Novelists are the distance runners, the long-haul truckers, the transoceanic captains of the literary world. There is no sprinting through a novel, at least not for the novelist; there are simply too many characters, too many scenes, too many storylines and pages and sentences to be written—and then rewritten, revised and polished.
Endurance is key to completing the task. Yet endurance is not enough, not nearly. Because reading the novel is also a marathon experience, and that means the primary goal of your revision process should be to take pains to create a human pace for the reader, a pace that alternately rushes, strides, saunters and lingers, according to the story’s — and the reader’s — needs. It’s no small task to keep those narrative wheels rolling, but that’s what you have to do, all the way from the title page to The End.
As a novelist, you need concrete strategies to sustain you on that long haul—and to transform your first draft into a work that can stand up to the task. Here are four rules you can use to make sure your readers won’t fall asleep, burn out or just give up before they finish the final chapter of your masterpiece.
1. WRITE THE WHOLE FIRST DRAFT FIRST—AND FAST
This first rule deals not so much with revision, but with resisting the impulse to revise as you write. This is difficult in large part because it means forgiving yourself for writing terrible prose. There’s no way around it. Fast means sloppy — sloppy diction, syntax, grammar. Any damage suffered by your writer’s ego, however, will come at a small cost compared to the benefits gained.
Truth is, a quickly written draft produces a narrative with a clean trajectory. Think of it as a carpenter’s chalk line, the graph of your story’s arc. Your characters might remain undercooked and your subplots unexplored in this first go-through, but in working fast you have little choice but to hew close to the basic storyline. As a result, you’re saved from the tempting side-trails and seductive tangents that can derail your progress. (You can come back to those later, when your task is to spice up and thicken your characters and plot, to pursue all of their wonderful complications.)
Here’s the point: Once you’ve blasted through to the end of a book, you have a much better sense of what belongs in the beginning and middle sections. And to your great advantage, you won’t have wasted your time writing, revising and polishing unnecessary scenes that will only end up on the cutting-room floor.
How fast is fast, you ask? Depends on the writer. My natural habit is to work slowly, but I wrote the first draft of my current manuscript in six months, an hour a day, five or six days a week. My objective was to write two pages each time I sat down, not so daunting a task once I absolved myself in advance for committing every writer’s sin there is, many times, in every session. If you do the same—if you dedicate yourself to writing without self-editing—you’ll be amazed at how soon that draft is finished. Then it’s time for the rewrite, starting with the element that will sustain your readers on their own marathon: the action.
2. EVALUATE THE DRAMATIC FUNCTION OF EVERY SCENE OR UNIT OF ACTION
Readers can tell if a passage fails to advance the story in some way. If that’s the case, they begin to skim, or worse, they toss the book aside. Therefore, the best way to start revising is to begin rereading your first draft and ask yourself this essential question at the opening of every chapter or scene: “What exactly happens here, and how does it surprise my character or offer some new perception to the reader?” Be sure every dramatized incident, whatever it is — a fight, a conversation or merely a silent moment in which a character ponders some issue — moves the story to a new place. When you find scenes that don’t, you’ve found the first targets of your revision.
In Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, a small-town Colorado teacher goes out to visit a pair of old bachelor farmers/brothers and stuns them (and the readers, too) by asking if they’d be willing to take in a high school girl who’s been kicked out of her home because she’s pregnant. The two old men, understandably, are struck dumb. It’s a lively scene, the teacher’s request a surprise that sets into motion a key element of the novel’s plot.
The next passage, however, is quiet. The teacher has left the farmhouse kitchen, and the two men put on their coats and go outside into the winter night to fix a broken water heater. An entire page is spent describing how they chop free the heater from ice that’s formed in the water tank and how they relight the pilot—nearly 300 words during which the men don’t say one thing to each other! Nor does the narrator offer insight into their thoughts. Can such a passage justify itself? Listen to how it ends and to how Haruf transitions into the inevitable conversation:
So for a while they stood below the windmill in the failing light. The thirsty horses approached and peered at them and sniffed at the water and began to drink, sucking up long draughts of it. Afterward, they stood back watching the two brothers, their eyes as large and luminous as perfect round knobs of mahogany glass.
It was almost dark now. Only a thin violet band of light showed in the west on the low horizon.
All right, Harold said. I know what I think. What do you think we do with her?
The passage in question may not advance the plot directly, but it does demonstrate the particular way these brothers communicate with each other: silently, through side-by-side labor. Also, its evocative language makes us feel as if the horses themselves are grateful, a feeling the reader — consciously or not — brings to the discussion the brothers are about to have concerning the girl.
Scenes don’t have to be highly dramatic in order to perform valuable work. Yet it’s important that you examine them one by one, satisfying yourself that each will deepen your readers’ connection to the story and urge them to turn the page.
Failing that test, scenes need to be cut—or reworked until they pass.
3. IDENTIFY LULLS IN ACTION WHERE YOU CAN INSERT MINI-SCENES
As novels progress, they inevitably alternate between the modes of scene and summary. Scenes, of course, depict moments of decision and high emotion, turning points that demand a full dramatic rendering, complete with dialogue, action and vivid descriptions. But intervening periods of time, lulls between episodes of heavy weather, character histories and complicated relationships also must be accounted for. Summaries, then — long passages of exposition — are a necessary evil. (All that densely packed prose, with no white space for the eye to rest upon!)
