A recent blog by Nathan Bransford (www.nathanbransford.com) caught my attention a few days ago and gave me a topic to write about in this week’s blog. He, and a lot of other people I’ve known or heard about, started their writing careers by penning a novel or two (or three or four or more), and stuffing them in a drawer somewhere. Presumably, these manuscripts, either unfinished or, at the very least finished though unrevised, were ignored or totally forgotten. They had a good reason for doing this. These manuscripts represented landmarks, or at least mileposts, on that person’s journey toward becoming a published author. A first manuscript is frequently terrible and not worth reading and wouldn’t get an agent’s or editor’s first glance. Second manuscripts may be better, but the first one serves as a learning process along the way. Writing, like most everything in life, is learned, and some people feel you have to drop a few manuscripts along the way to complete the learning curve.
It’s a lot like what NASA went through in its first years back in the 50’s and 60’s. Lots of rockets blew up on the launch pad or had to be destroyed shortly after lift-off because they flew off course. Some wag at NASA once said, “No launch is ever a total waste. It can always serve as a bad example.”
Enter the manuscript in the drawer. It may be totally gross, but it serves its part on the learning curve. The learning writer scribbles out another one, and it, too, goes in the drawer. And so on, until a satisfactory manuscript comes out and gets published.
I object. I didn’t do it that way.
I have a first manuscript, as all novelists have to have. But mine is still in progress. Right now it’s in the hands of an editor. Along the way it has passed through the hands of friends kind enough to read and critique it, through several reading groups who critiqued parts or the entire manuscript, to the point it’s at now. It’s been twelve years since I started it, and it has undergone so many revisions I can’t even begin to count them. Many of those revisions were limited to minor things like the wording of a sentence, but several were concerned with vicious transformations that altered it in major ways. Along the way I received tons of help and suggestions from members of those critique groups, and in many cases, their suggestions led to a better product. But it’s still the same novel, the same plot, the same characters, the same ending, as it was when it began. It’s just that it got better and better, to the point where I felt comfortable sending it to a professional editor.
I could have put that manuscript in a drawer sometime in my life and forgotten about it and called it a bad example. I’ve been aware of people doing that for a long time. But that wasn’t for me. I have a difficult time visualizing the concept of spending hours and hours on a manuscript, only to chuck it in a drawer or a file cabinet, and simply calling it a bad example. That’s not for me.
I’ve spent too much time on that novel, and setting it aside looks too much like giving up. A blown-up NASA launch may be a “bad example,” but the rocket ship that blew up cost millions and millions of dollars, and tossing it aside like litter to a kitty isn’t my idea of a successful launch. No sir, I worked on that novel until it was finished, and I’m proud of what I accomplished.
My personal method of learning to write novels may not be for everyone, and I fully realize that others may be willing to sacrifice a novel or two during their learning process. If so, fine. But if you have a novel or two in a drawer, why not pull it out and revise it? The revisions may have to be drastic, the plot may change, the characters may have to be refined, the ending altered, but maybe it’s salvageable. If you’re just starting out, give it a try. Stick with it–it’s good practice. Seems a waste to spend that much time on something only to give up and go on to something else.