It’s Just a Love Story

How to Return to Your First Novel; How to Revise instead of Rewriting Over and Over Again

I’m still in love with my first novel.

I have a whole long and sordid history with this book; I started writing it shortly after my entire world fell apart, back in 2010. I didn’t know how to write a novel back then. I mean, I did know enough to start writing; had gleaned the basic ideas of how to tell a story from a lifetime of writing, but I wasn’t good at it. I hadn’t immersed myself into the writing community; hadn’t read the thousands of blog posts about various minute techniques of the craft.

I just wrote.

Originally, the story was about a girl whose best friend died, but not before sending her on a scavenger hunt to figure out the truth of her apparent suicide. It was a weird book, and I’m not entirely sure that it worked. When I write, I like to imagine that I’m watching my characters’s lives unfold before me. And when I was writing at this initial stage, it was like I was watching through a blur filter. I couldn’t see things clearly.

But I didn’t know that then. I thought I knew them pretty well. Over time, I had enough ideas for backstory, and I knew that I wanted to write prequels. Two prequels, along with the original novel. And maybe a couple of tie-ins about the love interest’s parents, back when they were alive: theatre kids at NYU in the early ‘90s.

Like RENT, but less interesting, I guess.

I don’t remember how the story coalesced into shape, how I refined all of the ideas in my head into a semi-coherent arc. I don’t remember how my main character, Isabelle, became a pastor’s daughter. I don’t remember how this story came to be set on a Southern California beach. But that’s where it got, and it became a trilogy:

Book 1: Isabelle and Cass meet and fall in love.

Book 2: Isabelle is sent to and is rescued from conversion therapy.

Book 3: Cass dies, Isabelle must move on with her life.

Somewhere along the way, I decided to scrap book 3. Even though that had been the heart of my original idea, after learning and understanding how lesbians and other WLW are often killed off in media, I couldn’t do it. While I had originally wanted to write a novel about processing grief, moving on after the death of a loved one, this project couldn’t be that. I couldn’t contribute to that toxic, hurtful stereotype.

So it was down to two books. Or, rather, one book with the option to write two. I’m toying with the idea of leaving that hook open, or closing it and giving them a definite happy ending. Part of me wants the two of them to be happy. Part of me doesn’t want to send Rachel (who used to be Isabelle, but had a name change thanks to the brilliant mentoring of author Heather Petty) through the scarring and the hurt that comes with conversion therapy.

This is to say nothing of the real-world implications of writing a stand-alone versus a duology. But I’m not dealing with the real world here.

Except, I kind of have to deal with the real world. I mean, I live here and all.

The truth is, I don’t know if this book will ever sell; if anyone will ever see it on a shelf.

After finishing the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program in 2016, I queried the book widely. Mostly, I got rejections. That didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the number of requests for partials and fulls that I received. But even these all turned back rejections. I figured the book was dead.

So I buried the book, and flirted with other projects. Once the Orange Dotard assumed office, I stopped writing period. I didn’t really start again until February 2018, when I began a new project.

The idea of reworking that original project, Somehow You’re Sitting Here, had been flirting around in my head for a while. But I always figured that it was some kind of pipe dream, a manifestation of that point of author advice about how you should move on from your first work.

But I was in love with it. And it was on my mind.

I don’t remember how the topic of rejections came up between me and Shaunta, but it did. And we went into my inbox, and started reading some of my rejection letters. Not the cookie-cutter form rejections, but the nice ones.

She was stunned at how nice they were; how they were all complimentary of my first novel. My very first novel.

“Most people don’t get rejections like that on their first novel,” she said.

We talked about how I’ve been thinking about revising the book, polishing it up and sending it out again. We’ve been talking about revision.

I never really learned how to revise a book. My idea of revision has always been taking the old draft, putting it up in a split-screen with a blank document, and writing it over again. That was how I refined my ideas. There were parts that would stay the same, parts where I would diverge and come back again, and each time I did that I had a different — and better story.

To use a knitting metaphor, I would start a new blanket each time — but I would have no idea how to go back and fix the mistakes in the blanket I’d already made.

So I decided that’s what I’m going to do. While I’m working on my new novel over the next few months, I’m also going to start revising this one. Really revising.

So far, it’s been pretty good. Just fixing minor things, little usage issues. Busting dialog tags, filtering out junk words. (I did a lot of this in the mentor program with Heather, but there seems to be so much more!). While there is some heavy revising I want to do — tightening up story arc issues, making Cassandra a little nicer in the beginning — I’m starting on these smaller issues just to start with.

I’m learning the art of revision. I’m working through Self Editing for Fiction Writers, which is going to be a big help. And these will be skills that come in handy when it’s time to work on my next book — and every one after that.

It’s hard for me to digest that I’ve been writing this long, and yet there are still things I need to learn. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s absolutely necessary.

Maybe it will work, and my someday agent will want to send it out. Maybe it won’t, and these girls are doomed to live only on my hard drive for the rest of time. But I feel like I’m giving them another fair shake. I’m giving myself some peace of mind.

Zach Payne is, to borrow the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive Payne.” He acts, sings poorly, and writes poetry, plays, and young adult fiction.

He’s an assistant at Ninja Writers, where he helps new writers find their voice and their tribe. He was the query intern for Pam Victorio at D4EO, and his novel Somehow You’re Sitting Here was selected for Nevada SCBWI’s 2015–16 Mentor Program. He lives in Reno.