I've learned a lot by sitting down and writing a novel. Two and a half years ago, I took an idea that had been stuck in my brain for half a decade and decided to turn it into a book. I had lofty goals. I wanted this novel to be a sweeping commentary on America, masculinity, politics, extreme wealth, greed, and power. In short, I wanted my book to be about everything.
If I've learned anything salient during this arduous but thrilling process, it's this: your book can't be about everything. Especially not your first one.
I've spent the last two and half years either working on the book or thinking about working on it. The writer in me saw every daily occurrence as a possible scene or talking point. Every time I heard a news story on the radio, I wanted to work it in. I was like a dog chasing cars. As quickly as one would get my attention, another roared past and I had to chase that one instead.
There was so much I wanted to say. The idea of accidentally excluding something made me anxious. During that string of mass shootings two summers ago, I thought it would be irresponsible of me to NOT include an angle about America's obsession with guns. How could my book ever be truly complete without it? I asked myself. This is a slippery slope. It's how you end up with rambling early drafts.
But going into a first draft with huge expectations is a good thing. After all, why would we start writing a story we only felt lukewarm and closed-minded about? As writers we are attracted to the big ideas. The ones that overwhelm us and scare us, the ones that can become world-changing, society-shaping books. We romanticize the flashy young first-time novelist exploding onto the scene and setting the world on fire. An intoxicating thought, isn't it? Damn right it is. We romanticize it because we either don't know or don't want to admit that becoming an overnight success takes years.
First drafts should be messy. They should be big and ugly, unwieldy and lumbering. They are your chance to write complete shit. First drafts can be about everything. Books, however, cannot. At some point, we have to take a step back and trim the fat.
The first draft of my book was a 115,000-word polemic with a variety of targets. There were subplots about prescription fraud and summer camp. There were too many supporting characters while my protagonist was an underdeveloped and unlikable monster. And still, I dreamed about the book being a flawless summation of what I'd experienced in the first 24 years of my life.
If the first draft is buying the block of marble, revising is chipping away everything you don't need. Carve enough of the excess away in all the right places, and then you have a good book. Unsurprisingly, most of my subplots had to go. No more stoner drug adventure plopped in the back end of the second act. No more trip to the local summer camp to visit a supporting character's little brother. Then there were the bigger changes: my protagonist was a functional alcoholic for the first three drafts. I didn't know what I wanted to say about alcoholism, but it was in there.
Some themes are so complicated they're hard to include without having to shape the book around them. Some themes demand to be accommodated by the plot and character, instead of the other way around. Theme should arise organically from the character's journey and eventual transformation. That wasn't happening, and it was giving my beta readers the wrong impression. They were focusing on the wrong details, and, ironically, detracting from what I really wanted to say with the book.
Yes. That's what happens when you try to write a book about everything. Your beta readers see a free-for-all and are subsequently overwhelmed. Working through this with your readers is a great way to learn what your book needs to be about. Listen to their feedback. What did they focus on? What did you want them to focus on instead? And just like that you've found more fat to trim. More marble to carve away.
Over the revising process you'll learn what your book is actually about. Notice I didn't say decide. The book is the one deciding what it'll be about. We, the lowly writers, have minimal input. Stories tell themselves and books write themselves. You'll also learn your book can't be about everything. But it sure as hell can be about one or two or even three themes that are important to you. If some ideas don't make the cut this time around, there's always your second book. Keep writing.