Archive for November 16th, 2011
You can define the first draft of a novel in all kinds of ways, but what it ultimately is, when you get right down to it, is a series of wrong answers. These can range from a poorly chosen word in a single sentence to an entire subplot that needs to be cut, but big or small, when something changes between the rough and final draft, it means that your initial impulse to use the word “quotidian” rather than “daily,” say, or to send Paul to the dockyards at the end of the third chapter rather than the fifth, was wrong. In fact, nearly every word you type in a first draft will need to be either discarded as unworkable or revised in ways that you can’t foresee. And yet this is far from a waste of time. Because it’s only by going through one or more wrong answers that you have any hope of finding the right one.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as I go through the current draft of City of Exiles in preparation for final delivery to my publisher. This novel has already undergone at least four or five extensive revisions that spared nothing, including the title, and yet when I look at it now, almost a year after I started, I still see plenty of things I want to change. The numbers speak for themselves: the rough draft of this novel had something like 2,500 paragraphs, nearly all of which will be substantially revised or cut in the final version. That’s 2,500 wrong answers. But there’s no way around it. Writing a novel, or any extended work of narrative, isn’t about executing a perfect plan: it’s more like an endless process of guess and check.
There are all kinds of ways to picture this. You can think of a rough draft, as I’ve said before, as a kind of sketch for a novel, which will end up repeatedly erased and redrawn. You can think of the path to a novel as less a straight line than a slalom, with many detours and overcorrections on the way to your destination. Or you can think of it in terms of Thomas Edison, who knew a thousand ways not to make a light bulb. But my own favorite expression of this principle comes courtesy of William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell?, quoted here before, in a story about the legendary Broadway producer George Abbott. Faced with a choreographer who couldn’t figure out what to have the dancers do next, Abbott responded with a line that has been jangling through my head ever since:
“Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.”
When in doubt, write something, even if it might be wrong. Because the desire to get things right the first time can be especially dangerous for writers. I know many aspiring novelists who are obsessed with getting each paragraph right before moving on to the next, and as a result, they’ve never produced more than a handful of chapters. Or take the case of a friend of mine who was hired to ghostwrite a children’s book for a wealthy executive. (It was about an elephant working in advertising.) It sounded like fun, but the two of them spent over a year obsessing over the first three chapters, going back and forth with endless revisions, until my friend finally quit, burnt out by the experience. And the book, as far as I know, remains unfinished. Which is a shame. Because in fiction, the only truly wrong answer is one that isn’t written at all.