Writing the scene of a novel for the first time is like eating chocolate ice cream drenched in Bailey’s. It is sweet and slightly intoxicating. There is excitement at the start, satisfaction as one writes and a sense of being sated and self-satisfied at the end. There are few things in life that are so pleasurable.
But writing a scene for the first time is like starting with desert. The main course and appetizer are still to come. Sometimes I think that the trick to becoming a really good writer is to learn to enjoy these other “courses” as much as the “desert.”
The most substantial “course” in the process of writing a novel is the process of re-working a scene until it says exactly what you want it to say. This is a matter of taking that raw, unrefined resource that gushed out on the page in a rush of inspiration and turning it into a coherent and effective piece of writing.
This entails questioning the beginning and the end. Did it start at the right point in time? With the right voice? From the right perspective? And did it end exactly where you wanted it to? Delivering the message the scene was intended to deliver? Does it leave the reader with a reason to keep on reading?
This stage of the writing process also entails questioning the length, pace, tone, and voice of the scene. Length and pace are often intimately related, but not necessarily. A fast-paced action piece can afford to be longer than something that is slow and reflective and not designed to keep the reader breathless.
Ultimately, this is the stage of writing when the merit of the entire creation must be questioned. The product must be examined for its utility, relevance and contribution to the novel as a whole. Sometimes a rush of inspiration, no matter how “delicious” when writing, just doesn’t contribute anything to the complete novel, i.e. it might be pleasant but irrelevant. In the worst case, a scene that is brilliant in itself might still be poison for a novel as a whole, taking it to a dead-end or corrupting its purpose or integrity.
And finally there is the “appetizer.” This is the state in the writing process in which each individual sentence should be re-examined and polished. In this phase, dialogue needs to be cross-checked for authenticity of voice. If the character is a child, words nor phrases that would not be part of a child’s vocabulary must be replaced by simpler forms of speech. The same goes for a character that is uneducated. If the character is supposed to speak dialect, this is when each utterance must be checked for its authenticity. Finally, the speech of each character must be checked for its internal consistency. If a character is described as reticent and incommunicative, then voluminous flowery speeches are a contradiction and must be rigorously replaced by short, pithy utterances etc. etc.
When that is done it is time to look at the descriptive text. Here the objective is to tighten the text, eliminating repetitious information, words and phrases. In addition, this is when each word can be examined for its utility. Is it really necessary? Is it the right word? Now is the time to consider alternative verbs, adverbs and adjectives, watching particularly for excessive use of passive voice and banal modifiers or the repetitious use of the same words.
Only when the author has personally questioned and evaluated each sentence and word, is a work of fiction ready for an editor. In fact, by now, the work is in desperate need of an editor because no author can work over a manuscript repeatedly and still see it clearly. So when this stage is reached, it is time for an outside expert – and to get some perspective on the entire project by putting it aside and working on something else entirely. The meal, for now, is over, but you will probably have to “snack” on the novel several times again in the course of getting it ready for the publisher. This of this like savoring the left-overs from Thanksgiving dinner weeks after the event….