One way to help your readers persevere through spots where the pacing lags is to spice up the passages with bits of live-action, with mini-scenes.
In the first chapter of Jon Hassler’s Staggerford, the narrator spends pages describing a typical day in the life of Miles Pruitt, a high school English instructor—a tedious approach had Hassler not interjected several mini-scenes into the long summary. Notice how smoothly Hassler moves from exposition to a moment of dry humor. All it requires is a single transitional sentence with the marker had indicating the shift backward in time:
William Mulholland was in this class. In the Staggerford Public Library, every book having to do with physics, chemistry, statistics, or any other sort of cold-blooded calculation contained on its check-out card the name William Mulholland. … Only once had he spoken in this class. On the opening day of school Miles, taking roll, had said, “Bill Mulholland.”
“My name is William,” he replied.
Toni Morrison uses a similar strategy throughout Beloved, a novel with a complex structure and wide scope that requires frequent use of summary. In this passage Sethe, a former slave, is reminiscing about her lost husband, Halle, and about other slaves she knew on the plantation. Morrison doesn’t use transitional language at all. She simply plugs in a bit of uttered speech:
Hidden behind honeysuckle she watched them. How different they were without her, how they laughed and played and urinated and sang. All but Sixo, who laughed once — at the very end. Halle, of course, was the nicest. Baby Suggs’ eighth and last child, who rented himself out all over the country to buy her away from there. But he too, as it turned out, was nothing but a man.
“A man ain’t nothing but a man,” said Baby Suggs. “But a son? Well now, that’s somebody.”
Be on the alert, then, in your own work for long paragraphs consisting of backstory, physical description and character analysis. The information in such passages may be necessary, but unless you sprinkle in memorable scenic elements — snippets of dialogue, little clips of movement — your readers might lose patience.
4. VARY YOUR METHODS OF BEGINNING CHAPTERS
Chapter breaks and other pauses allow readers to catch their breath, ponder what they’ve read and anticipate what might be coming next. As you revise your novel, don’t miss the opportunity to look at them collectively and make sure you’re offering a variety of chapter kickoffs to pique your readers. Sometimes you’ll want to give them what they expect—but a good novelist walks the line between keeping readers comfortable and making them crazy, so other times it’s best to startle them.
The most common method of getting a chapter started, one that takes readers by the hand and gently guides them into the next section of the story, is to position a character in time and instantly establish the dramatic situation. There’s nothing flashy about this strategy, but it gets the job done.
On the morning of the 22nd, I wakened with a start. Before I opened my eyes, I seemed to know that something had happened. I heard excited voices in the kitchen—grandmother’s was so shrill that I knew she must be almost beside herself.
—Willa Cather, from Chapter 14 of My Ántonia
After Ty left, it took me half an hour to get myself down to my father’s.
—Jane Smiley, from Chapter 16 of A Thousand Acres
Another method sketches out a period of time, rendering its mood and general character as a way to place coming events into context. Use this strategy when your novel calls for a moment of reflection, requires a bit of backstory or needs to make a chronological leap forward. Here’s F. Scott Fitzgerald at his evocative best:
There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens, men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.
—from Chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby
Other times, though — especially following chapters that move at a leisurely pace — you’ll feel the need to shake things up, toss readers in over their heads, pitch them a curve. In other words, crank up the speed a notch or two. In my novel Undiscovered Country, Chapter 13 begins with the appearance of the narrator’s dead father in a moment for which neither the narrator nor the reader is prepared.
This time he didn’t smell like gunpowder and beeswax, but instead like he’d smelled on those nights when he got home late from closing and came into my room to check on me. … He always reeked of cigarettes from his night at the Valhalla, but there was also a hint of his spearmint toothpaste and the soap he was partial to, a tangy brown bar soap peppered with mysterious black granules. It was this combination of smells that made me glance up now into the rearview mirror as Charlie and I neared the edge of town.
Dad was in the backseat watching me.
Finally, a clever way to open a chapter is to offer some pithy observation that bears directly upon the events unfolding. My brother Leif Enger uses this method to good effect in his recent novel, So Brave, Young, and Handsome.
Violence seldom issues a warning …
—from Chapter 7
It’s an old business, it turns out, this notion that learning a person’s true name gives you leverage …
—from Chapter 4
Or consider this gem from Leo Tolstoy, at the opening of Anna Karenina:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Remember that every new chapter offers the opportunity to reintroduce your story and re-orient your readers to the world of your novel. So as you revise, be strategic with your chapter openings. Your efforts will stave off reader complacency and give your novel the chance to hook your readers again and again.
Are these all strategies you could employ while you write the first draft? I don’t think so. It’s not until you can stand back and look at that draft as a cohesive whole that you will be able to apply these rules effectively and give your manuscript the revision it requires.
Writing and revising a novel means hard work, months or years of it — all the more reason to keep your readers’ needs at the forefront of your mind as you’re working. The time and energy invested in your novel doesn’t come to an end, after all, once you revise the last page, or even after the manuscript has been edited, produced and published — because, finally, your readers pour themselves into it, lay their own claims to it. Keeping this in mind should inspire us to fashion novels that are enjoyable yet challenging, familiar yet surprising, and as free of unnecessary hindrances as we can make them.