September 28, 2012

It's Not Just Me

I am insecure about my process. Sure, I make all these confident declarations about how everyone knows creating a novel takes a long time and that I'm committed to revising until it's right. But come on, would I really explain at such lengths if I weren't desperate to validate the fact that I'm still revising?

So it's always a relief to come across other writers talking about putting large amounts of time and work into revision. Yes, I know rationally that revision must be part of any successful author's process, but I still crave the stories of ripping a draft to pieces or starting over from scratch. Not every writer revises so extensively, because some manage to plan enough in advance that the plot and sequencing are more or less right the first time around. But I suspect that making huge changes between drafts is the more common phenomenon (and that when it isn't done, that can often be a mistake).

I was thrilled to read in a recent post by Jennifer R. Hubbard, "I spend 10% of my time drafting new material and 90% of my time revising." I thought, "Yes! I'm not alone!" Jenn's post is a response to one by Jane Lebak, who advises making drastic revisions by writing the whole story over again fresh rather than editing old material. Yes! I did that!

When the subject of big revisions comes up in author interviews, I always pay extra attention. Here's Michael Chabon's revelation about the first draft that eventually became THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION (a book I loved):

Mr. Chabon wrote a 600-page draft in the first person that he ended up trashing after a year. It had the same characters -- Landsman; his ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish, also a policeman; and his cousin and partner, a half-Indian, half-Jew named Berko Shemets -- but a completely different story. He feels as if "Policemen's Union" is its sequel, he says.

And here's Joshua Henkin, author of THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU, which I'm looking forward to reading, discussing his process on an episode of Notebook on Cities and Culture:

I think you have to write a certain number of bad pages in order to get to the good pages.... MATRIMONY [his previous novel] took me ten years to write, this [THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU] took me five years to write, but in both cases I would say that the vast majority of the book that got published got written toward the end, like in the last year of MATRIMONY and the last six months with THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU. And it wasn't like I was sitting around eating bon-bons all that time and then I decided, "Okay, time to kick in." I think it's much more that you spend a lot of time making mistakes until finally something clicks and then in the last few months the book sort of miraculously starts to write itself. So I very much feel it's not throwing away stuff, it's more about investing all those days and figuring out who those characters are.

Yes, yes, yes! And also, see how speedy I am compared to him? At least so far, if I hurry up and finish revising?

I feel so validated.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jen Doll at the Atlantic Wire presents What Kind of Book Reader Are You? A Diagnostics Guide: "For as many books as exist, there are also any number of different reading types a book lover (or even a book hater) might demonstrate. What kind are you?" (Thanks, Books on the Nightstand!)


Christopher Gronlund said...

The last novel I finished was rewritten several times. The changes between the first draft and second were huge -- things that changed everything. They were entirely different stories; very little from the first draft made it to the second.

In following drafts, entire storylines (including a storyline I was particularly proud of, with a couple characters I loved) came out. It wasn't until the 4th draft that it become more polishing than changing things.

I think what sets good and great writers apart from other writers is they don't rest until they have something solid. Especially now, with people cranking out self-produced e-books and boasting more about the speed in which they are produced than taking their time crafting something deeper, you can tell who takes their time and who doesn't.

I've never read your writing beyond your blog, but seeing what you read and how much effort you put into making a story better, I look forward to the day there's a Lisa Eckstein book on a shelf in my office :)

Anna Scott Graham said...

Every author has a different process, just as there are different styles of writing and reasons for creating. There is a lot of noise about swiftness, and for some, myself included, that's what works. But that's not everyone's path. Accepting one's own method is a part of the writing habit. I'm very comfortable in my routine, just as I am with the sort of tales I tell, POV I prefer, etc. You are following your instincts; no one else can write your story your way. :)))

Lisa Eckstein said...

Christopher, thanks for sharing your rewriting experience, which is a lot like what I'm in the process of with this novel. And thanks for the kind words!

Anna, yes, you're right that self-acceptance is the key. I've been slower to develop that comfort with my own process. Thanks for the reminder, and I'll keep working on it!

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