Approximately four years ago, give or take whatever it actually was, I started writing a new novel, eventually arriving at a grandiose plan that would alternate chapters of plot with occasional discussions, with four main characters, two female, two male, who would all have a developed story and chapters written from their point of view.
Not long ago I finished the draft of that book. The two male characters had shrunk to secondary in one case, and minor in the other, with no chapters of their own. And the occasional discussions—what the hell was that about? One evening in a writing group in Washington, DC, took care of that, because hey, what century are we living in? Nobody wants to read that stuff.
In the years it took me to write the book, I believe I first tried every possible option other than the ones I eventually used. I’m just meticulous that way. Thus I threw away chapter after chapter, thrashing through the verbiage looking for a plot, a character, something, anything . . . I need a cookie just thinking about it.
The book is now in three sections, and as I finished each one, a friend who I have often worked with agreed to read them. With her feedback, I continued to write. Getting that kind of feedback while writing really is critical if you want to make it as good as you’re capable of. The feedback is not about catching mistakes or fixing typos and so on. These days you can easily hire someone for that nonsense. Come to think of it, that’s what I do in my day job with the medical journal.
The real benefit of having a good reader while working on a novel is that the reader can gently tell you, with love and great enthusiasm for how you write, which parts of the book are confusing, dull, and just plain stupid. As the writer, enthralled in your own genius, somehow those minor things slip by you.
For most of the time I’ve been working on this book I haven’t had the faintest idea for a title, but since the main setting of the book is a village where I lived back in Pennsylvania, I called the book by the name of that village, Boalsburg. Eventually I floundered through a dozen possible titles and had a few friends look at them, to see how many reactions I got along the lines of “Uhhh . . . huh.” Inspired by lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh, I decided on Malevolent Gods of Levity. And I liked that title, but did I love it like it, or just like it like it? Now, for a complete change of tone, I’m using a variation on a line from a poem I wrote, for the title The Invention of Colors.
I’ve just read the book from start to finish, the first time I’ve ever read it. At least for now, I like it. So it’s time to move ahead, which means a process of revision, thusly:
1) Fix obviously stupid things.
2) Pay particular attention to character development, always one of the most important things about a book for me. Since I have two characters, whose points of view alternate between chapters, I’ll go through the book working only on every other chapter, to focus just on one character, then go through again looking at the other chapters, to consider the second character.
3) Pay special attention to the style of writing. This is one of the hardest things to do, as I read a sentence which is fine and which does what it needs, and I ask, “So how can it be better, more interesting?” I stare at the screen sighing a lot while doing this.
4) When I get through all this revision, I have more readers who have agreed to read the entire book and give me an opinion. I do not take that offer lightly, as it is extremely hard (in my experience) to find people who I trust willing to do this. By the way, in the author business, we have created a jargon term for these people—they’re beta readers.
5) Take the comments of the beta readers and consider what else needs to be done with the book. Revise more.
Then the book will be done. Champagne! Better cheese than usual! KitKat bars!
At that point I will approach literary agents and publishers, and wait for them to tell me what needs to be changed.
Reading all this probably makes you want to write a book. I do not take responsibility for that.