Writing is an organic process, and it’s different for each individual author—but a writer needs discipline. When I write the first draft of a novel, I hammer away at the text every day until it’s finished. And I mean every day. During this early stage, I always write at least one chapter per day. Typically, my chapters have a minimum of 3,000 words (my fastest draft so far was 97,000 words in thirteen days). However, revision and editing require more thought, more focus. I still work on the second draft every day, but the emphasis is now on quality and comprehension, not raw prose.
First, I do a complete read-through of the first draft. I’m the only one who will ever read my first drafts; not even close relatives, loved ones, or friends are allowed to view this initial effort. I make notes whenever I see something that needs attention, such as a detail that requires more research, or if a character comes across too flat. I’m very critical of my work, and ask questions about any aspect that doesn’t match up with the overall story. Should this character speak this way, is that detail really necessary to the plot—simple questions, but important ones.
Afterwards, I expand these questions into a detailed ‘to do list’—areas of the novel that require tweaking, if not outright cuts and rewriting.
Then I wait a month or so until I begin the second draft.
For Infernal Heroes, I waited a year and a half. Not on purpose, but I revised other novels during this time, and to be honest, wasn’t sure if Infernal Heroes was worth the effort. I’d never written a comedic novel before, or one that followed a single character’s POV the entire story. Also, doubts nagged me that anyone would ever publish it. But when I read through the original draft, I still found it entertaining and humorous. To follow a maxim espoused by Neil Gaiman, I laughed at my own jokes. If I don’t find them funny, how can I expect others to enjoy them?
The novel is set in an alternative version of the year 1500 AD. The Church has control of Hell, which follows the cosmology described in Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. My story follows the exploits of Alessandro Catarro, a mercenary demon, and his friends Samuqan (a perverted gargoyle) and Qitara (a sexy but clever genie). But despite this being an alternate historical fantasy, I still researched certain pertinent subjects: Renaissance Italy, the Italian Wars, the condottierres (Italian mercenary captains), and of course, Dante’s poem. I used real historical personas and events, such as Niccolo Machiavelli and the Burning of the Vanities in Florence. I wanted this second draft to feel more authentic, but eschewing infodumps that would bog down the pacing.
I revise chapter by chapter, never skipping ahead. I do this paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence. This way, I’m reading the novel a second time even as I firm up the prose. Removing passive phrases, correcting grammar and spelling, selecting richer and more varied words—the nuts and bolts of a revision. For Infernal Heroes, due to its humorous overtones, I selected a more relaxed prose style. Not too verbose, like a William Faulkner or Robert Jordan tale, but not too terse like I’ve done in the past. I also wrote the draft in third person intimate, which meant I inserted non-descriptive comments into the prose, like an internal monologue. In doing so I hope to make Alessandro more accessible to the reader, as well as set this novel apart from my others.
Next was dialogue. It had to be wittier and in-character. I did use modern swear words, as well as a smattering of British slang. Often I cut back on dialogue tags, even the ubiquitous ‘said’ and replaced them with character body language and idiosyncrasies that I hope make each of them more unique. Here’s an example:
“You did remember she’s from Limbo?” Samuqan rose and dusted himself off.
“Yes.” Alessandro gripped his sword tighter.
I still use the dependable ‘said’ when needed, but I feel this style allows me to inflect the dialogue with an extra layer of the character’s personality. Reader reaction to it, though, may depend on personal taste.
One major tweak was the ‘magic system’ used in the novel’s setting. Alessandro and other demons possess minor abilities that aid (or hamper) them during the course of the story. In the first draft, though, they performed these deeds without any costs to themselves and few signs of fatigue. This is something I’ve done in previous novels, and I wasn’t about to repeat that mistake. In the second draft, I added the concept of a demon’s roboris, their demonic power—and it can only be replenished by returning to Hell on a regular basis. Since the main character wants free of his demonic status, I thought this would power Alessandro’s abilities as well as add irony whenever he needs to use them. It’s not perfect, and I expect to revise this even more in a future draft. But the groundwork has been laid. Remember, the first draft is bones…subsequent drafts are the skin and organs.
Sometimes I listen to specific music while I write/revise a piece. For Infernal Heroes, with its Italian locales and light-hearted approach, I often listened to Italian comic opera. Foremost among these was Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, something that always puts me into a frivolous mood. Since Polpettone (Italian for ‘Meatloaf’) is a supporting character, I listened to Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell and his work on the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The tone of the latter seemed perfect for my novel, and I even parody one of the film’s songs in a scene.
Since the characters drink wine and other alcoholic beverages throughout the story, I too savored the occasional glass of Sangiovese or Pinot Grigio. This was just one more way of interacting with the story. Utilizing the senses as much as possible to really feel it. This is true for all fiction: it’s one thing to describe a character doing something, but when you can do it yourself—then do so.
Now for the comedy. I wanted more of it in the second draft, and I added what felt natural. Smart-ass comments, ridiculous situations, sexual innuendo, crude, gross-out humor—I used them all, with one criteria: all had to make me laugh. While I wrote them, and when I read them a few days afterwards. Humor is a delicate thing, and what I find uproarious may not tickle another’s funny bone. Plus there is copious satire regarding religion in general and Catholicism in particular, and that will always offend certain people. That isn’t my intent, but those who refuse to laugh at such things aren’t the sort who will read my work anyway.
After all of this labor, it’s time to find a fellow writer who’s willing to read Infernal Heroes and give me their honest opinion. Preferably three or four fellow writers. Once I read their critiques, and select what advice would benefit my story, then I can begin a third draft. Even at that stage, I still expect to revise the novel into a fourth draft, which (barring major story/prose issues) should be a polish pass.
Infernal Heroes was a hell of a lotta fun to revise, no pun intended. It had to be, or I would have allowed it to languish on my hard drive for another year. If you believe in what you’re doing, and if the story still resonates with you, then never give up on it. Never view revising as work or a chore. When that happens, you should move on and find something else to do with your time.
Just remember that revising isn’t all about making a story readable, palatable, or better—it’s about revisiting a part of yourself, and making sure you still enjoy the stay. A novel is art, and as such is an extension of its creator’s personality, values, and dreams. Revising is part of this process. I think of it as staring at yourself in a dirty mirror. With each cleaning pass, less dirt obstructs the reflection…allowing yourself and others to see what you’re capable of—and who you really are.