Developing a Novel with Help (Lots!)
We all hope we can write a novel in a year - isn't that how some people do it? That's what I thought when I started writing. But the novel development process takes a lot longer than that, and in my case a little help.
I started a novel in 2007. I revised each chapter a bit as I went, but not a huge amount. I jumped back to revise earlier chapters occasionally. I wrote a chapter every two weeks for just under a year and sent each chapter out to a group of twelve readers when it was complete. My readers loved it and a few sent comments, which of course I addressed. Then I wondered if I was done. I hoped that I was, but I knew that I probably wasn’t. I decided to seek professional advice.
I signed up for the Vancouver Manuscript Intensive in 2009 and was assigned a mentor Claudia Casper. In the Vancouver Manuscript Intensive, your mentor reads your entire manuscript and provides you with detailed comments on what you need to address. Then you are to meet with your mentor four times and discuss what you have revised. Two group meetings, with the other people your mentor is helping, and a public reading are also included. Claudia was great and very helpful and to her I owe the title of my novel (if it ever sees the light of day), which I love. But I had just started a full time job and wasn’t quite clear on what revising meant. I piddled around the edges trying to correct some of the plot issues that she identified, making minor changes, but I had no strategy or time to do a concerted rewrite to deal with some of the technical issues with language that she felt required work and I couldn’t step far enough back to see how to truly correct the plot issues.
So I contented myself with my piddling changes (as I just did not have the mental space with my job to do more), printed off ten copies and sent it to my former bookclub. They also liked it and were kind enough to send comments, which I did not address. Then a writer friend mentioned me to an agent. The agent was receptive, probably because of the wonderful writer friend, so I sent a query letter. The agent requested the first three chapters and then the whole manuscript. I was elated. After two months, the agent called to say it was not ready, but that I could resubmit. The agent spent an hour giving me detailed comments. I was horribly upset and I could not see how to deal with the comments. One in particular would require changes that would have to be drawn through the entire novel. I did not realize at the time what a gift these comments were.
I started to revise – but I couldn’t figure out the right strategy. I would start from the beginning and get tired, and then start from the end working my way backwards hoping to meet in the middle, but I never got there. Half the time I thought I was making it worse. I managed to get another agent to look at the first chapter. But I was done in a way. I could not see a way to deal with the comments I had received and it was too long – 500 pages (a recurring comment), but I did not think it possible to part with any of my precious words. So I set the it aside for almost a year and wrote a second novel. Then quit my job. But I gave a year notice and I had a very intensive work period for eight months.
At the end of 2010, I decided I had to get serious about my novel again. So I signed up for the Humber School for Writers Correspondence Program. Again I was assigned a mentor, Susan Swan. This time I was expected to send a chapter or two every couple of weeks. Susan would send back comments and I was expected to incorporate the comments into my next chapter. I was finally working a bit less, so I could do what I had to, which was sit down and work methodically through each chapter, considering all of the comments that I had received to date - from Claudia, from the agent, from my readers. Susan also showed me how to cut length by just cutting words – this was less daunting and as I became comfortable cutting words, I became comfortable cutting paragraphs and even storylines. The constant deadline nature of Humber was perfect for me – I worked through 320 pages with Susan and managed to cut 75 pages by the time we finished in July 2011.
But I still had 75 pages to go and Susan felt that the novel needed another pass, not as intensive as the one I had just completed, but another pass. This was not good news. Not only did I doubt I could get through the 75 pages by myself, I had no idea how to do another pass by myself. I considered doing Humber again, but at $3000, I was not sure if it was worth a second round (definitely worth the first round). So I set myself the same deadlines as I had at Humber – 40 pages every two weeks and by the end of the summer I had a 400-page novel that had been completely revised.
But what to do about that other pass? I did not think I could do it. I considered not doing it – after all I had just done an intensive rewrite. I whinged about it relentlessly to everyone who would listen for at least a month. But my instructor at the Fernie Writers’ Conference this summer, Marina Endicott suggested (very kindly) that I needed to go through it one more time because it was too frivolous in parts. I frothed and heaved at this advice for at least 24 hours.
Then I put it aside for two months and whinged some more. Then I decided I would do a chapter a day for 27 days – 27 chapters in 27 days. I can do anything for 27 days I figured.
So I did – chapter by chapter with a few weekend days of catch up, I worked through it again from start to finish, considering each line and word (and Marina was absolutely right). Now I have a 368-page draft that I consider to be the best I can make it at this point in time, and I am so very grateful to all the people who helped me.
I learned so much about the novel development process in the last four years. For seasoned writers none of them should be surprising. 1) There is no way to avoid working methodically through each page – sometimes five times. 2) It is best to have a plan and a schedule. 3) Sometimes you just have to step away from the work to get some perspective. 4) The advice that is the hardest to hear at the time is often the advice that is bang on. 5) It takes a long time to write a novel and there are no short cuts.
I just hope this is the last draft.
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