Tag Archives: first drafts

In Praise of Revision, or the Four Fails of Trying to Write the Last Draft First

by Mary W. Walters

When I was a new writer, I read a lot about how other writers wrote, and I became deluded into thinking that I could calculate how long it would take me to complete a writing project.

My reasoning went like this: if I wrote 500 words per day, I would be able to complete a short story in about ten days. If I upped the total to 1,000 words per day, I could finish a novel in 60 to 100 days, depending on the length of the novel. Those word goals seemed fairly modest to me, even a bit cushy: hadn’t I just been reading about writers who set themselves to write 5,000 words a day—and did it?

I got out my calculator and started pressing buttons. I reasoned that if I took a weekend off from time to time, and a week or two for vacation every year, I could still complete about a hundred novels and several collections of short stories by the time my 80th birthday rolled around. All I needed was the will power and fortitude to actually get the work done—and I was sure I had those in abundance. (I always feel that way before I start a project.)

It was then that I first faced what have come to think of as the “Four Fails” of trying to write the last draft first.

The first of these Fails occurred when I started my next novel. (It was my third, the first that would be published. My first and second novels had been abandoned part-way through, perhaps because they had failed to write themselves fast enough.)

I set out on the first day to write my 1,000 words, my schedule in hand and my determination firm. But I found I could not think of which 1,000 words to put down first—or, in fact, which one word to put down first. I told myself it was natural to feel this hesitation: with the schedule I’d set myself, a lot relied on the first word. The rest of the story had to ride effortlessly and smoothly on its back.

I dithered for days and weeks, growing increasingly discouraged as hour after hour passed away in fingernail-gnawing page-staring. My discouragement was laced with panic: if I kept dawdling this way, I might get no more than 90 or so books written before I hit my dotage.

By the time I did at last manage to get enough words down to constitute a first page, the second of the Fails kicked in: I found myself revising and revising and revising those first few sentences until the edges were worn off both them and me, and I could barely remember what vision had got me started in the first place. Still, I reassured myself again, if I got the beginning right, I could adhere to my schedule for the rest of the novel. It was only the first few paragraphs and pages that needed to be perfect. I’d loosen up when I got past this initial hurdle.

Fail the Third set in after I’d completed Chapter 1. In Chapter 2, something unexpected happened – Character X became more important than I’d originally envisioned and I had to go back to Chapter 1 and revise it to reflect the increased stature of X in the novel. More new plot developments in Chapter 3 required additional adjustments to Chapters 1 and 2. In Chapter 8, I realized that if there was going to be a smoking gun, I’d need to go way back near the beginning and hang that sucker on the wall. And if Character Y was going to fire said gun, I’d need to go back again and give her some precedent behaviour that would make her delivering the shot believable.

If I ever did write 1,000 new words in one day, the next day I’d end up revising them instead of writing another thousand, which would drop my average to 500 words per day. Two days later I’d be down around 250. Although the writing went more quickly as I neared the end of that novel, by the time the first draft was done, months and months had passed.

Done, but not Done

And still I wasn’t finished with the damned thing. In fact, it was at that point that Fail 4 announced itself as I realized that the final shape and potential of the novel had only really begun to suggest itself when the first full draft was down on paper. Themes had started to emerge that needed to be developed. Certain characters required additional depth and vibrancy. Some scenes went on too long and had to be trimmed; others needed to be expanded.

It was clear that I basically had to go back and rewrite the entire novel from the beginning—jettisoning some of the precious pages (and even whole chapters) over which I had earlier sweated bullets.

That novel took me a couple of years. By the time The Woman Upstairs had been accepted for publication (and, in the meantime, several short stories had been published, too), I figured I had learned enough about writing that the next time, I would be able to do a short story in six days, and a novel in six weeks.

But it didn’t happen that time either. In fact, the next novel that was published took me longer than the first. And the more I learned about what a short story could do if you really pushed yourself and made it the best that it could be, the longer it took me to write one of those as well.

I was growing so discouraged at my track record that I despaired of ever becoming a real writer. The real writers I had read about always seemed to write 1,000 words before breakfast and another 1,000 before lunch. I was proving to be a snail in the marathon of novel-writing. At the rate I was going, I’d probably never get more than a dozen novels written in my lifetime.

Why, I asked myself, did I seem to be incapable of simply letting go of what I wrote? Why did every sentence need to “sound right” to me before I could move on? Why did I need to hear music in each sentence, feel breath in every paragraph and chapter, find a coherent reality in the book as a whole before I could even show it to another person? Once the book was accepted, I’d just have to do more revisions anyway. Time was a-wasting here.

The Light Comes On

It was in finding the answers to my own questions that I began to learn about myself as a writer. In examining how I worked, I realized that I did all the revisions because I liked to do them. In fact, I loved to do them. Revision—getting everything just right, or at least as “right” as I could make it—was much more satisfying, deep and meaningful to me than writing a quick first draft could ever be. Most of the time, in fact, the first-draft part was total hell.

I realized that to me, writing was revision. I realized that for me, the first draft was just throwing down the clay that I’d then work with.

Everything I’ve done ever since has underscored the truth of this realization. I am Mary the Reviser: this is how I work.

Ironically, since I have learned this about myself, I can now get first drafts down as fast as my fingers can move across the keys. I write first drafts quickly now because I no longer worry about them: I know that before anyone else sees them, every sentence is going to be reworked and reworked, and that whole chunks are likely to disappear completely. For me, the important thing about the first-draft stage is just to get the ideas down on paper before I lose them: to make sure the clay I will be working with is at least somewhere close to the right colour and consistency. The form and detail will come later.

Now I know that when I start a novel, it is probably going to be three years before it’s finished, and that a short story will take at least a month—or several, if you count the parts where you need to put it away to let it rise like bread dough before you punch it down again.

By learning that for me, in writing, the pleasure is in the process, I have been freed from the tyranny of numbers and quotas. The end product is just a side benefit. I know that I would rather write one novel that sings (at least to me) from end to end than write 95 that consist of words strung over plots like carelessly tossed sheets on clothes racks. (Which is not to say that I do not strive at times to make my carefully edited text look like I’ve just tossed it.)

There are no fails in my approach to writing now. While there is no denying that to complete a project–whether it’s this blog post, or a novel—is satisfying, and a relief—the joy is in the work itself. The realization that what I love the most is digging has given the words “treasure” and “reward” new meaning.

Subsequent kudos from others and offers of publications become mere affirmations of what I already know: that I have done the best that I can do. I have given my work the respect it deserves. I have worked it until it is done, and I have seen that it is good.