I have heard Helen Garner speak twice and on each occasion she gave a version of the following. Quoting the psychoanalyst Marion Milner, she said:
Everything that one thinks one understands has to be understood over and over again, in its different aspects, each time with the same new shock of discovery. (The Losing Game of Writing Books to Win)
To repurpose this quote for my own ends, every time I start writing a book, I have to learn everything about how to write one again. As I laid eyes for the first time on the jacket of the last book, and sent off those final edits, I let myself believe for a second I had this game licked, hopeful idiot that I was. Reader, I did not.
A couple of weeks ago I clicked on a twitter link posted by @WomenWriters about remembering to return to your books on craft. The post mentioned Stephen King’s On Writing and his advice to keep going with your first draft without revising until it is finished. Having messed around with and dropped several ideas over the summer, I thought yes, everything I thought I understood has to be understood over and over again…
Here’s what King says about this business of getting it all down fast before you mess with it.
Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind – they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. Writing is at its best –always, always, always – when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer. I can write in cold blood if I have to, but I like best when it’s fresh and almost too hot to handle. (119)
Keep going, don’t look back, have a word target:
I believe the first draft of a book – even a long one – should take no more than three months, the length of a season…I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span…(120)
Three months! That sounds terrific! I am doing what he tells me to do, for the most part, except I set my word count at 1200 words a day and if I hit 2000 I get ice cream.
Not all writers tell you to rush through the first draft like this. I recently read a piece by André Dubus that says he needs to build a good foundation before he continues. Peter Carey calls this process ‘cantilevering’ and this is shown in fascinating detail in Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe’s Making Stories.
I’ve done both – the breathless forward tilt and the gradual edging out over the dam – and got myself to the finish line, but my second novel, written out of sheer desperation that I’d never finish anything again, I did the King way, using a competition deadline as my spur. It worked, because I didn’t give myself a choice.
So much of life is submission. With writing, exercise and anything else that feels good after you’ve done it, I’ve learned (and relearned) to crush any illusion of free will.
There are a few more lessons here to learn and relearn if I want to get this manuscript finished, so I can start the bit I love, which is fiddling with it endlessly. ‘When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story…When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story’ (37). This King got from John Gould, editor of the local newspaper on which he reported the sports news as a high school student. I like this, and I’ve given students my own versions of it, in an attempt to tell myself something important (like most teaching, no doubt). It’s very liberating if you take it the way I do, which is: It’s OK to include all this extraneous crap. You are not a terrible writer. You are just telling yourself a story that doesn’t exist yet. When it does, you won’t need this stuff. Then it has to go.
So in a couple of months’ time, if I can outrun the hideous anxiety about the rubbish I’m writing, I will have a full draft. Then I have to put it away.
How long you let your book rest – sort of like bread dough between kneadings – is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks. During this time your manuscript will be safely shut away in a desk drawer, ageing and (one hopes) mellowing. Your thoughts will turn to it frequently, and you’ll likely be tempted a dozen times or more to take it out, if only to re-read some passage that seems particularly fine in your memory…Resist temptation…you’re not ready to go back to the old project until you’ve gotten so involved in a new one (or re-involved in your day-to-day life) that you’ve almost forgotten the unreal estate that took up three hours of your every morning or afternoon for a period of three or five or seven months. (169)
Now if I’m really dedicated, I’m working up one of the other ideas I’ve been messing around with and rejecting (because I was letting this thought: Oh, this is awful, trump this one: Write anyway). After resisting the urge to open that drawer, by writing (in King’s case) a legendary novella or two, it’s time to read the original manuscript in as close to a sitting as I can. I hope to agree at this stage with the following: ‘I love this part of the process…because I’m rediscovering my own book, and usually liking it.’ (170)
Now’s when he starts to retool. ‘I’m asking myself the Big Questions. The biggest: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song?’ (171) That is the big question. So, it makes sense. Does it sing? I imagine my answer will be no. But if I’m lucky, I will be able to see what to do to make it better. That will feel good.
‘Writing is magic,’ Mr King tells me, and he would know, ‘as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.’ (219)