On Writing and Editing Novels

It is perhaps a bit…overly narcissistic of me to talk of writing and editing when I haven’t had anything legitimately published before, yet as a writer, I’m probably nothing but overly narcissistic. At any rate, I’m approaching the third draft of my novel, and I feel like talking about it.

Forgive the self indulgence, if you would.

I started working on The Ninth Life last year, and it took me about three months to write the first draft and another solid month to edit that draft. If I had to guess, and a guess this very much is, I’d say I’ve worked on it for around 150 hours.

I feel…I feel like that’s a long time to work on something, though maybe it isn’t. I don’t really know. It’s my first attempt at a novel. I do know I have to go through it at least twice more before I’m ready to start calling it done, but I don’t know how long drafts three or four will take.

So, while I can’t reliably speak of the future, I can talk of the past.

The idea for The Ninth Life came to me unbidden and unwanted. I had stumbled upon a small writing contest on some corner of the internet and thought, “Yeah, I can do a five or so page story for that; no problem.” I created a character and a setting, and even hammered out an ending. The problem arose when my protagonist ran into a much more interesting character with a much more interesting story.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this character, and after about two weeks of excessive brainstorming, I felt I had to at least try and tell his story.

Opening the word document that would eventually turn into 231-page first draft scared me to the point where my hands were shaking when I began to type. It had been a long time since I had felt so small and overwhelmed, so in over my head. In some act of caution or cowardice, I tried to tell myself that the story would probably only be a novella, nothing too big or crazy, though I knew that to be a lie. This new character had a long journey ahead of him.

I didn’t actually write anything that first day. Instead of starting the book proper, I penned myself a small note, the highlights of which read: “Let it be known that I don’t want to write this…but this story wants to be written…I don’t know what the outcome will be.”

Perhaps a bit overdramatic, and yet, it was nice to start the next day with a Word document that wasn’t empty. There’s something horrifying about looking at a blank page and knowing it has to be filled. With that note, I tricked myself on some fundamental level: I started the project, and once a project is started, it’s easier to work on.

But more importantly than that, I gave myself permission to fail.

That note took away so much pressure and turned The Ninth Life into a kind of experiment. Would I have the dexterity to finish the thing? Could I turn a project like this into a daily routine? I made myself look at this novel as a lengthy writing exercise and practice for future endeavors. With that attitude and no real expectations set, I began the real writing on day two.

Knowing this would be a lengthy project and one I couldn’t realistically stop working on until it was over (for fear of losing the characters or plot threads I was working with), I gave myself a daily page quota. I’ve been told that realistic goals help projects find their end point, so I gave myself a very realistic goal, one whose bar was actually quite low to the ground.

Two pages.

I had to write two singe-spaced pages a day, and I gave myself Friday as a cheat day. To anyone who writes often, be it professionally or as a hobby, you know that two pages is nothing. I can churn out a two-page document in an hour or so, maybe less if I’m well versed in the topic.

When I began on that second day, I rigidly adhered to my two-page limit; heck, for the first handful of weeks, I rigidly adhered to my-two page limit. It kept everything manageable. But as things progressed and my characters became more real to me, I found myself going three or four pages a night. Towards the very end, I became swept in a mad dash to finish and was hitting about six pages a writing session.

It took me 103 days to write the first draft of The Ninth Life.

Once working became a routine, I knew I’d finish, and I always had my two-page quota to fall back on. And in actuality, once the fear of starting subsided, writing The Ninth Life became a blast. This has been one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on, and once it’s completely done, I’ll probably start another novel.

On the content front, I went in fairly blind. I knew a bit about my two main characters, and I put some thought into their world, but after that, I just went where they went. I had a few certain scenes and places planned out ahead of time—I knew my characters would eventually wind up in a desert, for example—but otherwise everything that was new to them was new to me. I had no idea how the story would end until I actually got there and wrote it, and as luck would have it, it ended fairly well.

I didn’t so much feel like I was writing an adventure but watching one and chronicling it.

Hell, one character who I had intended to show up for maybe two chapters wound up becoming a crucial part to the entire story and a primary member of a party that was supposed to cap out at two people. I was really baffled with him to be honest, but he wound up becoming one of my favorite characters in the whole novel.

I have a feeling that if I had put too much thought into every plot detail and forced myself to outline the story first, it never would have been made. I’d have stopped in the planning stages and gone onto something else. I have issues with over thinking things, so for this, I simply didn’t give myself the opportunity.

For 103 days, this is how I worked. I hit some walls to be sure, and at one point I forced myself to write a very difficult conversation to cover up some loose ends lest they never be covered up at all, but the conversation worked itself out quite well even if it’s a heaping pile of exposition. I even worked in some last minute mythology that acts as some great world building to what had become a very fantastical narrative.

Once I finished the first draft, I put The Ninth Life away for two months. I wanted a break before I began editing, even though I really wanted to start editing it the next day. I felt some time apart would let me be more objective on the return, and in some respects, I was just exhausted with everything going on.

When I returned I was…both appalled and elated. Parts of the book were an absolute mess, and I knew I had plenty of continuity errors that needed fixing; yet, I was still happy with what I had. It wasn’t the catastrophe I had begun to worry it would be.

My first chapters were almost in a different style than my later ones in terms of how much description was present, and I wound up cutting maybe four pages from chapter one during my two- or three-hour editing session. Chapters two, four, five, and six also saw very notable reductions in length.

Not long into editing, I started a second document to act as a Ninth Life Bible of sorts. I kept notes, chapter summaries, a glossary of names and their proper spellings, and character descriptions. That bible became very valuable, and I wish I had started it sooner. On the next novel I do, I’ll make sure to keep one active as I go.

I spent a month editing, forcing myself to do an entire chapter a day. Some chapters took me a good many hours to work through while others did not, but I’m glad I finished each chapter in one sitting. Doing so helped me look at the chapters as whole units, and long editing sessions ensured that the content flowed properly. Honestly, the whole process was more akin to work than fun, but I was so afraid I’d lose something, some spark or feeling, if I became lazy with it.

After my first round of editing, I sent The Ninth Life out to some friends and family for feedback. That was two months ago. I’ve now gotten that feedback and feel like it’s time to start my next draft. There’s a lot that needs fixing yet, but on the whole, draft two ended in a pretty good place. The consensus is a positive one, and my brother is a hard person to please. His thumbs up meant more than anything else.

I’m hoping these next two drafts are easier and quicker than the first two, but in reality, I suppose I don’t care. I’ve been away from this project for two months and I’m just eager to get back at it. I don’t know what the future will hold, but it’ll be fun regardless.

So, my self indulgence is now over. I don’t know if this was interesting, enlightening, or just my own narcissism, but if you found anything useful here, then I’m glad.


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