When I was in grad school, a teacher told our workshop that if a published novel is 300 pages, the writer had to generate 1,200 along the way. I didn't buy it. Maybe it took this teacher 1,200 pages to find the right 300, but I would never have to produce such excess. I'd maybe need, say, 307. Then I'd move some commas around, get all thesaurus-y with the adjectives, maybe test-drive a new font. But 1,200 to end up with 300?
No way. Not me.
Now that I've published five novels, I know that she was spot on. But what I would have never been able to predict about my process was the importance of the 900 pages that an end-reader will never see. They aren't wasted. They are vital, just as important as the 300 that are bound and placed on the shelf.
Really, novelists are writing two books simultaneously.
The first book is that 1,200-page draft, though it's probably never actually 1,200 pages at once, but parceled out from remix to remix. This all-seeing draft is bulbous and overwritten, with nonessential scenes and flights of exposition that tell the reader too much, leaving no space for the reader to put the pieces together for herself. This draft will have entire mythologies, backstories rendered in such minutia that the writer will even bore herself on subsequent readings, and she wrote the damn thing.
We can call this book Authorial Research, a thorough, often painstaking, often unreadable beast best never shown to anyone else, even our spouses and/or lovers, who may say it has "potential," but they're lying.
At the same time, however, from these 1,200 pages, we are making determinations, weighing the contribution of certain chapters and scenes, homing in on the protagonist(s), their wants and desires, obstacles in their path, emotional and existential trajectories, opportunities for change. We are deciding which chapters and scenes solely belong to Authorial Research and which ones we deem essential to the other book, the one we hope to publish, our Perfect Artifact.
It's never perfect, of course, but this is the way we must think about it, with an impassioned, dedicated, maybe delusional eye, seeing merit in the work way before there's any on the page. We have to be our own advocate, not just writing when we feel inspired, when the muse drunk-dials us and spills the good stuff. No, we need to put our butts in the chair consistently. No one is responsible for helping us find the time to write. No one will ever value our art like we do. It's our art; it's our onus. Brew more coffee. Kiss the kids. Get back to work.
And be ready to be a bit confused by the revision process.
And be okay with that confusion.
Revising a novel is like living in an M. C. Escher painting. We walk down a staircase, only to end up at the top again. One door leads to another, leads you back to where you started. The revision process can be so frustrating that a lot of people abandon their books — books that have the potential to be amazing if only the author had stuck with it. So how can we evade this pitfall? How can we be non-abandoners?
The first thing about remixing a novel is managing your expectations. We'd all like to write like Toni Morrison right from the jump, but it doesn't work that way. Even Toni Morrison doesn't write like Toni Morrison at first. A rough draft is merely the raw materials, and from these crude supplies we'll sculpt art, page by page, phrase by phrase.
Nothing will frustrate you more than expecting the book to be good too quickly, and once you get discouraged, you won't work on it as often. In fact, you'll find anything else to do. I know when I'm really struggling writing a new novel when my bathroom is spotless.
It's on us to find ways to keep our morale up during the multiyear process of revising a novel, and realistic expectations are the foundation from which we work. We need expectations that are high enough to keep us motivated, pushing ourselves to be the best artists we can, yet never ones that are so lofty that we feel like shit. Otherwise, why would you write draft 4 if you hate the experience of composing draft 3? And what about draft 9 giving you the finger on the horizon?
If we, however, are able to resist comparing our nascent drafts to Toni Morrison, we can dig in and start the hard work of finding our stories. They are in there, in the maw of that awful rough draft. We have to dive in our Escher paintings and find them.
So how do we do that? I've heard from many students that the revision process is too arcane, too encoded. "What should they do?" they ask in panicked emails. "Start on page one and fix every flaw along the way?"
For one, stop looking for THE ANSWER. There isn't one. There are many. You have to find the revision process that works for you. Don't just do what Denis Johnson or Stephen King or Amy Hempel champion for their own work.
No, you are on the hunt for what works for you and have to find a process that jibes with your particular programming. I'm not smart enough to fix 187 problems at once, but I can wrap my limited faculties around solving one or two narrative dilemmas. So that's what I do, focusing on a subset of issues on a draft-by-draft basis. One draft, I'll only concern myself with POV. Another: psychology from my primary players. Maybe draft 6 is a plot draft, in which I'm paring things back, making the manuscript greyhound lean, knowing that there are other concerns that need my attention, and I'll certainly get to them, but not right now. No, it's plot, only external action, creating a taut, furiously readable story.
By sequestering various craft elements like this, it allows me to focus my attention. That's my ANSWER. It may or may not help you. But you should at least try it. Be promiscuous. Try every technique until you find what brings out the best in your art.
It's important to remember that your writing and revision process don't have to make sense to anyone except you. Do you write in the shower at three in the morning? Do you dictate chunks of material to Siri while sitting in the Laundromat? (I did this, after my daughter was born, the Laundromat my only sanctuary.) Do you shirk conventional wisdom that says "try and write every day" and only scribble biweekly?
That's fine. Anything is fine, so long as it works. You are not Toni Morrison, and I'm glad you're not. Be you. I want to read your book. I want to hear your voice.
Your imagination is as unique as your fingerprint. Always play to it as the ultimate strength on the page. It's what makes your art remarkable.