Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A writer’s progress

with 2 comments

Over the past few days, I’ve been engaged in a long conversation with my younger self, using what Stephen King has rightly called the only real form of time travel we have. Years ago, when I left my job in New York to become a professional writer, my first major project was a long novel about India. I spent two years writing and revising it in collaboration with an agent, only to abandon it unpublished in the end for reasons that I’ve described elsewhere. It was a bittersweet experience at best, one that taught me much of what I know about writing, while also leaving me with little to show for it, and as a result, I haven’t gone back and read that novel in a long time—more than four years, in fact. Now that I’ve finished Eternal Empire, however, I’ve got some time on my hands, and one of the first things I wanted to do, since I no longer have a book under contract, is go back and look at that early effort to see whether there’s anything there worth saving. And the prospect of reading this novel again after so long filled me with a lot of trepidation.

In some ways, I doubt I’ll ever have this kind of experience again. This first novel represents the very best that I could do at that time in my career: I lavished everything I had on it for two years of my life, and so it would be surprising, at least to me, if there wasn’t at least something worthwhile there. But I’ve changed a lot in the meantime, too. When I sat down to write my first book, it largely to prove to myself that I could do it at all: I’d never written an original novel before, unless you count the science-fiction epic I cranked out in the summer between seventh and eighth grade, and I’d suffered through several unfinished projects in the meantime. Today, the situation couldn’t be more different: I have something like 350,000 words of professional work behind me, and I’ve gone through the process of writing, cutting, and revising a manuscript with an editor twice, with a third time just around the corner. I’m a better, smarter writer now, and this is probably the only chance I’ll have to confront the best work of my early days with the detachment that four years of distance affords.

And while reading the novel again, I discovered something fascinating: this manuscript, which is the final version of a book that went through countless edits, revisions, and iterations, is basically as good as the first drafts I write today. It isn’t a bad novel by any means: there’s a lot of interesting material, some exciting scenes, and many extended passages of decent writing. But it’s clearly the work of a novice. Most chapters go on for longer than they should; I spell out motivations and subtext rather than leaving them to the reader; and, much to my embarrassment, I even have long sections of backstory. At the time, this was the novel I wanted to write, and since then, my tastes have changed and developed in certain ways, which is precisely how it should be. Yet here’s the funny thing: I still write chapters that are too long, spell things out too explicitly, and tell more than I should about a character’s background. The difference now is that I cut it, usually before I’ve even printed out a copy to mark up with a red pencil. And whatever mistakes that remain tend to be made, and addressed, more quickly.

Which gets me to an important point about progress. There’s no such thing as real progress in the arts, at least as far as storytelling is concerned, but there’s certainly room for an individual author to grow and improve over time—and the best thing that a writer can learn, as they say at Pixar, is that you need to be wrong fast. Sometimes I’m wrong only in my own head, while I’m working out a scene in my mind’s eye, and I’ve corrected the mistake long before I begin to type. More often, I need to write something out first and change it once I realize it isn’t working. But the fact that my first drafts now are as good as my final drafts of a few years ago implies, if nothing else, that I’ve accelerated the process, which is about all a writer can ask. I’m still fundamentally the same person I was when I wrote my first novel, but a lot more efficient, and I’ll be happy as long as I can continue in the same general direction. As David Belle, the founder of parkour, says: “First, do it. Second, do it well. Third, do it well and fast—that means you’re a professional.”

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2012 at 9:32 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Such an interesting look at your own work. Thanks for sharing. I haven’t looked back at my first manuscript in a long time. I do think some of its strengths and weaknesses showed up in my second novel, which, like you, I worked through with an agent. This third one is a totally different thing–or at least it feels that way so far, because I jumped from literary fiction to historical and am learning a new set of rules. For the first time I started with plot, not character, so I can’t say (yet) that I’ve gotten any faster. Maybe next novel!


    November 8, 2012 at 11:15 am

  2. Thanks! Looking back at your old work can be instructive, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it very often. Maybe every four years or so. :)


    November 8, 2012 at 11:35 pm

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