Writing my first novel has been a struggle. I drove straight through a first draft in a little over a summer and re-wrote it almost entirely the following summer, finishing it, finally, in early 2014. Yet after rereading the second draft, I knew it still needed work.
The first draft began after a podcast about Daoism inspired an opening scene. The character’s name popped into my head, I started writing with a vague idea of how the story would end, and 82,000 words later I put the final period in place. This being my first novel, I wanted to pack in as much of myself as possible: my aesthetic, my interests, old stories and anecdotes I remembered from various points in my life, and the themes I find myself constantly returning back to. Everything.
In a recent workshop with students, I heard myself telling them that the ‘story’ trumps all else. “If a scene or character doesn’t serve the story,” I said, “you need to cut it and imagine something new. Be ruthless.”
This advice, I thought, was hard won. After all, I thought I had done this very thing while rewriting my second draft; however, I realized in reading it again that in many ways I hadn’t. I rewrote scenes and dialogue, but the story’s skeleton remained largely intact. I did not ruthlessly cut chapters or scenes that failed to elucidate the conflict or better illuminate who China Bexlan is. I changed the name of some characters and the particulars of the setting in which the protagonist encountered them, but I was afraid to get rid of them entirely.
So here’s what’s important: process and failure are great teachers. In my second draft I effectively retold the same story, albeit with more polish and style, and this allowed me to see it much more clearly. The story is simpler, sweeter, more pulpy, and not quite as “literary” as I had originally thought. Some of the flashback chapters or more affected moments, those which I initially took great pride in, will disappear.
Time allows writers the distance to become better readers of our own work. I started writing fiction because I love to read fiction, and it is for readers like myself that I will take one more dive into revision.