Burning Down the House
By Michelle Barker
When I was doing my MFA, I took a class in novel-writing with the amazing author and teacher, Gail Anderson-Dargatz. It might have been the most important writing class I’ve ever taken. One of the first things she taught us was that writing is revision. Revision is the thing. First drafts are a blast, then you roll up your sleeves and become a real writer.
And by revision, she did not mean moving around a few paragraphs and taking out the adverbs. Gail gave us lots of practice in throwing out our entire manuscript and starting over. She used to call it dropping bombs into our work. And "bomb" was the appropriate word: her feedback created explosions. Buildings fell. Characters died. Dialogue stuttered into silence.
Sometimes I think she did it to make us practice what it feels like to start again. It was hard. Awful, in fact. But it was a useful exercise.
No writer wants to hear that the novel they’ve been working on for months—maybe years—belongs on the scrap heap. I’ve had to do it a number of times; in fact, my most recent novel is the result of a complete do-over. It started life as a 114,000-word draft, and that didn’t include a whole separate storyline I wrote and subsequently threw out.
Let me tell the whole truth here. A few trusted readers who read that early draft felt there was something wrong with it but couldn’t put their finger on what it was. That was not the news I wanted to hear. But these were people who knew their craft, and I had no choice but to pay attention.
Burning down a novel takes courage, and I wasn’t quite ready to do it yet, so I set the novel aside and wrote another one instead. By the time I returned to the beast and sat down to read it, I had no emotional connection to the work. I could see almost immediately what was wrong, and I knew the flaw was so fundamental there was really no choice: I had to start over.
That was a hard moment. But I didn’t think of it as throwing the manuscript in the garbage. I thought more along the lines of recycling. I kept some of the characters and settings. I went through the novel and salvaged the sentences and research I wanted to keep. But the storyline ended up being completely new and different. It would never have turned into the novel it is now if I hadn’t been willing to do a total overhaul of it. That is revision in the truest sense of the word—a re-visioning of the story, a willingness to see it as something new.
Was all that time I’d spent writing the original draft wasted? Absolutely not. This is what’s required when you’re learning how to write a novel. And I think to a certain extent we have to learn all over again with every novel we write, because every time we start a new project we’re (hopefully) stretching ourselves, trying new things.
The "burn this house down and start again" feedback is most likely to happen with your first novel. You learn how to write a novel by writing one. You wouldn’t expect to sit down with a Beethoven sonata and play it after only a few piano lessons. It takes years just to learn how to play at that level, and then it takes time to learn that particular piece. You have to practice. You’re going to make mistakes. Writing is no different.
But being forced to start over also tends to happen when you haven’t spent the time you should have on an outline. That might rub pantsers the wrong way, and I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every time I’ve had to burn down my novel, it’s because I either didn’t outline at all, or I didn’t workshop my outline and subject it to the rigorous testing it required.
Next time an editor tells you that you might have to start again, take a deep breath and try to listen to what they’re saying. If you’re not willing to listen yet, set the novel aside for as long as it takes you to sever your emotional connection to it. That might be six weeks, or six months. Take the time you need, until it feels like you’re reading someone else’s work. That’s the state of mind you need to be in, in order to be truly objective and dispassionate about the process.
If you never want to have this experience, I recommend crafting a solid outline. It doesn’t have to be scene by scene—I certainly don’t do that—but it does have to tell the story from start to finish, including the details of the mushy middle. And do not allow yourself to get away with writing, “Blah blah, it ends somehow, I’ll figure it out when I get there,” which I actually did write in one of my outlines, much to my regret—because I eventually reached the end and had no idea what to do once I got there.
Truly, there are no shortcuts. You either pay during the outlining process, or you pay with a draft that takes too many wrong turns and needs to be tossed. But one way or another: you pay.
Pass the matches.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet, as well as a Darling Axe senior editor. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have been published in literary reviews around the world. She has also published two YA novels (fantasy and historical fiction) and a historical picture book. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). She loves working closely with writers, both at the developmental level and on finer line-by-line issues. Many of those writers have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.