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There’s No Such Thing as Good Writing

14 June 2013

From The Atlantic:

Craig Nova, author of All the Dead Yale Men, is a manic rewriter. He showed me a picture of what he calls his “slag heap”—a huge stack of manuscript pages, piled several feet high, that accumulated as he wrote his latest book. Nova does not merely tinker with word choice the way some editors do; instead, he writes again from scratch. Sometimes he’ll approach a first draft in radical new ways, adopting new points of view—even trying again in different genres—to learn more about a character or scene. Directly contradicting the “first thought, best thought” code of spontaneity espoused by the Beats, Nova feels his work’s not done until he explores each scene or section from every possible angle.

. . . .

Craig Nova: All happy writers are the same, but each hardworking writer has a train wreck that is perfectly fitted to the task at hand. After all, as every novelist knows, writing a book is a collision between what one wants and what one gets.

My version of this started the moment I read a line by Robert Graves, who said that there is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.

. . . .

I found this to be doubly true, if this is ontologically possible, when I combined it with a comment from F.R. Leavis, or I think this is who it was, in an essay called “Technique as Discovery.” This essay made the point that if you changed the form of what you wrote from, say, drama to poetry, you would discover something about your subject you didn’t know before.

It occurred to me that if this worked when you moved from one form to another, then the same thing should happen when you changed the basic elements of a novel.

Take point of view, for example. Let’s say you are writing a scene in which a man and a woman are breaking up. They are doing this while they are having breakfast in their apartment. But the scene doesn’t work. It is dull and flat.

So, applying the two notions mentioned above the solution would be to change point of view. That is, if it is told from the man’s point of view, change it to the woman’s, and if that doesn’t work, tell it from the point of view of the neighborhood, who is listening through the wall in the apartment next door, and if that doesn’t work have this neighbor tell the story of the break up, as he hears it, to his girlfriend. And if that doesn’t work tell it from the point of view of a burglar who is in the apartment, and who hid in a closet in the kitchen when the man and woman who are breaking up came in and started arguing.

. . . .

I think the basic belief behind this way of writing a novel is that the entire business is one long discovery, and no one, or no novelist I know, sits down one morning, the complete book in mind, and types it straight off. At least, with the writers I know it is one long slog through the most trying parts of the imagination and memory.

I would like to add one warning here. Or make that two. You do come to the point of diminishing returns, and at that point it is time to stop. You have what you are going to have, and that’s that. After a certain point, the novel will get worse the more you write.

The other warning has to do with mood. When I have worked and have the feeling that I have just produced something that makes me feel like saying, “All right Ford Madox Ford, take that. You’re toast,” this is a sure sign that I have written something so ghastly as to defy description. The best work seems to come when I am mildly depressed and have the smallest ambition. I will look at a sentence from the day before and think I can do something with it. Maybe. Just maybe. With a lot of luck.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to Barron for the tip.

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20 Comments to “There’s No Such Thing as Good Writing”

  1. Ugh. Just write the &^%$#@! thing.

  2. “Nova feels his work’s not done until he explores each scene or section from every possible angle.”

    Every possible angle?
    Reminds me of Buzz Lightyear, “To infinity…and beyond.”


  3. So… in what decade will his next book be out? o_O


    • Amazon bio page says 12 novels so far. Nova must already be about a thousand years old.


      • Or maybe he’s a full-time writer? Eight hours a day, five days a week, rewriting every scene from every character’s POV, in every tense, every style, plus versions in screenplay form and poetry… that’d be a novel every year or two, right? 🙂


  4. I used to be disgusted. Now I’m just Amused.

  5. Overthink much?

  6. There’s truth in what he says, but there’s also a time to stop.

    Consider this: you can improve as a writer by writing six books in two drafts or one book in 12 drafts. The only difference is that with one you’ll have five more books.

    And nobody will know the difference.

    Q: What do you call a “writer’s writer?”
    A: Who?

    • I suspect you’ll improve far more by writing six books than two, because in the latter case you’re just running over the same ground again and again. Often the only way to fix an early novel is to throw it away and start again, not by continual tweaking.

  7. Sounds like a writer without a clear vision of his story. There are a few times when I change up POV or such to gain new insight, but basically (since I know exactly what I want from the start) I just affix butt to chair and write.

  8. Because I’m an underwriter, I’m constantly editing my work as I write. I write mostly dialogue and have to layer in everything else. If the plot changes as I write, I go back and change everything up to that point. Must be the former accountant in me. By the time I finish the first draft, it’s pretty close to the final draft. I do find his suggestion about changing POV in a problem scene to be interesting. I’m going to try that.

    But I’m not writing with an emphasis on style. Because I write comedy, my emphasis is on finding the humor and nailing the punch-line. Different strokes, folks.

  9. I think Robert A Heinlein would have disagreed. From his ‘5 Rules of Writing’ here is number 3:
    Refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

  10. Is he a discovery writer or a transcriber/describer? By which i mean…does he only think about the work while writing, or think it through first them write out/describe what he thought? Bc i may go through a scene half a dozen times in my head for “discovery” – but i dont write it more than once unless the first time just did not work. And that is maybe 1-2 scenes per work. While i appreciate hos thoroughness, this just sounds exhausting to do on paper vs in my head before i start.

  11. This is the stuff that keeps Creative Writing teachers employed. It’s as pointless as “show, don’t tell”. We are story-TELLERS after all (nod to Lee Child there).
    Rather, Heinlein’s Rules apply – write-edit-sell. And implicitly, learn from that and apply the next time.

  12. Maybe this author should use all those alternate scenes in a “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” way.

  13. Reading about his process and then learning that he has 12 novels under his belt, I thought, wow, he’s he must type really fast.
    This process sounds as an interesting approach, but it’s not something that would work for me, even if I was tempted to try it (which I’m not); most of my stories are character driven and only follow one POV.

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