The Neverending Story

When it comes to writing, it's always drafty in here.

The Neverending Story

I had the honor of participating in a panel at George Mason University’s Fall for the Book festival a couple weeks ago. The panel featured three celebrated mystery writers, and also me, and was moderated by a fourth celebrated writer, Donna Andrews.

We talked mysteries and writing and da writing life, and the 90-some people in attendance seemed to have a good time. Afterward, a student asked us how many drafts it takes for us to know our work is finished.

Good question.

Definitely more than one, but way less than a hundred? Or maybe more than a hundred? Truthfully, I’m not sure because I’m not the type of writer to preserve my drafts. I like the Kafka approach. I have friends who save their work and occasionally refer back to it, but I’m often horrified by what I’ve written in draft number one or eight, and I’d rather gargle marbles than have someone accidentally stumble upon it.

Burn all traces of shitty writing and only put out the most polished pieces.

But the problem with polish is that it fades; maybe not to others, but to yourself. I find that it’s occasionally difficult to read my work months or years later. I’m a different writer at that point in my life and I edit restlessly, making small changes here or there: removing a comma, pushing a paragraph closer to the top, killing a guy.

And when it comes to reading my work to an audience, I invariably adapt it for that audience. I do think there’s something to be said for the rigidity and, thus, the timelessness of a written piece, but reading aloud is a performance, and the details of that performance change the presentation. To me, it’s the same as adapting a book to a screenplay. Different mediums require different forms.

Usually this revision takes place beforehand, but I remember seeing a poet (I believe it was Yusef Komunyakaa) grumbling about his work in the middle of his reading and making changes, pen in hand, as he read. And another time, I was at a reading by Joyce Carol Oates, and she was writing something in her papers as she read from them. I assume she was making small notes, but given her prolific tendencies, she could have simply been writing another book.

And so the revision continues, even after your work is complete.

There is a worry, especially when you’re a fledgling writer, that you’ll draft your work to death. Don’t worry about that. If you can destroy the inspiration behind your writing, then you didn’t write well enough to support it. The trick is, of course, to locate your strengths in early drafts and play to them as your story, and writing, develop.

Most of writing is rewriting. The inspiration will remain.


“All art,” wrote Walter Pater, “constantly aspires toward the condition of music.” Once you finally hit that pure note, stop.

(Incidentally, on the subject of reading aloud to an audience, I’ll be reading at the Baltimore Book Festival this Sunday, Sept. 28th, at 1 p.m., on the Bicentennial stage, accompanied by blues guitarist Andy Poxon. Come say hi, check out the show, buy some books, and eat some funnel cake! I’m assuming there will be funnel cake.)


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