My first novel was, like just about everybody’s first attempt, a fictionalization of something personal. Mine was one year of my life, namely 5th grade.
The story itself is deep and good, full of conflict, violence, choices, crushes, kids stuff, and pain.
My telling of it was terrible.
The thing is, I know how to write. This horrible novel had nothing to do with my writing ability. It had to do with not having the ability to step outside myself.
I was too close to the story, and had not yet learned how to separate myself from it in order to see the thing clearly from an outsider’s viewpoint.
I worked on it diligently for ten years.
I printed it out, punched holes for a three-ring binder, and began the arduous — and soon-to-be painful and ego busting — task of reading it and doing a first-pass written edit.
I carried it with me wherever I went. The red ink on the paper made fun of me until finally, unable to figure out what the problem was, I put it in a file cabinet drawer and did not touch it for another five years.
Then came several years wherein I was hired to come into schools and teach a creative writing workshop I designed. Teachers and kids loved it. I knew how to explain and get them to understand.
When they moaned and groaned about teachers who don’t care about their writing because they wrote something on it, I’d hold up that notebook in front of the kids to illustrate what real editing looked like. “Don’t be upset when a teacher writes notes on your stories about how to improve,” I’d say to them. “Hey, do you want to see what sort of editing I’ve done to my own stories?”
“Yeah!” the kids would holler only to fall silent when they saw page after page of red ink.
“Listen, these marks are opportunity to improve. Welcome them.”
But this novel of mine could not be improved with editing. It needed a total rewrite. I began it, then quit. It’s possible this story doesn’t need to be written. It’s also possible that I still haven’t found the best way to tell it.
The original 85,000 words were put in the trash can and deleted from my hard drive, and rightly so.
In any case, I learned from that experience. And when I wrote a short story and was told it was the beginning of a novel and to get busy on it, I found out just how much I had learned from those 85,000 trashed words.