This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Getting It the First Time

            There are plenty of generalizations about the writing process, and some of them are even true. Today I’d like to talk about one that’s often presented as being absolutely true, even though it’s only mostly true.
            It’s been expressed in various ways, but the thrust of it is, “The first draft of a book is always terrible.”
            Substitute “usually” or “often” for “always” in that sentence, and I wouldn’t argue too much. From almost everything I’ve written and heard, I’ve concluded that most authors, particularly fiction authors, discover their book in the process of writing it. When the first draft is completed, they’re left with something that ended up being a lot different than what they started out to do.
            Get me rewrite!
            There are, however, and always have been authors who know what they want to do and pretty much nail it on the first try. In such cases there’s always some cleanup and tightening to be done, but it’s hardly a major overhaul.

The Speedy Genre Writer

            I’ve read — though so long ago I’ve forgotten where — that Dickens and Shakespeare wrote quickly, channeling the muse before she escaped. When Dickens, at the urging of Bulwer-Lytton, rewrote the end of Great Expectations, he was simply adjusting what he already had, not reimagining it anew.
            A certain number of genre writers, working within an established format, are able to figure out the book beforehand and come up with a first draft that works, with a few changes. I have recent evidence of this. Over the weekend I read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mystery The Second Confession, written in 1949. And I do mean all written in 1949.
            According to a note at the end of my edition, Stout began writing the book (some 240 pages long) on March 16, 1949 and completed it April 23. It was then submitted to the publisher and after typesetting, final editing and legal review, it was published September 6.
            That’s five and a half months from first keystroke to book off the presses. And he did it with typewriters. And 65 years later, it’s better written than many current best-sellers.

Doing the Thinking First

            It takes me a year to get one of my mystery novels written, but it isn’t the writing and revisions that take up most of the time. A lot of that time involves prep work and outlining. I’m one of those writers who needs to know where the story is going and how it’s getting there before I actually start writing it.
            Since I’m not writing mystery novels for a living, and since I have a day job, and since I have a life outside writing, my books get written when I can get to them, which is often in fits and starts. Some weeks I can work on the book nearly every day. At other times, it goes a week or two (in one instance a month or two) without any attention.
            But because I’ve imagined the book in considerable detail before writing it, what finally gets into print (or e-book) is essentially an amended and improved version of the first draft. I’m not saying that’s the way any other author ought to do it, but it works for me and it’s worked for other writers who have been deemed good. I won’t tell you how to write your book if you promise not to tell me that my first draft can’t possibly be any good.