Novel 2 – which at this point does have a title, to be formally unveiled when the first chapter shows up at the back of the Oracle Year paperback this coming April, with a cover design and pre-orders and all that good stuff starting in May – is entering its final phase. Some first readers have read it, my agent has read it, and most importantly, my editor at HarperCollins has read it. All of those reads happened over a period of about two months, in stages. I made revisions based on the notes I got, particularly those notes that kept reappearing, and I’m about to embark on my last phase of that process. The final draft (or damn near, barring copyedits) is due just after the first of the year, so it’s all hands on deck. My hands, I mean. My two hands. And not on deck. On the keyboard. You get it.
Notes are weird, because they’re rarely direct and simple, like “you chose a Toyota for this scene but it should really be a Ford.” That’s an easy fix. It’s more often things like “I wasn’t sure why this character did what they did,” or “I didn’t like this person,” or “the middle felt a little long” or “I don’t know about this beat.” Those are what I think of as emotional notes, and addressing them requires a lot of thinking. You have to go back in and try to understand if something’s missing, or if something needs to be cut, and then make that change (which could be a line, a paragraph, a chapter, or, horror of horrors… a whole section.) Then, you have to see the manuscript as a whole to figure out what the change you made did to all the other elements of the story. Making Character X more likable might utterly undercut Plot Point 4. Fixing Plot Point 4 might put the pacing of the entire first section out of whack.
This part of novel writing requires the most technique and craftmanship. It’s the faceting of the diamond, those last few hits of the chisel on the marble, the final dash of seasoning into the soup. Writing a first draft is, in some ways, just typing. These edits, though – they’re your last chance to really understand what you’ve done, and what you want to do, and then, ideally, do it.
This is also the part of the novel construction process where true magic can happen. I haven’t written that many novels. Novel 2 is my third. (The Oracle Year was technically my second – the first is in a drawer and might stay there. It’s good, I think, but very different, about ancient China and not really in line with the writing style I’m trying to build these days.) Still, with each of them, and particularly Oracle Year, I had wild moments of clarity in the very last few weeks before I had to turn in the book for good. Insights that seemed so obvious, so transparently there, I was shocked that I hadn’t seen them before and incorporated them into the book. That said, they worked so well with pre-existing elements that I felt like I probably had seen them before, unconsciously, and had been building the book toward this form from the beginning. When it happens – and it’s happened each time, so I feel pretty comfortable saying that it’s how I write novels – it feels like a thunderclap, like a trick, like your subconscious mind has been writing a book right along with you and has chosen this moment to pull the curtain aside and say “hey, buddy, I know what you thought you were writing, but this is what I actually wrote – YOU’RE WELCOME.”
I was nervous with Novel 2 that it wouldn’t happen that way – we’re talking about mysterious, arcane processes that can’t be planned for, outlined or scheduled. Either the lightning bolt strikes or it doesn’t. Fortunately, I think it has. In the last few days, since I got notes in from my wonderful editor, pieces have been connecting themselves in my head, lines appearing between plot elements that were present from the first draft but are only making their utility known now. It’s really wild – this idea comes into your head about a plot thread, something you think is totally new, and you realize you’ve literally been planning this idea from almost the first moment you conceived the book. Almost creepy, even.
So, that should be my December – implementing those last changes, doing some last research, getting in a few last reads so that I’ll have the book in on time. And once that’s done… well, then it’s time for Novel 3, obviously. (Novel 3 has a great title, a logline and not much else… but hey, that’s the job.)