Friday, August 21, 2009

State of the Novel Address

State of the Novel Address

Here’s the long-promised self-analysis of Dawn’s Rise. Now if you’re an agent or publisher, note that all the problems mentioned in here have been long since addressed, so you needn’t read further. After all, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, everything about my novel is pure perfection.

Okay, are they gone? Good, it’s just us writers now.

top down

As I’ve mentioned before, the parallels between literature and software are remarkable. What I’ve been doing so far is what I call a “bottom-up” approach to editing. I first address the line-level problems, things like grammar, style, POV, showing vs. telling, etc. Reduce redundancy, keep to the point, remove extraneous information. In software, this involves coding small components first, working through the intricate details and fixing the bugs before putting everything together. You start with something simple, and build complexity on top of it.

Last week I encountered a problem with this approach. I’m a little over halfway through an complete novel edit, and I realized that the book just doesn’t “work”. I have characters and events with no purpose, I have climactic events in the wrong part of the book, and things happen for no reason. For the last two weeks, I’ve been in a complete standstill, not knowing what to do. It’s like I’ve written all the components, and they operate correctly, but the software doesn’t do anything useful. The problem with a bottom-up approach is that you are building something bit by bit. It’s like building a complete wall with trim and windows and paint, but you don’t have a floor or ceiling. You may have to tear down that wall if the ceiling doesn’t fit.

This brings us to the other approach, the “top-down” methodology. This is where you build the framework first. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? From a software perspective, the drawback is that you have nothing to test until the whole building is completed. Bottom-up lets you test individual components as soon as they’re completed. Literature is different. It’s very linear. It’s not like after reading chapter 10, the reader goes back to chapter 5 six times and then you read chapter 22. Every line of writing affects every line that comes after it, whereas in software, everything is compartmentalized with minimum interaction between components. So I thought that if I start at the beginning, the story will logically flow, and I’d figure out how to fix it. Building frameworks sounded like a useless exercise. I was wrong.

I’ve discovered that there is a top-down approach to writing. (Most people call it “plotting” or “outlining” or some such nonsense). I’ve been reading a book called “The Writer’s Journey” which describes the twelve steps of “The Heroes Journey”. I was surprised and relieved that my book contained all twelve steps to varying degrees, although maybe not all the character archetypes. (I’ll save the details/review/application of this method for another post). So, I’m now writing out the plot of Dawn’s Rise chapter by chapter, with the intention of identifying all the elements and arcs in the story, and figuring out what needs to be fixed, because I’ve discovered that my writing style is the least of my worries. I think the worst possible thing in writing is to capture a reader for 50, 100 pages and then they throw the book out because it starts to suck. It may work for landing an agent, but I suspect that publishers'/editors read the whole book at some point.

I think I need to abandon my software mentality. Each chapter is not a software component. I can’t just treat every issue like a bug. There are these lines and themes that run through the book like a river that flows from point A to point B. I need to judge every line not by whether it “works” in isolation like a line of code. I’m not writing a novel of 2500 perfect individual sentences, or 1000 well-crafted paragraphs, or 74 scintillating chapters (although I should wind up with them in the end). I’m writing a novel, which is one coherent piece, beginning to end. It doesn’t have “features”, it has “themes”. It doesn’t have model-view-controllers, it has characters. It doesn’t have components, it has story arcs that run through every single page.

So here’s the “State of the Novel”

I started Dawn’s Rise in Feb. 2002 after a startup I worked at went belly-up. I’ve worked on it off and on since then. but full-time since March 2009. In terms of full days, I must have worked at least 9 man-months all told.

Dawn’s Rise currently stands at 143K words (down 10K from its high point), approx. 500 pages, divided into 74 chapters.

I’ve edited through about 60% of the book for this revision.

I’ve received dozens of critiques, almost solely on the first 7 chapters. Critiques have been mixed, but I think I’ve drastically overhauled my style and improved by leaps and bounds. The problem with critiques is that everyone will find something to comment on, so they’re not the best indicator that I’m “done” with a certain chapter, so I just have to use my best judgment. They’re also out of context with the rest of the book, so they’re not a great indicator of how the whole story is faring.

