Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Michael Ondaatje on first drafts

with 2 comments

There are some writers who have a plan before they sit down for those years of writing a book—they have a concept or plot that’s very certain. These are good writers, who know exactly how the story will end. I seem to have none of those assurances. I’m much more uncertain, insecure almost in the way that I’m continually being fed and diverted by the possibilities from the world around me—chance anecdotes overhead, the texture within a rumour—as much as by what my research reveals. For those four or five years, I collect such things, and they fall into a form or a shape or a situation I have established…the final stages of the war in Italy, the preparation for death by a gunfighter

I do this until I have a complete but rough first draft, by which time I’ve essentially discovered the story. I then put on a different hat…and I start eliminating the wrong notes, the repetitions, the trails that go nowhere. I start merging and tightening the work…at this stage three scenes can become one. I take this process as far as I can. There are numerous drafts…Eventually I try it out on my peers and my editor, and I try not to be too defensive about the work. I don’t always agree with them, but their responses and notes are an essential stage for me. The only way I can get that democratic, communal sense is to be not so sure about what I have done. But it is also important that I don’t show them the work until that stage is reached, until I’ve taken it as far as I can go. I don’t want their influence to come too early in the process after my discovery of the story and the form.

Michael Ondaatje, The Conversations

Written by nevalalee

March 20, 2011 at 9:49 am

2 Responses

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  1. I’m in the middle of re-writing my novel…for what feels like the umptheenth time. It is a process, but a necessary one.


    March 20, 2011 at 11:01 am

  2. Good luck! Revision is by far my favorite part of the process—as Ondaatje points out, it’s where a novel is made. (I sometimes wish I could skip the first draft and head straight for revisions, but I can’t quite figure out how.)


    March 20, 2011 at 11:26 am

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