July 29th, 2017

Writing is never like a beeline. Well almost never, Isaac Asimov claimed to write single drafts, and there may be other unicorns out there; but for the rest of us, writing is a meandering journey marked by innumerable dead ends and lost paths. We meander like Billy on a mission. (My own pre-dawn excursions with Buster Wu are like that.) What that means, of course, that all the meanderings end up in the (real or virtual) trash.

Scott Turow, writing in My characters, like me, find society’s problems in the law for The Guardian, muses:

The simple truth, I’m pleased to acknowledge, is that most days writing makes me happy. Usually what’s ahead of me flashes through my mind not long after waking, igniting a triumphal fantasy: I will imagine epically, think precisely and, like an underwater swimmer with elastic lungs, breaststroke through the murk until I unseal the buried treasure chest of perfect words.

Of course, it is almost never like that. In fact, at my current stage, when I’m starting a new novel, I know that most of what I write will not appear in the finished book, since I chew my work over relentlessly like a ruminating cow. But I understand my own process. Each day inches me closer to the goal of harnessing soul and self and producing something that is, for better or worse, quintessentially me.

I keep my major—whole sentences, paragraphs, chapters—deletions in a morgue file for each work; if for no other purpose to remind myself that I have written 100,000 words in the past month. That’s how I keep score until I get to the point, like Turow, where I can sit back for a moment and reflect in the glory of publishing the 1,000 words that I didn’t delete.


  1. Jeff Hess says:

    I really like Turow’s description of the first phase of writing a novel.

    [G]etting started, seems to become harder each time. I often wish that my desk chair was equipped with a seat belt, because I lose patience and concentration quickly. I was taught by Wallace Stegner, while I was a graduate writing fellow at Stanford, that it’s imperative to write every day, to keep the machinery oiled, to give the Muse a chance to visit. The effect is a little like meditation, putting the would-be novel at the centre of my mind for a while. But there are frequent escapes. The refrigerator. The bathroom. A visit to my assistant. Finding the contours of voice and character requires a good deal of experimentation and failure. And time.

    For this reason, I make no rules about what I will write in this phase. Anything that seems like it might find its way into the novel is good enough to put on paper: a quip, an extended musing that might help define a character, the look and feeling of a place. I don’t worry about whether today’s writing follows from yesterday’s. Sequence will come later. I want to be immersed, even for nanoseconds, in the world of the novel.

    My first, yet unpublished, novel, Cold Silence, meandered in this phase for about seven years before something, who knows what, clicked and I finished the book in three months.

    Absent Son, my current project has been in this phase now for about five years and I’ve well over a million words in the morgue and about 100,000 on the brink. Still, as Walter Mosley says:

    I am, I fear, like that homeless man, likely to be defeated by my fondest dreams. Then the next day comes, and the words, and Kaliope, are waiting. I pick up where I left off, in the cool and shifting mists of morning.

    The journey continues…

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