Twenty years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by the novelist Robert Cormier. That night he said, “The reader doesn’t care what you were trying to write. The reader only cares about what’s on the page.” In other words, a reader doesn’t care what you hoped you wrote, or what you almost wrote. He doesn’t care that you almost gave up on your novel, and that it took you twenty-five years to write. She doesn’t care that one of the biggest distractions during the drafting process was the cat that took great pleasure in walking across your keyboard. He doesn’t care that the pages of your early drafts are covered with dried tears, or wine, or baby food, or melted chocolate, or cigarette burns. She doesn’t care that your spouse or parent or grandparent or cat or dog or pet cricket died halfway through the revision process, so you were really behind schedule, and your editor and agent almost gave up on you. The reader only cares about what’s on the page.
Every time you are tempted to think that the reader will forgive you if your characters are flat, because you wrote those characters when you had the flu, or your ending is a little weak because you were so tired of writing, you couldn’t possibly write one more word, think of all the things a reader could be doing instead of reading your story, and use that as the impetus to write the best novel you can. No excuses.
While you are writing, remember that other than a writing implement, imagination, and research, a writer’s most powerful tools are the delete key, an eraser, and a recycle bin. If you hesitate to use the delete key, think about a time in your life when you wished that you had an eraser, or a delete key, or a second chance. Think of how a do-over would have made the experience so much more meaningful or powerful, and then apply what you’ve learned to your revision process.
For example, last night, a friend took me out to dinner at a well-known restaurant. Based on the reviews and word of mouth, I had really high expectations. The service was great, and much of the food was good, but the music, heavy metal, was so loud that it was impossible to have a conversation. Our waitress kindly turned the volume down twice. And yet, my ears are still ringing this morning, and I’m not tempted to return anytime soon.
As in the restaurant last night, first drafts of novels have too much heavy metal. All of your characters want a chance to tell their stories, and you feel obligated to include every voice, every fork in the road, every sunset and rainstorm and love scene, and every witty turn of phrase, because you are brilliant, and you want the world to know it.
Well, rise and shine, Buttercup, because your first draft is not brilliant, and neither are you, and it’s time to get your butt in a chair and start working on that second draft. It’s time to pay attention to what your characters are saying, and figure out whose story is really worth telling. It’s time to decide if your story takes place over a year, a day, a week, or an hour. It’s time to ditch the thunderstorms, the rainbows, the cringe-worthy love scenes, and the dream sequences—especially the dream sequences. Dream sequences should be outlawed. While you’re at it, ditch the scene in which your protagonist makes loves to a horse, most of the adverbs, exclamation points, and any dialogue that sounds like it’s straight out of all of those crime show re-runs you’ve been watching when you aren’t revising your novel.
There are exceptions, of course. If you can write a story about someone having sex with a horse, or a dream sequence, or a rainbow-thunderstorm-five-exclamation-point-ending that makes the reader hunger for more, and doesn’t make the reader stop reading, do it. Do it well, show us how it’s done, and get it out there. If you are writing a scene about two heavy metal fans or musicians, make all of the noise you want. But otherwise, ditch the heavy metal. Get rid of anything that doesn’t serve your story. Be ruthless. Because nothing else matters except what’s on the page.