenes and a small change was needed. Nothing major but it would have nagged at me. In retrospect, going backward is sometimes the only way to go forward. I was glad I did it in the end.
So, should you never write a novel? Like most mistakes in life, you can only learn through experience. Just be prepared that it’s much harder than you think. Much harder. Now, I must get back on the horse, start up the multiple word processing programs I use (it’s amazing how many tools there are out there now), and get back to my next masterpiece. If only I had that old Tandy computer, the process on the sequel might take less time. Somehow, I doubt it.