Six impossible things


Listening to NPR the day after Thanksgiving, I heard a story about an archive of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s manuscripts. “They are covered with handwritten corrections!” the archivist enthused, to which the interviewer responded, “The idea that he corrected himself just blows me away.”

Which response rather blew me away. Did he think all those great books just happened without being worked on? What does he think writers do? You write a bit, and it’s not quite right, so you fiddle with it and change a word here and a phrase there and relocate a paragraph or a scene and put it back and fiddle with things some more. Sometimes you cut a bit; sometimes you add a bit. And then you come back next day and do it all again. Oscar Wilde was only partly joking when he claimed to have spent the entire morning inserting a comma, and the entire afternoon taking it out. It’s not as if we’re all taking dictation from some supernatural entity that’s just making use of our typing skills.

Writing is made up of an immense number of critical decisions that are never…quite…decided for sure. Some are huge – which of the three possible romantic partners does the main character choose? Will the protagonist accept the throne or the offered promotion, or go off in search of a more fulfilling personal life? Others appear smaller – should that minor character be Andrew, Andres, or Anthony? Is “barricade” or “barrier” the right word in this sentence? Should the scene with the goldfish happen before the one with the seagull attack, or after?

One has to decide these things, or one cannot make much forward progress. One can only get so far by peppering a manuscript with square brackets and question marks to check or change later: “[UnnamedVillain [loomed/leaned threateningly over Anthony? as the [barricade/barrier/thingie began [continued? Check continuity] to collapse” is more notes than draft.

On the other hand, quite often “Geoffrey loomed threateningly over Andres as the seagulls stormed the barricade behind them” only looks as if it is more certain than the first version. Even before word processors, every writer knew perfectly well that it would only take a few minutes to retype the page and make it “Jennifer snuck up behind Anthony as the walrus knocked over the police cordon in front of them.”

Very, very occasionally, there is an obviously “right” thing to do: using “to whom” instead of “to who,” for instance. Far more often, it is entirely non-obvious whether the villain should be a Geoffrey or a Jennifer, whether the threatened character is better Andres than Anthony or Andrew (or maybe Amy), whether the seagulls or the walrus would come to the rescue first. There is no universally “right” answer most of the time; which version works better is a matter of personal taste and preference, authorial style, and the needs of the story the author is telling. (OK, the one with all the square brackets is pretty obviously not-right for pretty much any story, until somebody makes some of those decisions and removes all the brackets, but either of the other two would be fine in the right sort of story.)

Because there is no universally right answer, the author is left with the nagging feeling that whatever choices he or she made, they may very possibly be wrong…or at least, that there was a better or more effective way of handling the sentence, scene, plot twist, or bit of character development. Some writers react to this uncertainty by constantly changing their work, right up to the minute it gets sent off to an editor (and I am given to understand that there are now self-published e-books that the author continues to update and “improve” for months or years after their official publication).

Other writers react by making a decision early on and treating it as unchangeable. These folks are the bane of critique groups; you point out that seagulls can fly, so they wouldn’t need to storm the barricade, and the writer just stares and says, “This is how it happened. I can’t change it now.” Sometimes, they’re just being stubborn; frequently, though, they’ve convinced themselves that whatever they’ve written “feels right” and they’re genuinely uncomfortable with any change, necessary or not.

All this is complicated by the fact that either kind of writer can be quite correct in their judgments…or totally wrongheaded. Sometimes both in the same book. Plus there’s the process factor: some writers do lots of small rewrites as a normal part of their process; some prefer to mull things over for days or weeks before committing a chapter to pixels or paper, so that it’s close to being right the first time.

The main thing for writers to keep in mind is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. There also isn’t a perfect solution. No manuscript is ever perfect – not the first draft, and not the final draft. Writers need both flexibility and steadfastness: a willingness to change course when the story demands it and the firmness of purpose to resist the temptation to wander off course when the story doesn’t demand it. And, of course, the intuition and intelligence to tell the difference.

  1. I’m still working on my first book, and if it wasn’t for word processors, each page would be a solid black and red block of ink with a note stuck on it saying “rewrite this!”

