I’m trying to put my focus back into writing starting this week, and one aspect of that is to revisit my dormant fantasy novel which I have been thinking about a lot these past couple of months. I still think the book as potential and I like the story it has to tell, but having written significant chunks of it around 2 years ago, I know it will require plenty of work.
Conventional writing wisdom suggests that rewriting comes after completion of the first draft. The primary goal in the first attempt is to just get the words of the story out of your mind, out of your system and onto the page. Anne Lamott, who wrote the popular writing book Bird by Bird, discussed at length the unavoidable ‘shitty first drafts’ even excellent and seasoned writers churn out on a regular basis.
The idea is that if you worry and procrastinate over every paragraph, sentence or word, you’ll never generate any momentum and it will take you much longer to finish the story. And often it’s when you are in that ‘zone’ of pumping out a copious amount of words at a frenetic pace that some of your best writing is generated (though it has to be ‘unearthed’ from all the crappy stuff).
However, although I am not even at the halfway line of the first draft of my fantasy epic (around 150,000 words), I’m highly tempted at the moment to go back to the beginning and rewrite a few of the first chapters. One of the main reasons is that I realised my beginning lacked a serious punch. After an action-packed prologue, I started with the usual boring ‘fantasy world introduction’ chapter where I introduced the characters and the world in which they lived in a methodical fashion. It occurred to me that it would have made a lot more sense to start in the middle of the action, beginning with the final of a tournament in which the protagonist is involved in. In the current version, the tournament was already over by the time the story began.
But would rewriting before I’ve even finished the first draft be a waste of time? What if I later change my mind and come up with a better intro? What if later on I decide to change characters or events?
I read in an interview with Philip Pullman (author of the His Dark Materials trilogy) that he doesn’t have a particular method when it comes to writing and rewriting. Sometimes he waits until the end and sometimes he does it as he goes along.
In Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing (my review and summary here), he says that first drafts should be completed within 3 months, which is pretty much supernatural for most people out there, but even for him, this essentially means no rewriting until the first draft has been completed. King also recommended putting the draft aside for a while before coming back to it with fresh eyes. That said, King might be an anomaly because he seems to churn out pretty decent first drafts. I say this because he suggests that a second draft should tighten a first draft by 10% and that he usually only does two drafts and a polish for a novel.
Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, said in an interview that he did literally 150-200 drafts of the first 90 pages just to get it right. Can you imagine that? I did about 5 or 6 drafts of the first chapter of my Masters writing project and I found it to be brutal already.
In the end, my gut tells me that I should just do whatever I feel like, whether it’s keep going or go back to the beginning. It’s been so long that anything is better than nothing.