Friday, January 24, 2014

Time, the Magic Elixir—Set Your Novel Aside for a Spell

Partial Outline for Tempest at Dawn

I believe novels are like wine, they need to age in a metaphorical cask for just the right amount of time. The chart on this page was a timeline I developed for Tempest at Dawn, my novelization of the Constitutional Convention. This chart reflected what happened during May, 1787, the first month of the Constitutional Convention. (Each number has extensive hidden notes.) I also develop separate charts for each of the following three months, plus similar charts for before and after the convention. My table for the cast of the story retained an unbelievable amount of data on all fifty-five delegates plus a dozen or so outsiders. I had spent three years studying the convention and the framers. It was a daunting task and I wanted to squeeze everything into my novel. To quote Pretty Woman, “Big mistake. Big. Huge.”

The real story of our nation's founding.
My original draft was over 240,000 words. My agent harangued me to cut, cut, cut. By the time he agreed to shop the book, it was about 175,000 words. Despite his enthusiasm, it didn’t sell, and I threw the manuscript into a drawer (actually a computer file folder) for several years. After I had successfully self-published a western series and The Shut Mouth Society, I decided to take another look at Tempest. I felt I had captured the story, but diffused the drama with too much detail. Now I went after the manuscript with hedge clippers instead of scissors. After that, professional editing and proofreading got the final published manuscript down to 140,000 words. Still a big book, but now it moved with an energized pace.

Time was the medicine that cured the ills of Tempestat Dawn. I got far enough away to lighten my emotional attachment to the project. Writing a book is consuming, but intensity can also cloud judgment. 

After your final draft is done, set it aside for a bit and let your book mellow. Does it need to be years? Absolutely not. When I finish a novel, I go on a trip. Get some real distance between me and the book. I prefer going surfing or taking a road trip with friends. Something that feels like a reward. It can be as short as a week, and is seldom more than a month. For me, travel shortens the time I need to be truly objective about the final draft.  Every writer is different, so this may not be the best way for you to clear your head. I only know that I do solid revisions after getting mentally and physically away from the book for a spell.

One last thing: it’s not easy to abandon your book. There’s excitement on completion and an anxiousness to get it out there because it’s your best work to date. Probably true, but it can always be better. Give it a little time and look at it again with fresh eyes. (I also have a couple of trusted people read and comment on the book while I’m gallivanting around.) Try it once and see if it works for you. Like I said, every writer is different.

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