Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne
Writing a novel is not a simple matter of writing a single draft, or even a second or a third. The first draft is merely the end of the beginning. In fact, once you have properly written your first readable novel, you will realize that the draft which you once thought was the final draft was just the beginning of the end of your draft writing. Some new writers will tell you that once they have finished their first or second draft they now understand the meaning of that famous phrase, ‘writing is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration’. But they would be ill-advised to say so at this point. It is only after they have managed ten or fifteen drafts of their story and done so for six or seven novels that they will truly understand the meaning behind the phrase.
During the early years of learning my craft, I’d often swear blind to myself that a particular novel couldn’t possibly need another draft and that it was as good as it was ever going to be. But months on, I’d discover to my horror that the same novel was full of weaknesses and would need another whole draft to make it perfect again. I’ve done fifteen drafts for a novel, and still it ended up not being enough, especially if I’d taken a six month break since the previous draft.
How could I have been so wrong in my estimation? I’d ask myself at those times, while my morale would slump and I’d start to believe in conspiracy theories. Was a gremlin living inside my computer and deliberately tinkering with my manuscript? It certainly seemed so, because I just found it so hard to believe that I’d got it so wrong and that the story really did need another draft. And yet this might happen again and again with the same story over a period of years. Working toward a well-polished novel seemed like the equivalent of trying to write my name in water with my fingertip, while expecting it to appear like ink in an exercise book.
Back then, it hadn’t always occurred to me that I was actually on a learning curve, and it was because I was constantly improving that I was able to see the weaknesses in the manuscript several months after the fact. But even if I had been fully aware of developments in my own learning curve, I still felt that the overwhelming slog of rewriting was slowly crushing my spirit.
Then, one day, I was struck by an epiphany. I had been seeing this whole matter of rewriting from the wrong end of the spectrum. Now I began to view it in a philosophical light.
If you think about it, you will see that life itself gives us just one go, one draft. If we get it wrong the first time out, well tough! Life is a learning curve but most of us find ourselves behind the curve most of the time, desperately trying to catch up. Living is tricky. Often things to be worked through and resolved in our lives seem quite abstract and difficult to comprehend: love, relationships, desires, and so on. Sometimes, it may seem that trying to understand and resolve life’s problems is like trying to write our name in water with our fingertip, while expecting it to appear like ink in an exercise book.
But imagine if we were allowed not just a second go, but a third and a fourth and a fifth go at life. Imagine if we could get right up there with that learning curve and never let it get ahead of us again. Imagine if we were allowed to go through life as many times as necessary in order to end up with a well-polished version of it.
Of course, we cannot do this with life itself because it is not a Hollywood film; and we cannot do this with most parts of life; but we can do it with our writing.
The story shows us all that we are and all that we desire to be. In other words, it offers us a reflection, often an uncannily accurate one, of our human condition. For this reason, if for no other, the story is very important to our culture. To write a good and readable novel is very hard to do and is a high cultural achievement in our society; and in theory, at least, there is nothing to stop a person from both attempting and achieving it. It is something many people claim they want to do, but so many of these never reach their objectives. But the true writer will always strive to master his art on the instinctive understanding that this thing of high cultural value might be the only important thing in his life that he is given the chance of working on over and over until he gets it right.
Now that’s quite a statement to make if you really think about it. And there is more than a touch of irony hidden away in it, too.
If we believe in ourselves, if we think our work is worth developing, that it contributes something to the total sum of our lives, then we as writers will give our all to bring it to fruition. And while doing so, we shouldn’t moan about the perspiration of rewriting, but give thanks for the fact that we can go on rewriting to improve our story. Having a second and a third and a twentieth chance at getting it right is stark evidence of how lucky we are, not how unlucky we are. Writing is one of the few things on our life’s journey where we are allowed to make as many mistakes as necessary in our attempt to accomplish something of value.
The next time you find yourself in the trenches with your manuscript, pulling out your hair and wondering if the rewriting will ever come to an end, give yourself pause for thought on this point.
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