Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Don’t look back

with 4 comments

In just a few hours, if all goes well, I’ll be finishing my rough draft of Part I of The Scythian, the third and final book in the series begun by The Icon Thief. This section, which will end up covering slightly less than half of the entire novel, currently stands at about 60,000 words, which is considerably longer than it should be, but that’s fine—I like to write my first drafts about twenty percent too long so I’ll have plenty to cut when the time comes. The writing took a bit more than five weeks, not counting the research and outlining phase, which took about twice that. The process has been pretty intense, and I’m looking forward to putting the manuscript in a drawer—virtually, anyway—as I relax a little and look ahead to writing Part II. But is Part I any good? I don’t really know. Because I haven’t read it yet. And I’m not going to look at it at all until August, when the entire novel will hopefully be done.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m not shy about giving advice about writing, which is one of the only subjects in the world, aside from movies, that I can talk about indefinitely. I’ve even written up my own set of rules for writing fiction. In the end, though, there are as many different approaches to writing as there are writers, and that what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. I love outlining, for instance, but many authors I admire find it constricting, and not in a good way. I try to write every day, but there are plenty of writers who have done just fine following schedules of their own. Yet there are two pieces of advice that I think apply to every writer—at least so that the burden of proof is on the writer himself to demonstrate that they don’t hold true. The first is the importance of cutting, which I’ve talked about elsewhere. And the second is the fact that you should never revise, or even read, what you’ve written so far until the entire project is done.

If I’ve emphasized this point more than might seem necessary, it’s because it’s a rule that, once broken, is responsible for derailing more promising writing careers than any other I’ve seen. As I’ve said before, I’ve known far too many aspiring authors who write a few chapters, or even just a page or two, and continue revising them forever without making any further progress. I should know. I used to be one of them. And I can only tell you what I eventually realized myself: by definition, there’s no such thing as a perfect story fragment, and even if there is, nobody will care. All you’re doing is postponing the moment when you need to move on. And I’ve learned from hard experience that you learn much more about craft from writing one bad novel than constructing a few immaculate paragraphs that go nowhere. So even if there weren’t strong artistic reasons for finishing the entire book before going back to read it, the pragmatic case—the fact that you’re infinitely more likely to finish a book if you keep going—makes this the most important piece of writing advice I know.

And it remains true even if you’ve written other books. By now, if nothing else, I’ve demonstrated to my own satisfaction that I’m physically capable of finishing a novel, but I’m sticking with my former approach for reasons that are more than simple superstition. As I never get tired of saying, the great thing about waiting to revise until you’ve finished is that a problem that seemed insurmountable in Chapter 1 may have a perfect solution in Chapter 30—but only if you’ve written the twenty-eight chapters in between. You know the story better; you’ve lived with it for longer; you’re a better writer for having written more; and as a result, when you go back to revise, you have an entire manuscript’s worth of experience pushing you forward, instead of wrestling in isolation with a few pages with no other means of support.  (This is, incidentally, a way of writing that is almost impossible in a standard MFA program, which essentially teaches students to write perfect fragments.) So even if you hate what you’ve written, keep going. You’ll have plenty of time to fix it later. And don’t look back.

Written by nevalalee

April 13, 2012 at 11:10 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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4 Responses

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  1. If only Robert Caro followed this advice, maybe someday we’d learn how the Lyndon Johnson story ends. Or even how he was as a president.


    April 13, 2012 at 8:10 pm

  2. Wait—he was a president?


    April 13, 2012 at 9:48 pm

  3. Awesome post. I am a huge believer in outlining. It’s funny how you mentioned learning how to cut, because that’s exactly what I’m doning now. Things I thought were important, really weren’t. They have to go, and I have to hack at them. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m using a machete. I’m also learning not to use the word “that” when I shouldn’t. Oh, and my editor said that I have comma-phobia!

    Again, great post, and good luck with the book (look, I used my commas!).


    April 17, 2012 at 11:07 am

  4. Thanks! The more time goes by, the more I come to think that 90% of writing is cutting. (I like your blog, by the way!)


    April 17, 2012 at 9:51 pm

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