Friday, November 6, 2015

Where Did That Come From?

You are seeing things correctly. There is a new listing on the progress meter, it has never been up there before, and it is already listed as a third draft in progress. I can explain.

Back in 2005, I started what ended up being my first original novel. I freely admit I really had no idea what I was doing with the actual writing craft part of it, but I knew it was a story I wanted to tell. I finished it in 2006, a year and a half later, and then filed it away.

Some time passed, and I found myself working in a bookstore in a college town. Someone I worked with there, a lovely woman named Patti, was an English major and agreed to do an edit on the first draft for me. When I got the manuscript back from her, I was floored. Stephen King mentions in On Writing how he reacted the first time he ever saw one of his pieces of writing edited. All I can say is that reading is one thing, seeing is something completely different. And this wasn't even from a professional editor, just someone who knew what they were doing.

Out of the nearly 270 pages I gave her, maybe five did not contain markings of some sort. It opened my eyes to the process, and I was re-energized. I wanted to make this work. I started banking on it, to a degree.

Let me go ahead and say it now: while I thought I understood how the publishing industry worked, I truly had no clue. The other thing I neglected to take into consideration was that the economy was bottoming out due to the recession, and the industry was shifting into eBooks, which were nothing more than a novelty at this point. We won't even touch the fact that I was a first-time, never before published author who was expecting his first submitted work of any kind to be the ticket to fortunes. Bottom line, I was an idiot. But I digress.

I got to work and finished a second draft at the end of 2007. Thinking the book was as done as it could get (hilarious to look back at now, but that was what I thought), I pulled out a copy of the Writer's Guide and queried a bunch of agents. I did get one request for the full manuscript, which I sent off gleefully only to be told they didn't feel passionate enough about it to offer me representation. I know now that it was a polite way of saying it wasn't good enough.

Life took over, I got discouraged, and into a manuscript box and the depths of my hard drive it went.

Fast forward to now.

I sat down and wrote Consequences with the intent of trying for publication through a small press, or doing it myself if no one bit. While working on it, I realized that if I did self publish, there were these things called formatting guidelines to follow if I didn't want it to look like something a five-year-old threw together one rainy afternoon. Several people offered to do it for a price, usually $200 and up, but since I'm not exactly rolling in cash here, I decided why pay for it if I could learn to do it myself with a little work? Only I didn't have a finished manuscript to practice with.

So I dug through my hard drive and digitally dusted off Homecoming. As I worked on formatting, I realized there were parts of the book that weren't that bad. With a little polish, it might even be salvageable. Then I finished Consequences, moved on to Demon and the rest and forgot about it. Sort of.

It sat in the back of my head. See, this was my first, and you never forget your first. So I decided to conduct a little experiment. I was going to teach myself how to edit using Word's "Track Changes" feature, since any professional editor I use nowadays will be using the same method. In doing so, I was also going to see if I could breathe some new life into this old manuscript, maybe apply some of the things I learned in the intervening years and make it something I would be willing to put out there for other people to read and not wince any time someone brought it up.

The first step? Clean up. It took no time at all to realize that I had no idea how to properly format a manuscript, even in draft form, back when I started this one. Since I now use a Word template already set up with the styles I need for new projects, I copied and pasted the entire mess into the template, then spent roughly six hours fixing my old formatting errors. Once that was done, it was time to start playing Doctor Frankenstein.

I decided to go from scene start to scene break: make the edit notes, copy and paste it into a new document, then make changes. I learned a few things in doing this. First, I had no idea how to break chapters properly. Chapter one became chapters one and two pretty quickly. Same for two becoming three and four. I'm sure more will appear as I go, too. Second, there is definitely something to be said for letting something rest for such a long period of time before approaching it again. As I write this, I've got fifty pages into what is effectively the third draft but feels more like a complete rewrite. Out of that fifty pages, I've made 480 edit comments. On some pages, Word has to collapse all the notes because they won't fit in the margin of the page otherwise. Honestly, it's made me a little afraid to see what a professional editor would do to one of my manuscripts that I've already done four drafts on. Excuse me while I shiver uncontrollably for a second.

The third and fourth things I learned I'll put together, since they belong that way. I've gotten better at my craft since that first attempt. To my mind, the fact that I have that many notes in such a short span reinforces that fact. Everything I've changed, removed, reordered, or rewritten has made the story stronger. But that only makes sense, because like any other craft, writing can only be perfected through practice.

Homecoming was not the only thing I wrote in the years between when I first started it and when I developed the work ethic I have now with it. While I have no plans to give those stories the same treatment I'm giving this one (though I'm not ruling it out, either), I have a funny feeling that if I did, I'd be able to see improvement with each successive one. Since I got serious serious about this in July, I've finished four more first drafts and am almost halfway through a fifth. But there's even more than that, if you think about it. I did four drafts of Consequences before I submitted it, and I'm about to start the third for Demon at the Window, and am in the midst of the second for One Last Dance. That means, in a sense, eight complete books, plus two halves (first for the current one, second for OLD), so nine books since July. I'm not tooting my horn about being prolific; just reinforcing the bit about practice bringing improvements.

I have no idea if I'll be satisfied with the final result of this experiment, whether or not I'll call it a success or a failure, but it's definitely been a learning experience. I feel good about it, at least for now. So it goes on the progress meter. If it doesn't work, I'll remove it again. But maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to someday get to see that dream of having Homecoming with a cover and binding in my hands and yours.

Wish me luck!

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