  2. There comes a point where you have to put a project aside, call it “done” and stop fiddling with it. However, even with those projects, I’ll open them up years later and see things I would change. I think it’s just part of being a writer!

  3. Oh my goodness, yes. I’ve used college-ruled binder paper for first drafts since I don’t know when, and whenever I thought of other bits to put in (which was constantly) I’d write them in the margins or on a separate sheet and link them to the places where they go by tagging them with Greek letters. Then it’d go onto the computer, and be printed out, and then I’d start annotating *those.*

    Currently my computer is borked — it was attacked by what turns out to be called “ransomware.” “We’ve encrypted all your text files, and if you send us $300 we’ll send you the key.” (Maybe.) Not only that, the text editor doesn’t work either, and Hal has had to remove it and some one of these days he’ll take the time to figure out what happened and re-install it. In the meantime, the long-suffering WIP exists only in a pile of printouts and some notes on scratch paper (check deposit slips, etc., written when an idea suddenly struck me at church, where they frequently do).

    (Yes, I have backups, but not recent ones. The printouts and scraps are essentially all I have of that particular piece; and there’s no point in putting them back on the computer until I have a text editor!)

    My first reaction was “Oh, the hell with it.” Now I’m beginning to think I’ll have to sort out the printouts, write the scraps of notes on pages, put the lot into a 3-ring binder, and start revising some more. I suspect I’ll have to do different generations of revisions in different-colored ink. This should be interesting.

    I just read off your first paragraph to Hal, and he laughed, and then I told him about Jane Austen’s word-processor, a set of thin strips of ivory fastened together at one edge like a fan. A sentence or two could be written on each strip, and then rearranged till the shape of the paragraph suited her.

  4. Once upon a time, I was sitting in the hotel lobby where a con was being held, waiting for my sister, whom I had driven with. I used the time to scribble longhand revisions on my manuscript.

    A friend of hers came over, and when I said I was waiting for her, he waited too.

    Then we went out for lunch before driving home, and her friend was telling my sister about how I went scribble, scribble, scribble down the page. My sister’s attitude was — they do that, you know.

  5. So true. I never know what people mean when they say “I’ve finished the first draft.” By the time I get to the end of a novel the first and middle parts have been changed, revised, rewritten so many times… Is this a first draft? Well, it’s the first draft of the last bit, sort of, because there have been fewer changes on that part. I write like rolling out pizza dough, starting from a thick bit and rolling out to the edges, returning to the middle and rolling it out thinner and—I hope—finer.

  6. On reflection, I must observe that changing something you choose can indeed be difficult. Not only is it what happened, other decisions often spring from it. Rooting it out can be hard. Indeed, it’s notorious how some works have issues about things not properly rooted out.

    But — reflection can be good, only if it doesn’t stymie ever writing.

  7. David Gerrold’s book about writing The Trouble with Tribbles. He talks about how script revisions have a sequence of paper colours and he had gotten to colours that no-one had seen before.
    If you don’t revise, your end product comes out like James Joyce or John Lennon.

    • Well, a script of course has to be reviewed by many different people, sometimes even including the actors. My drafts are For My Eyes Only, and when I’ve inputted the latest round of revisions I take the old set and _shred them._ Otherwise I’d get so confused I’d never get anywhere.

  8. I don’t know as it’s so much a matter of “convincing” oneself. I know a lot of writers get decision-paralysis because choosing any one option means abandoning all the other options, but for me, it’s more a matter of uncovering the One True Story (for that story; any other stories can just wait their turn) and getting that down as accurately as possible. Sure, I’ll waffle about a word choice or a sentence structure here and there, but it’s perfectly obvious that it’s Jennifer threatening Andres as the seagulls storm the barricade, and if seagulls can fly, that just means they’ll have to dive-bomb the barricade. It isn’t a decision, stubborn or otherwise; it just is.

    For me, anyway. Your mileage will almost certainly vary wildly.

    (Not that there aren’t revisions. “Done” is a very interesting word, when applied to novels. But for me, they’re always about uncovering that One True Story more completely, not about changing decisions.)

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