Beware, that finished novel is only the beginning of the job

Here’s to all of you who are setting out on drafting a novel this month. I salute the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) program for encouraging aspiring writers to compose 50,000 words during the period. Good luck to you, stick with it, and learn tons – about yourself and your world – as you do so. Keep your eyes and thoughts on that goal.

I want to add a caveat, though.

That finished first draft is where the labor really starts.

As one observer noted: Talent goes into the first draft; genius, in the revisions.


I’ve come to be a bigger believer in those revisions. They move the text from being what’s important to you privately and on to what’s important to engage with the reader.

The revisions are where you dig under the surface to liberate the unexpected ore and lore of universal value. The process requires clearing away a lot of the vegetation and dirt, as it were, and it gets messy.

The core of my own published fiction arises in three large drafts I composed in a year I took off as a sabbatical back in the mid-’80s. While those stories were ambitious and original, they also rambled in search for a focus. One now spans four novels. Another, three.

During the next quarter-century, in addition to working full-time in a newspaper office, I kept returning to these at home in my free time, along with a slew of poetry. One book – Subway Hitchhikers – was published in 2001 but got swallowed by the first Iraq war, a terrible book-selling year overall.


Starting in 2013, the revised novels began appearing in Smashwords editions. I’ve been touting the works here at the Red Barn.

While most of them dealt with aspects of the hippie era, something still felt unfinished, at least in my mind. What happened to the movement? What are its lingering accomplishments?

The thoughts were gathering but not coalescing. I knew where I wanted to start, had a new character to run with, even came up with the trigger, but the next steps pointed nowhere.

Then, in 2014, I came across an unusual structure for a novel that ignited my imagination. Rather than the usual 20 to 24 chapters typically arrayed in chronological order, this one had 16, and each one was a kind of panel or module that could be moved about somewhat randomly or even as elements of a mosaic. Yes, some of these would have to appear later than others, but there was an overall freed of ordering. It was like wandering about in a room of paintings.


I had wads of outtakes from the earlier works that could be inserted and updated, or so I thought. So much for filling in a template. It helped that I had just retired and could now devote large blocks of time to the effort.

What happened, though, was the most difficult writing effort of my life.

  1. The first draft was about the daughter’s discoveries about her father and his hippie identity. Since it was leaping ahead a quarter-century from the ending of my first novel, I had some characters and situations to build on – pro or con. The result was a decent book, but hardly engaging fiction. Back to the drawing board.
  2. That led to the first revision, which now focused on trying to discover exactly who her father really was before his death when she was 11. Not just the hippie stuff, but still not lively fiction. Besides, I had the hippie novels. I think the working title was Cassia’s Quest, which got some sharp negative criticism in-house. Like it was sci-fi rather than personal angst. Ya-ya-ya. Back to the drawing board.
  3. So the next round of ripping and rewriting focused more intensely at his reasons for joining her mother’s extended bohemian family. Still, these were her discoveries about them and little about her. I saw it as looking at an album of family pictures. I don’t even remember what the working title was then, but my in-house critics said it was only one of the things that had to change.
  4. The next revisions began building on her discoveries of her mother’s Greek family roots and the small college town where she lived, in contrast to her father’s homogeneous Midwestern background. It was still a family photo album perspective, maybe going by the working title of Diana’s Daughter. My beta-readers went blank or AWOL. I put the draft away for a while, let it simmer, and then returned to see what could be salvaged.
  5. In the next intense reworkings, everything gets interesting. The focus shifts to Cassia herself.
  6. And then to her own generation – her brothers and close cousins, especially. Better yet, she develops a snippy tone and perspective. The work takes on a more emotional depth and energy, rather than the journalistic reporting.
  7. The in-house critics even force me to find a new title they feel fits the work itself – What’s Left.
  8. Along the way, the bones of the book hold. The muscles grow firmer. The good lines remain. Yet I excise more than 120,000 words (enough for two average novels) and replace them with about half as many new ones – you’ve been seeing many of those outtakes here at the Barn as a reflection on the developing thinking.
  9. The novel is published in early 2018, just before my life got rerouted by a cardio incident.


If I thought I was done, I was wrong.

Cassia’s new voice and perspective then prompted me to make drastic revisions in the earlier books that comprised my Hippie Trails series, which evolved into my Freakin’ Free Spirits cycle. They’re more integrated now, more focused, and much better reads.

I still wasn’t done revising what I had considered finished works.

The Cassia influence led to something similar in what’s now the Living Dharma series, with Jaya now the glue holding the three books in balance.

As I was saying about revisions?

Good luck with your daily goals with NaNoWriMo!

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