My children and I are studying Picasso at the moment, and I learned that he famously said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” (Everyone else in the world may well have known this already, but I’d never heard that quotation before). He wasn’t talking about novels, specifically, but nonetheless, it struck me as one of the most apt descriptions of a well-crafted novel that I’ve ever heard; the essence of what I’m trying to accomplish with every book I write. But actually, those aren’t the kind of writerly lies I wanted to talk about today, at least not directly. I’m talking about the writerly lies, white and otherwise, that we tell ourselves while we’re in the throes of the writing process.
Here’s mine, my biggest one, the lie I tell myself every single time I start a new book: Maybe this time I’ll get it right on the first try. I never do, of course. For me– and for most if not all of the other authors I know– getting the first draft of a novel perfectly sparkling and correct is impossible. Every chapter– every paragraph and sentence, even– that I write teaches me something new about my characters and the journey they’re on. Which means that no matter how much I plan and outline in advance (and I do quite a bit, and not that it’s not helpful) I don’t fully understand my characters or their journey until I’ve written them through it– sometimes all the way through it, right up to the very end.
And that means that the opening chapters of my book get written and re-written and written again as I understand more fully what the book is all about. It’s inevitable. Even the books that have come to me the most easily and the most quickly, I’ve re-written the opening chapters at least . . . I don’t know . . . I’d say a minimum of 3 times.
But I don’t let myself think about that when I’m actually writing those opening pages of my very first draft. If I did, if I let myself dwell on the fact that in all likelihood 90% of what I was writing was doomed to end up on the cutting room floor . . . I won’t say I’d never start another book again, but it would definitely be harder to sit down and take that giant first leap of putting the first words on the page. So instead I let myself believe the little white writerly lie, Maybe this time will be easier– maybe this time I’ll get it right on the first try. [Read more…]