We all know that exhilarating feeling of banging out a first draft when the ideas are flowing, the characters are talking and pages are filling of our their own volition as we put our vision into words.
There’s no better feeling: the characters interact as we’d wanted them to, those snappy lines of dialogue we’d imagined are right where we wanted them to be and good prevails over evil in the end.
There’s only one problem: the draft is awful. Clunky, warbled and utterly sub-par. Which we realize only after proudly submitting it to our critique group, or as we’re proofing it one last time before sending it off to an agent.
Enter the revisions process. This is worse than the draft itself—not least of which because in order to fix the draft’s problems we’ll need to kill off darlings, chop out subplots we were especially attached to, cut the snappy lines of dialogue and even change our characters’ intentions, struggles and desires. In other words, the new draft will no longer look a thing like our original vision.
So we resist. We find workarounds that let us keep those lines or preserve our initial intentions. We manage to leave in the subplot we loved and hold onto our darlings.
But as we get ready to share the new version with the world, we are struck with a familiar sense of dread: this draft is awful, too. And so is the next one, and the one after that.
I know this all too well, because I’ve been there. In fact, it took me nearly ten successive drafts with my own debut novel, Evolved. But the silver lining was that the process enabled me to understand something profound about why this happens. Something that has little to do with the standard reasoning behind the need to revise, re-draft and re-write, which says “a first draft just gets the broad ideas down but the real story needs to be teased out in successive waves of revisions.”
Rather, I discovered that the process of writing draft after draft, of revising, scrapping everything and starting again—many times—was needed in order to correct the primal error I was making:
My initial spark of inspiration had come from watching a Nova video with my daughter. The episode triggered the question: What if each element in the periodic table offered a way to enhance organic life?
This question opened a rabbit hole for me. I started to geek out and research topics like cosmology, neurology and particle physics. I learned about ten dimensional string theory, bubble universes, and dark matter. And I was so proud of and excited by my new knowledge that I wanted, above all, for the story and characters to showcase it.
To make that happen, I had to have full control of the characters, their voices and their destinies.
To write bad fiction is forgivable. But to be driven by a desire to control is a misstep I’d venture to classify as a full-blown transgression. A sin. Not in the ethical sense that religion typically preaches, involving the prohibition of certain immoral (and not-so-immoral) acts, but in a much more profound and spiritual sense that nonetheless springs from religion: understanding that control is a distraction.
Why are the the cardinal sins of pride, wrath, lust, envy, sloth, gluttony, and avarice sins in the first place? It’s not so much about morality, but about the distraction they provide from focusing on what is truly important. One simply cannot find Truth while pursuing profane interests. Put in Buddhist terms, we must strive for emptiness to find what is Real.
Control, I discovered, is artificial and gets in the way of our stories. It is the antithesis of letting our characters talk, letting their Truths emerge and their destinies take shape on their own.
And in this discovery lie other timeless lessons for writers:
● Good fiction comes from truth, finding what is real within us and the world. Not just truth about who the characters are and what they want, but about who each one of us is deep down inside. Don’t try to control it, embrace it.
● Having any goal aside from writing from a place of truth—goals of commercial success, showcasing knowledge, gaining admiration or literary acclaim—risks tainting the story. Your work will live its own life, make sure it connects to something Real.
● All distractions prevent us from pursuing and connecting to what is truly important. Stop worrying about how you and your work will be perceived and write authentically using your inner voice.
To me, these are the most important reasons good writing comes with a heavy dose of humility, openness, deep inner-knowledge and a willingness to let go. These are elements with which I struggled throughout the writing process. Letting go is a constant challenge. The climax of Evolved came from what’s Real, and helped me to see just that.