Lost – I Can’t See the Story for All the Words

I remember it made sense when I wrote it. Now I don’t know what I was talking about.

FD-editThe first draft of a novel is a quagmire of irregular ideas; some are firm and others will crumble beneath the slightest scrutiny. The second draft is when you refine what you have, firming up the worthy and cutting the slag. And friends, there is slag in a first draft.

As a writer, you must come to terms with the truth that every word you write is not pure gold. No matter how hard you worked to craft that paragraph describing Molly’s water pitcher, if it doesn’t define the character or move the story forward, its slag and needs to go. Failing this task hinders everything you want your writing to be – read.

Throughout history, every writer has had to deal with the psychological roller coaster of the written form. Ernest Hemingway was quoted as saying, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Hemingway also said, “Write drunk. Edit sober.” Hemingway was extreme, but drunk or not, first drafts are rough, and editing a first draft of a lengthy novel is daunting and sometimes a little depressing.

The upside you need to pat yourself on the back for is that you are willing to dig into the first draft (and second, third, etc.) to refine your work. Seriously, Amazon is loaded with e-books by self-published authors who shoved the first draft of their work out there. You aren’t one of those people.

Here are some suggestions on editing that may help:

  • Before you get too far into a lengthy first draft, define the basic plot points and have an outline of the main characters – age, unique characteristics, personality and motivation. Once you’ve got this, you can proceed to do things to these characters and still be grounded in who they are and have some idea of how they will respond to given situations without straying far from your original intent.
  • During revision, remind yourself that the first draft of everything writers have ever written needed revising. When you wrote it, you thought it was stunningly brilliant and now, in the cold light of two weeks (or however long) later, it’s contrived. That’s just perception, and the likely truth is it is neither, but it is not great, and great is what you want. Great comes later, after editing.
  • If you are lost in your own story and unsure of what was intended, do not panic. This is an indication that you had an idea that either didn’t work quite as you thought it would, or you need to elaborate more. Step back, analyze the situation and make the correction. If the piece needs to go, track back to the point before the story got confusing and edit it out. If it needs clarification, do that. Whichever you do, save previous versions so you can go back if you change your mind.

None of these rules are ground-breaking, but I’m currently dealing with exactly this, and it’s helping me. Undertaking Hartford was written like so many short stories with reoccurring characters, places and premise. I’m now intertwining the stories, and I am troubled and annoyed with the process of making this a novel. Though I get discouraged, I keep at it. Once I figure out what I was trying to say, it will be gravy, baby.

© 2012, Mitch Lavender


5 thoughts on “Lost – I Can’t See the Story for All the Words

  1. I can just about handle editing a short story – the thought of doing it with a novel scares the crap outta me…but then again, I needn’t worry as I’ve never written a novel :]

    I enjoyed reading this little piece, Mitch – I will remember it if / when the time comes when I have something that resembles the draft of a novel to work on .


  2. Thank you for your confidence in me, Mitch! Yes, I think you have to be as ruthless when editing writing as you are when pruning roses. My mother always says you should get someone else to do it, because they will have no attachement to the plants! Stephen King recommends scrapping 10% if I remember rightly. That’s not really that much, is it?

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