"REVISION," William C. Knott says in The Craft of Fiction, is like "wrestling with a demon," where there "is no escape, for almost anyone can write; only writers know how to rewrite. It is this ability alone that turns the amateur into a professional."
Anyone who teaches creative writing knows Mr. Knott is absolutely correct.
The book you are reading presents a method for creating a damn good novel. You begin with a germinal idea. It might be an idea for a character, a plot, a location, or just a creepy feeling on the back of your neck.
Next, you jot down a few notes on how the idea might be shaped into a story. Say the germinal idea is a character, a daffy blonde. That's all. Upon meeting the real life Daffy at a party, you are intrigued by her and want to work with her. You start asking what ifs. What if Daffy fell in love with a Trappist monk? What if Daffy won a million dollars in a sweepstakes? What if Daffy joined the army? Soon you have a notion of what the core conflict might be. You write a few character sketches, flesh them out into biographies, and search for a premise, settling on something like, "daffiness leads to bliss." Then comes the stepsheet. From the stepsheet, the novel is drafted. And now rewriting and polishing, the final agonies. If you do all this conscientiously you can write a dramatic novel, right? Then you can sell it to a publisher and make a lot of money, right?
Well, no. Not exactly.
If you have never written a novel, think of how hard it could be and then multiply it by a hundred. For some it is harder to write a novel than to row a bathtub across the North Atlantic.
Naw, you say. Not if you're a genius. Not if you've got talent.
If you're a genius or have talent, it's even harder.
How come? you say.
It's because a writer has a damn hard time evaluating what he has written, and unless he knows the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript it will not be possible to turn a draft into a finished piece of work. So why is it so hard?
It has something to do with how the human mind works. When you read someone else's work, you see the faults, errors, and dead spots; poor characterizations, flawed metaphors, and so on, with no trouble at all. Read someone else's first draft; its faults will fly off the page at you. If a character is not well-motivated, you can sense it immediately-—in someone else's book. You can tell when you're bored out of your mind—when you read someone else's book. Clichés abound in everyone else's work, but they will remain forever hidden in your own. And if you have a lot of talent, even if you are a genuine genius, it is even harder. Why is this? Only the Master of the Universe who made us knows, but it's true.
It isn't just blindness to the problems that will plague you when you try to evaluate your own work. You will automatically care about your characters because they are yours. Your reader may not. You will see your characters whole and unique in your mind's eye. Your reader may not. You will suffer when they suffer, cry when they break off their love affairs, grieve when they die. Your reader may only yawn.
To successfully complete a novel, you must learn to look at your work objectively. You must learn to see what your critics see. Then you must be able to change what you've written to make it powerful. This may mean trimming or eliminating some of your favorite scenes, or changing the plot, the characters, the style, the tone, the voice, the tense. Anything that needs to be done must be first faced, then reconsidered, then reworked.
Ouch, you say. Right.
When you finish the first draft of your novel and give it to your mother, she will love it. So will your Uncle Harry. Your friends will like it and kid you about the millions you're going to make. But some of them might look you in the eye and say, "To tell you the truth I thought it was a little—I don't know —sort of dull in spots." When you try to pin them down, they shrug. You get a little queasy in the stomach because you think they might be right. Okay, you say to yourself, it's a little dull in spots. But what spots? And what can I do about it? First, you need a clear and objective evaluation of what you have. You have to know whether the effects you are striving for are working.
One way to find out is to seek out a group of writers and ask them what they think.
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