This morning I sat down with a man who has just completed his first novel. We went through the first two chapters line by line, and I felt as if I were sticking pins in a newborn baby. First I had to break the news that a 20,000-word novel isn’t a book, it’s a long short story. He blanched, and I told him not to worry, there were so many places that needed clarification or expansion, I was sure he would have no problem adding another 60,000 words. He broke out in a fine sweat, but gamely paid attention to what came next.
In his first paragraph, he had his character on the phone promising a friend he would meet with him later in the day. I asked if the friend on the phone was important to the story. He said yes. I asked if he has a scene in which his character meets the friend. He said no, he didn’t think so. I told him he’d either have to write a scene of a meeting or give an explanation for why the meeting didn’t take place. Sternly, I said, “If you say you’re going to meet somebody, you have to follow up on it.” He looked shamed, as if he’d failed to keep an appointment himself.
Then the character tells his wife that he has several business appointments for the day, so he can’t have lunch with her. While he tells her that, he’s getting dressed in tennis clothes. When I asked why the clothes, he said he just liked the description of the clothes. I said, “Do you have a scene in which he plays tennis?” He shook his head. I said, “If he’s wearing tennis clothes, he either has to play tennis or the game has to be rained out or something has to keep him from doing it. Follow through on what you write!”
Thoroughly abashed now, he nodded humbly and promised to write both a meeting with the friend and a tennis scene. We were at that point mid-way down the first page.
He looked so scared, I tried to console him by saying that editing a manuscript is like being Michelangelo. I said, “What you have is like a big piece of marble. You’ve got it knocked into a form roughly the shape of what you intend the finished product to be. Now you have to chip away at it so you can reveal the features.” He looked a bit happier, but I knew he was dismayed at all the work he saw ahead.
Two hours later, bloodied but unbowed, he left with his marked-up two chapters. I have every confidence that he will persevere. And when he has polished the final page of a 20,000-word novel that became at least an 80,000-word novel, he will understand the difference between wannabe writers and real writers. Real writers stick with it.