The Writing Process’ Big Reveal

I've just finished a second major edit on a medieval novel, tentatively entitled Gerbert's Book, about three primary characters, two real, one fictional, living around the turn of the first millennium. Gerbert and Otto are the two real ones, Zosimus the fictional one. The fictional character is a device similar to Scott Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway, in Gatsby, a "first person peripheral" character, who, hopefully, adds literary flesh to Gerbert's and Otto's imagined bones. The Gerbert character is a book lover, a collector of books, who has amassed one of the largest book collections in Europe.

image via

My story structure, then, is a book within a book: Gerbert's life story is told by two Benedictine monks – and by Gerbert himself. The reason for this structure is obvious, but it has a lot of complexities as the story is told in hop-and-skip fashion covering the years between 967 AD and 1014 AD. Could I tell this story in this way – – and make it easily palatable to a future reader? One can try.

But enough of that.

Prior to the initial writing, I decided I needed to outline the whole thing in order to have my structure make sense. During the initial writing, then, my major concern was not to have the book be a series of "information dumps" from real history. I had to let my characters inform history.

My first major edit had to evaluate whether this was a true novel or whether I was simply allowing my characters to spout history. I found that my characters did indeed work fairly well in informing history, but the problem there was the devil in the details. The book centers about Gerbert, and so his foibles, his path through life, seemed real. My problem was that you can get caught up in allowing peripheral characters such as Zosimus to be simply a narrator, without allowing him to live a "normal" life of ups and downs. I realized in the first edit that I had to do more of that with Zosimus, and I had to allow him a significant role to play – not only in Gerbert's life – but in the story as a whole. But I couldn't allow his story to overwhelm Gerbert's. So I had to make changes where Zosimus was concerned. 

In the second edit (and to some degree in the first), I found myself in my normal editing position of polishing by adding. What I mean by that: My first drafts are, for reasons I've never been able to fathom, a bit sketchy. My first draft was approximately 67,000 words, and when done with the first edit, it had grown to 70,000. I picture my process as something similar to that of a sculptor's – I block out the story first (the outline), and then do the rough sculpting (initial draft). The following edits are mostly adding a word here, a sentence there, perhaps a paragraph there, to make the story and the characters resonate with details in ever-sharper relief (as does as sculptor). Now the story is approaching 72,000 words. In these edits, I do remove things – irrelevant bits, narative depictions I have been enamored of but ones that don't add to the story – and adverbs, adjectives, and the like – simple fluff and non-taut writing.

I expect to do a couple more edits – these dealing with voice and tone more than anything else, and I will be watching the panoply of history like a hawk as my characters live it.

image via jemsfreelancewriting. com

Finally, I plan to turn the manuscript over to a writer friend, and then a freelance editor for comments. The need for this is that in today's pub biz, there's little editing going on, I find. Oh, you may land an agent who wants to obsess over your story, but likely not – it's either "I like it and will support publishing it," or "I don't believe in it the way it's written, and so I reject it."

2 thoughts on “The Writing Process’ Big Reveal

  1. Your conscious understanding of your editing process is inspiring, Bob. You truly recognize the stages of what can possibly be a blind and/or gruelling procedure. I wish you the best of luck on this piece – it sounds simply fascinating. Great post.

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