Richard Powers wrote most of his newest novel in bed, using voice recognition software. Junot Diaz writes in the bathroom, sitting on the edge of the tub. To write “Lowboy,” John Wray wrote for up to six hours a day sitting in subway cars. The Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Journal recently reported on 11 well-known authors about how they create, and—surprise—none of them merely sit at a computer and type away. (See the article here.) Many of the 11 initially write in longhand, or on notecards, before they transfer the work to the computer.
The one thing writers like Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro and the others do have in common is that they revise what they’ve written—not just revise in the sense that most writers consider the term, where they write a draft and go over it a couple of times—but over and over. Orhan Pamuk says he writes the first line of his books 50 to 100 times. Others, like Diaz and Ishiguro cut and rewrite hundreds of pages. That’s rather amazing, considering what fabulous writers they are.
Not every writer, especially those new at the craft, believes this approach is necessary. I admit, I sure didn’t when I first started writing regularly. But as I practiced more, and took more time with my work, that changed drastically. In a novel I completed back in May, the first chapter took ten versions, and that’s not even counting the at least dozen additional rewrites that I didn’t bother to save as new versions. On average, I would say I revised each of the 17 chapters about 10-15 times.
The revising helps. With each version the continuity of what I am writing becomes stronger, the characterization deeper and clearer. The language is improved as well. My early drafts tend to be a bit wordy, so this is especially important for me.
Someone once said writing is revising, and whether you like to do it or not, it’s true. I haven’t gone so far as to grab a copy of a story and sit on the edge of the tub to edit it, but if it works for Junot Diaz, well, maybe it’s worth a try.