Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Letting a Manuscript Age Properly

Zadie Smith is an author with whom I have little in common, not a bad thing from her point of view. She is relatively young, British, and acclaimed. Her initial novel, White Teeth, published when she was 22, caused a literary sensation. 

In her gracefully written book of essays called Changing My Mind, she has the following advice which applies nicely, I believe, to the work of any novelist: 

When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second - put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year of more is ideal - but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can't tell you how many times I've sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go on stage and read from them. It's an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all of the pieces of dead wood, stupidity, vanity, and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.

As an architect I never depended on my writing to eat. The proof is that I am here writing this blog, a feat difficult to pull off if I had starved to death many years ago. Zadie Smith is a more serious writer than I, but I can confirm that her recommendation is probably beneficial to any writer. During my pre-published writing career, I “finished” several novels. Unable to sell one novel, I would put it on the shelf and go on to the next. Eventually, new ideas for novels became more and more difficult to conceive and I decided that I needed to dedicate some time to polishing the old ideas. Now, I am going back to those to those old manuscripts and rewriting them. There is no doubt in my mind that they are far better the second time around. 

A second point, relating to self-publishing, is that I doubt very much that I would have ever gone back to those old rejects if it meant going through the traditional process all over again -- sending out queries to agents, having most of them rejected or ignored, sending manuscripts to the few interested agents, getting rejected again, maybe signing with an agent at last only to get rejected by publishers, writing a new novel, and starting the whole dispiriting process all over again (while hoping that agents don’t remember your first effort). Meanwhile, several years of my life will have come and gone. As it is, I expect to have three novels out in my first year as a self-publisher. 

These days, it is very easy and inexpensive to skip all those callous agents and publishers. Just take your completed manuscript and send the MS Word file to Create Space for the paperback edition (print on demand) and listing with Amazon. Convert your MS Word document to a “Web Page, Filtered” file (just two clicks) and transmit the resulting HTM file to Amazon at their Kindle Direct Publishing page. 

At this point, it’s a matter of hours, not months or years, until you become a published writer. Even if you don’t sell a single book, this is a far more satisfying experience than collecting rejections month after month. The next great benefit is that you can now afford to be patient while you wait for your audience to discover the love of your life. It will be around virtually forever rather than jerked off the shelves by unfeeling bookstore managers after a brief few months of fruitless display and converted to compost. 

So here’s my advice to aspiring novelists. Write the first complete draft of your novel, rewrite it once, then do the same thing for your second novel. Then go back to Number One and start rewriting. At this point, you will recognize for yourself how much you have grown as a writer. The improvements you come up with feel like inspirations from your Muse. After rewriting Number One, publish it, then go back to Number Two.