The Perverse Life of a Novelist

The first time you get to experience something is so sweet. You feel exalted the first time you see a movie you love, like Groundhog Day, you see a play you love, like Hamilton, you see a show you love, like Magic Mike Live in Las Vegas, you read a book you love, like Rebecca. There’s revelation, discovery, delight. There is joy, even if Hamilton or Magic Mike Live makes you weep. There is joy in your weeping.

And if you love something, you might see it again, perhaps even more than once. If you are like me, it’s Groundhog Day once a year since 1991. Hamilton ten times in one year. Magic Mike Live three times in one three-day weekend. But it will never be the same as your first time.

That’s true for almost everything in life, from a first kiss to a first apartment. There is one glaring exception: the first time you read a novel that you have written.

When you are a novelist, you agonize; you sweat and suffer over every word in your first draft. You make it as good as you can. When it’s finished—finally!—you print it out, sit in your favorite chair with your favorite pink pen, and, full of anticipation, dig into your own work.

Do you know what you find?

Behold, it’s terrible.

You beg forgiveness from yourself. I know not what I do, you say. I’m new at this. It’s only my thirteenth work of fiction. I’ve only been doing it for twenty-four years.

You’re not being humble. You’re not fishing for compliments. It won’t even pass your generously low bar for your own work. It’s underwritten, it’s overwritten, it has too few words, it has too many. It has too many of the wrong kinds of words. Would that your characters rose even to a single dimension. The sketches on your pages are flat, the jokes even flatter. There are no transitions. People die, fall in love, go to war, vanish for reasons even you who wrote the dang thing can’t discern. There is setup and no payoff, or payoff and no setup. You’re driven to flagrant melodrama. You destroy every good word you’ve written by trumpets of endless, ceaseless, unending, unrelenting adjectives.

Occasionally there is a glimpse of a flower, maybe a delicious phrase. Not enough to sustain a 600-page novel (which is somehow both too long and too short). The plot holes are worse than the pot holes on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The dialogue is tin-eared, and there is too much of it. That’s a good way to describe the entirety of your first draft. There is too much of the wrong things and not nearly enough of the right ones.

So there you are. And you thought you had been working! After a year of battling, researching, eking out a book page by page, paragraph by paragraph, word by painful word, after a year of pacing and mumbling to yourself like a crazy person, you’ve read your opus and it sucks.

That’s when the real work begins. You revise and revise and revise, every scene a fresh hell. You read each word, each sentence for sense and for beauty, you fill in the gaps, move things around, cut and paste, cut the idiocy. You mull and ponder, you tinker and type, one revision, three, then twenty-five. You work at a breathtaking pace of four pages an hour. That’s your best time. At your worst, it takes you five hours to put together a single paragraph on the Grand Canyon. You still remember hoThe Perverse Life of a Novelistw long it took because the paragraph was only a hundred words. Three minutes a word. One hundred and eighty seconds a word. At that speed-demon rate, one novel would take you a lifetime.

Amid pangs of frustration, you lament that you could write all new material faster than you can revise the old. A whole new first draft. You cut passages, half scenes, whole scenes. Characters you lovingly crafted go the way of the dodo. Always you add new words, words that now become first-draft words and need to be reworked another seventeen times before you can show it even to the man who loves you most.

So that’s it. You yourself as the creator never get to experience your own work at its best. You get to experience it only at its worst. You see it only as a chrysalis struggling to fly. You learn to love what you write, but it’s never love at first sight. It’s barely love at twentieth sight. By the time you’ve handed it over to your editor and revised it for her again and again, by the time you’ve copy edited it and proofread it and proofread it again to get it ready for publication, it has become your least favorite thing in the world. You want to take it in the back and shoot it. You want to break up with it. You want to abandon it. You want to run from it screaming.

But once in a while, even your poorly chosen words make you weep. Sometimes they make you laugh. Often they enrage you and frighten you and confound you. That’s the best you hope for. It’s what you look for in all the things you love to see and read—in Groundhog Day, Hamilton, Magic Mike Live, Rebecca—and what you seek in your own words. That one way or another, struggling toward an ideal you may never find, the thing you behold will make you feel.

Make you feel alive.