Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Playing the odds

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Earlier this week, in my post about revision, I wrote: “If you start revising a novel before you’ve completed a first draft, your chances of finishing it at all are essentially zero.” Later, in the comments, a reader quite reasonably asked if it wasn’t possible to take a slightly less rigid stance—that is, if there was some kind of sensible middle ground of interim revision. The answer, of course, is yes: there are as many approaches to writing as there are writers, and there are certainly some who can finish a novel while diligently revising along the way. The catch, as I see it, is that such writers will always be outnumbered by those who get stuck revising the first few chapters. In short, my warning may not apply to you, but it’s probably safest to assume that it does. Because like most writing advice, it’s really about playing the odds.

Here’s what I mean. Any rational observer would have to conclude that the odds are already stacked against any aspiring writer. I won’t go into the obstacles in detail—the difficulty of finding an agent, the questionable state of modern publishing, the uncertainty of success even after a novel has been released—but it’s safe to say that anyone’s chances of becoming a working writer are fairly slim. As a result, the determined writer is like a smart gambler playing against the house: it may be a losing game, but he still adjusts the odds in his favor whenever he can. Card counters (or even amateur video poker players like me) know that incremental advantages are what make the difference between breaking even and going home broke. The same holds true for writing. It’s such a ridiculously impractical pursuit that it’s necessary to be pragmatic about it whenever possible. And if the odds of our writing a publishable novel are increased by following a few basic rules, we’d be foolish not to consider adjusting our habits accordingly.

Playing the odds is also why I place such emphasis on craft. In her recent book The Possessed, which I’m reading now, writer Elif Batuman questions the whole premise of craft, as drilled into the heads of writers at a thousand workshops:

What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: “Show, don’t tell”; “Murder your darlings”; “Omit needless words.” As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.

Regular readers of this blog can guess how sharply my own opinions differ from Bautman’s—among other things, I do think that a lot of what we call creative writing boils down to overcoming bad habits—and I hope to devote more time soon to the issues she raises. For now, though, I’ll restrict myself to pointing out the obvious, which is that while there’s no guarantee that a writer with good craft will produce great literature, the odds of a writer without craft producing anything readable are vanishingly small. Are there exceptions? Sure. But anyone who hopes to make a living from writing is already betting that he’s going to be the exception to the rule. To worsen the odds by neglecting craft is like blindly discarding your entire hand in hopes of drawing a royal flush. It could happen, but it isn’t likely.

So how do you improve the odds? You begin by working as intelligently as you can: you listen to Strunk and White, you do, in fact, omit needless words, and you don’t revise until the entire first draft is done. (You’ll probably need to make a few mistakes along the way, as I did, before you’re convinced of the wisdom of this approach: the rules of writing, like any kind of philosophy, are only acquired though experience.) Then, once you have enough craft at your disposal, and hopefully a few published credits, you can start to break the rules. After all, if you’re the exceptional writer you hope you are, a little bit of craft—which will adjust the odds in your favor far out of proportion to their actual cost—won’t keep you from finishing the novel you were born to write. So why take the chance?

Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2011 at 10:00 am

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