I know, you were just wondering how writing a novel is like making a record. Luckily for you, I was just thinking about this (again) today.
Have a group of trusted first readers (listeners) who understand what a “draft” is. I’ve been lucky enough to be in a writing group with a bunch of highly talented writers who decipher my earliest drafts. I need readers at the early stages of a novel, but if I hand a selection to someone who expects to read a polished chapter they are going to be disappointed (and not much help). When Uncle Green was working on demos for a second record with Atlantic, we sent off thirty-something recordings to our A & R rep. We’d been in a local studio, tracking quickly with minimal overdubs, so what we handed in did not sound like a finished record. The rep’s reaction? “I don’t hear anything like ‘Come To Me,’” which was one of most elaborate studio productions.
No, no. The demos aren’t going to sound like that. And the first draft I finished in early January is only being read by people I trust to see the potential for a cool forest, even if some of the trees look more like cement trucks.
All ideas should be tried. There’s many a crazy-sounding idea that winds up not working at all. The good news is you often realize this early on—sometimes as soon as sometime starts playing that dissonant guitar line they hear in their head (“Yes: that’s dissonant alright”) or banging that floor tom in the bridge (“Were you going for bad marching band?”). But ten percent or so of those wacky ideas wind up being just right, so if you say no all the time you’ll miss the brilliant bits.
I’m at the stage of revision where I am saying yes to everything. I’ve worked up my demos, entered the studio, and I’m welcoming all the random characters who show up at parties, or in classes, or just in someone’s car—even if I suspect that many of them will be sent to the guillotine when the hard-ass editor takes over (more about him later). Because I have learned that at least one of those characters will stick around, and may even hold the missing key or map or stray anecdote that the novel needs.
Everything can’t be turned up loud. I write my first draft out of sequence, laying the pieces in an approximate order as they accumulate. When I revise I go from start to finish, and that’s the first time I’m reading the scenes in their current order. I keep finding scenes I want to move closer to the start of the book, but I can’t move everything closer to the start or nothing changes. Just today I thought of how that is like trying to mix a song. If you make the drums louder (editor’s note: This is ALWAYS a good idea), you’re gonna need to bump the bass up, and at that point the guitars need to come up to match your new rhythm section levels, and then the vocalist will waltz into the room and ask why the vocals got so quiet.
So you can’t just turn everything up louder to solve any larger balance issues. But I have decided to stop worrying about this for now, because. . .
You can only wear one hat at a time. I sometimes record my own drums now, and I have learned that Engineer Pete has to get all the levels right and then go away, so Drummer Pete can just play. When Drummer Pete is hungry and needs a cookie, Producer Pete comes along to listen to see if the tracks are any good.
If I wear all three hats at once I get very confused and wind up napping instead of drumming.
So now is not the time for me to worry about the next round of revisions, when I’ll have to figure out how to fix my soggy beginning or the best way to keep all these subplots moving in clear lines. Finishing the first draft was like building the stage, so now I’m gonna let people keep wandering on to it, to see if any of them have something important to say.
At some point—hopefully early May—the overly indulgent writer (“You brought your sister? And someone whose name you don’t even know? Great! Come on in!”) will be pushed aside by that hard-ass editor. He’ll have a grim face and a red pencil, and when he’s done I may just know what this book is about.