the myth of the perfect first draft great novels sell

I’m working on the rewrites of my novel right now, though you’d never guess it because of how many blog posts I’m shooting out. But I really can’t help it. I finish a scene in the rewrite and I want to talk about what it taught me. Both writing and metawriting excite me.

The first draft had a problem — only one character of the five felt like something larger than their character’s construction. He lived in the story. The other characters just filled their roles in it.

But to make the other protagonist and three very important secondary characters feel as organic as the original character, most of the plot of the first draft had to go. It was designed to show off one character’s strengths of five. As each character became more organic in the rewrite, their role in the story became more vital until it was no longer important what had happened in the first draft.

I have a scene where a character finds an elevator. At first, it’s just an elevator he wants to go back to see what it does, but with hindsight granted in the rewrite process and the skill I’ve developed over the years, I can go back and edit the changes needed to make the moment the doors open on the elevator one of the most significant moments in the book for multiple characters.

Back in the old days, there was a thing called a “midlist”. This “midlist” was the bar a first novelist had to meet or exceed for what they produced to have a pre-existing market. First novels didn’t need to hit every marker of a great story to be published, they just needed to show the author had a voice and promise.

This magical proving ground was where writers wrote enough to breakthrough on their own. Authors like George R. R. Martin had nearly a twenty-year gap between his first novel and a Song of Ice and Fire. It was a market where authors could sell exactly what just enough readers wanted to read to make a comfortable — if tight — living or have well-paying second job.

Then the entire market evaporated like it was of the Faefolk and dawn had arrived. First-time novelists didn’t have to create work that had to compete with the best of the midlist, it now had to compete with the best of the list.

I think a lot of unpublished authors are lured into thinking a novel that feels organic and whole was written as a single draft and not the work of layers and layers of rewrites in the hands of multiple professionals. It makes me think unkind thoughts to people who take their money and assure them a first draft and polish was all they need because it was all the instructors needed to do.

Back when the midlist was alive and well, you couldn’t spill a drop of coffee on an opened writing magazine without it landing on a shiny full-page colour ad that promised for the low, low price a couple tens of thousands of dollars, you too could have boxes of your own “published” book in your garage. The advent of cheap options to self-publish pretty much destroyed these not quite a scam, but still unpleasant traps.

Programs that take writers’ time and money in exchange for the promise that if they focus on nice prose they’ll succeed are in the same category as vanity publishing. That a small percentage of the class just needs to write and polish doesn’t undo the harm done to the vast majority who have yet to learn why structural edits are necessary in the first place. Instead, they have paid money and time to learn that rewriting isn’t even needed.

That it is much much cheaper to have boxes of self-published books in your garage is a non-climate controlled comfort.

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