Almost every writer you talk to will tell you the same adage when asked about revising: writing is revising. There’s a reason this saying is so popular; it’s essentially true. The real business of writing a novel is editing. For example, I sometimes think of drafting as drawing the outline of a picture, and editing as the part where I fill in the color and texture. Through drafting, you get to know your characters – their quirks, their motivations – and all of that knowledge is at your disposal in the editing process. Revising is a chance to change what you’ve created from something 2D to something 3D – you get to add in all the details that make a book feel visceral and real.
To jump to another metaphor, I’ve heard a theory that when it comes to drafting, authors are either architects or gardeners. The architect-types are very focused on structure. Their drafts tend to be most concerned with building up the plot whereas gardeners are more experimental; they toss seeds and see what grows. When it comes to editing, architects knock down walls, repaint rooms, and add decoration to empty walls whereas gardeners try to figure out how to make everything they’ve grown come together harmoniously – they weed, they water, and sometimes, they even uproot and discard entire plants.
I tend to be more of a gardener. My drafting process is messy. I toss around a lot of ideas and try to see what will stick. For example, Here We Are Now, began with only a kernel of an idea: what if a teenage girl wrote letter after letter to a musician she admired and the musician never responded until the day that he showed up on her doorstep? In the first draft, Julian Oliver wasn’t Taliah’s father. He’d never even known Taliah’s mother. It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth go at the manuscript that I got the sense that the story would work so much better if the two of them were connected by more than simply Taliah’s love of his music. I felt a tension between the two characters, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was initially. I had to toss some idea seeds around and wait for them to sprout.
Recently I had the great privilege of listening to the brilliant Zadie Smith speak, and she posited a theory that really resonated with me. She suggested that you can basically sort writers into two camps – those who hang the structure and plot of their novels around romantic love and those who structure their books around familial bonds. In her words, ‘those more interested in the love you seek and choose and those more interested in the lot they’ve been given.’ I think a lot of my editing process is finding my way back to the latter. I often have the impulse to think I’m the former – I love romance (that feels like a bizarre statement, but I don’t know how else to phrase it). I love reading about love, and come Christmas there’s nothing I enjoy more than drinking a huge mug of hot chocolate and watching a Hallmark festive movie. So I think I always start out thinking my books are going to be love stories, but somewhere along the way, they almost always turn into stories where my main character is grappling with her familial relationships, trying to figure out how she fits into her family or who her family is or how her family’s history affects her.
You think by now I’d have gotten wiser, but no. I still write the same sloppy first drafts that almost never resemble the final product. What I have gotten wiser about is the willingness to trust in my process. To understand that it is mine and it is what works for me, even if it is radically different from some of my other brilliant writer friends. So if you are just starting out that is the best advice I can offer, and probably the only advice I have for you: find your process and trust in it. It’s okay if it doesn’t look like anyone’s else’s. It’s great to be an architect and it’s great to be a gardener and it’s great to be a hybrid or something else entirely. What matters is that it’s your process and it works for you.