My best guesstimate is that I have at least 3-5 months of editing on this revision, unless I magically begin to crank out edits at a breakneck pace. Meanwhile, I don’t have an income.

Here’s the crux of the issue: I’m wondering whether to continue on or abandon this project. Can I whip Dawn’s Rise into publishable shape in a reasonable amount of time, or is it better to abandon it while I hone my craft on some other piece that has higher market potential?

I’m reminded of my mom. At one point, she desperately wanted to be a novelist. She wrote a Regency-era piece called Belinda’s Lock which she must have slaved on for at least three years. She even caught the interest of some agents. But it never sold, and she never worked on anything else. She put her heart and soul into BL, working on revision after revision. When it didn’t sell, she gave up.

I don’t want to fall into the same trap. I don’t want to beat a dead horse so to speak. I want to maximize my efforts and my possibility of future income.

Is Dawn’s Rise a marketable story and if not, can I fix it in a reasonable time? Does it require just some minor tweaking or wholesale revisions that could take months? I don’t know if there’s any way to answer that. I don’t know “how good” a first novel should be. Obviously blow-your-socks-off-good would be preferable. But what about “nice story, interesting plotlines, but characters are too shallow, and style a little flat. Shows a lot of potential, I should lock him up now”? Yes, I know it’s a harder sell.

Which of course brings me to the other unfortunate question: can I write? Can I write publishable material? Am I just throwing good money after bad? Only I can answer that (and the answer right now is YES until proven otherwise).

As of this moment, I’ve taken a step back, examining Dawn’s Rise from the top-down. I’m coming up with a plan for a final revision I can take to agents. I’ve identified my style issues (I hope). I’m investigating my story issues. I hope that what’s going to come out of this is something remarkable. It may be a tough sell, but I’m going to come up with something I’m proud of. Even if I wind up self-publishing, I want Dawn’s Rise to be something people want to read and can’t put down.

With the distraction and excitement of NaNoWriMo just around the corner, I want to really have a plan in place in the next week. Like that publisher mentioned to me, I need to act like a professional, and look at my writing with a critical eye. Unless I win the lottery, this may be my last shot at becoming a writer, so I need to give it everything I have.


  1. You have to know when to put the baby to bed. Even if that means stuffing it in a drawer for a few months before you come back to change that stinky diaper. Work on something else and give yourself a rest if you need it.

  2. My personal advice would be to finish your chapter review. Revise to the best of your ability. Then put it away and write the next book.

    In the time I have known you, your writing has improved dramatically, and now you're starting to think critically about writing.

    You've learned a lot from Dawn. If you can apply that to a new project, you might find that you end up with a tighter first draft that requires less editing to get it into a finished state.

    That's my $0.02, for what it's worth. I'm not saying abandon it; if you come back to in in a year or two with more novels under your belt, you might have a better chance of whipping it into shape.

  3. Hmm, you guys are giving me the opposite advice than what I expected.
    (but good advice)

    The problem is that I've hit some chapters that are really stinky, but they're the most critical chapters of the book (the "innermost cave" so to speak).
    My "todo" list keeps growing as I discover more and more issues with the story. These are things I wouldn't have found months ago.
    I agree, maybe it's time to put this down, and I will be working on another project Oct-Dec, but I want to get this in decent shape by then.

  4. I think I've gone through something pretty similar. I wrote a manuscript for a sci-fi book over the course of about 10 years and came to the point where I just couldn't make any headway with it. I finally had to put it in a drawer and try something different for awhile. I still think the story has merit, but for now I consider it part of the learning curve of figuring out how I have to write a book. It has paid off with the one I'm currently working on. My advice would be to put it away for now and start with something fresh - even just a short story. When you come back to it, you might have a much fresher perspective and be re-energized to make the changes at that point. Whatever you do, don't stop writing something. I hope this helps.

  5. We're writers. We write. What we write and what changes as we write doesn't really matter so long as we are writing. Don't stop writing. And, don't stop editing. But sometimes you have to stop doing the hard stuff (editing for me), and get down to what we really enjoy. If you need a break from Dawn's Rise, and it sounds like you might, take it. You never know what you'll learn from writing the next piece that will make Dawn's Rise even better when you come back to it.


Constructive comments are welcome.
OpenID Required.