“Don’t get it right, get it written.” James Thurber’s words are sage advice to any novelist struggling through a first draft, stopping every sentence or two to tweak what they’ve just typed. Yet like a life lesson from a parent that the child doesn’t follow until they’ve already made a mistake, it’s difficult advice for many beginning writers, particularly students, to follow. We write self-consciously, fighting the urge to revise each letter that we press down on the keyboard, as though an editor is reading over our shoulders, squawking mistakes into our ears like a parrot asking for crackers.
|I'll tell you what I'm not doing with my life: Making progress.|
Why the sluggish pace toward the finish line? For some, revise as you write is simply the method that works best for them, a process they have adapted to over the years and one that they can use while still making good progress. But the rest of us, staring at the computer, averaging about seven words a day, often have no trouble pounding out a term paper in the course of one long, caffeine-fueled night. We may regret every moment of the process, cursing ourselves for our procrastination and cursing the entire family lineage of the professor who gave the assignment, but nonetheless, we get it done. What makes a novel such a different beast?
The first draft of a novel is unlike any other work a student will be assigned. Most creative writing classes don’t focus on reading novels, or teach how to plow through writing them. As Cathy Day discusses in her article “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis,” students are taught to write short, standalone texts:
“Why is this so? Simply: the short story is a more manageable form, both for the instructor and the student, and I have been both. For the writer who teaches a full load of courses and is always mindful of balancing “prep” time with writing time, it’s easier to teach short stories than novels, and it’s easier to annotate and critique a work-in-progress that is 10 pages long as opposed to a story that is 300 pages long. It’s advantageous for students, too. Within the limited time frame of a semester, they gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with writing, submitting for discussion, revising, and perhaps even finishing (or publishing!) a short story.”
The classroom setting not only often avoids teaching novels, but can also discourage writing them through the workshop set-up:
“But I am saying that I think a lot of what comes out of creative writing programs are stories that could be or want to be novels, but the academic fiction workshop is not fertile ground for those story seeds. The seeds don’t grow. They are (sometimes) actively and (more likely) passively discouraged from growing. The rhythm of school, the quarter or semester, is conducive to the writing of small things, not big things, and I don’t think we (“we” meaning the thousands of writers currently employed to teach fiction writing in this country) try hard enough to think beyond that rhythm because, for many of us, it’s the only rhythm we know. We need to teach students how to move from “story” to “book,” because the book is (for now, at least) the primary unit of intellectual production.”
For this reason, Cathy Day structured her Advanced Fiction class around the production of the first draft of a novel, assigning novels to the reading list to give her students an idea of how to structure their own, and setting a requirement of 3,333 new words each week. For some, the words have flown freely from the keyboard. But others, accustomed to the write, revise, write, revise method employed in most creative writing classes, have found their wheels spinning in the mud, their novels inching forward.
How do we keep ourselves from revising? No first draft is perfect, and how can we stand to stare at our work, with all its mistakes, and convince ourselves to keep going rather than to work backward?
Don’t reread your work, for a start. Looking at your first draft, beyond a cursory skim to see where you last left off, is asking to have each little flaw on the pages highlighted in your mind. For this reason, it’s important to have a detailed storyboard of your work, so that you know where you have been without rereading. This is also helpful to the process of moving forward because you’ll know where you are going next. If your writing program features a spell check, turn it off for the time being. Listen to fast-paced or inspirational music as you write. If a scene is so unbearably bad that you can’t stand to look at it without revising, start a new one. If a scene is too boring, either move ahead or force something to happen within the scene, even if you aren’t yet sure how this new, unexpected event will fit into the plot. And if you show your early work to others, make it clear that you aren’t asking what you should change or what you’ve done wrong. You simply want to know if they can tell what drives your characters or where the plot is headed.
Of course, avoiding all revision, however minor, is impossible. We authors are our own worst critics, and we will always feel compelled to fiddle with the words we’ve written. Revision isn’t a bad thing, even at the start of the writing process, provided it does not become so extensive as to overwhelm any progress in the writing. It’s fine to alter a word choice here or there, but don’t do it with each sentence of your first draft. And save the major revisions—reordering scenes, altering settings, introducing or removing characters from a chapter—until your first draft is completed. It may not be a work of art, but it’s much easier to sculpt a whole block of wood into a thing of beauty than it is to try the same process on a few twigs.