Richard Flanagan took twelve years to write his Booker Prize winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Along the way he wrote five drafts, deleting each one from his computer before embarking on the next, and burning the hard copies.
“By burning them, I had to start over anew… When you bring the old back in, it’s dripping with gangrene – you have to have it all gone.”
I don’t know how far Richard Flanagan was into each of the drafts he destroyed, but I was 35,000 words into mine when I realised I had reached a dead end. I’d started writing without knowing where the novel was going and consequently discovered that it wasn’t going anywhere. It was painful to throw away a few months of work, but I knew I had no choice. I couldn’t use any of it in the new version, so I understand Richard Flanagan’s sentiment. If you try to write around something you know is wrong, the next attempt will be infected by the failure of the first.
My second draft progressed beyond the 35,000 word mark, because the first had at least taught me what kind of book I wanted to write, but I still struggled with the structure and the plot, particularly how to bring it to a conclusion. So when I returned to the book after neglecting it for more than a year, I was prepared for the ending to need a lot of work. With fresh eyes it was easy to see that not only was the writing poor, but many of the scenes were just scenes – they did nothing to drive the plot forward. The ending didn’t just need work, it needed to go.
Erasing a few chapters at the end of an almost complete draft was a lot easier than consigning an entire attempt to the dustbin and starting again from scratch. I deleted 13,000 words in one afternoon and disliked them so much it was actually a pleasure. It was also easier, because so much time had passed since I’d written them. The effort they took to produce had faded from memory and I was no longer emotionally attached to them. They might just as well have been written by someone else.
The advantage of putting enough distance between you and your book is that you gain a more honest perspective. You read it with more objective eyes, you can see how good it is, or rather it isn’t. And then it can actually be a joy to rip it up and start again, which is a good thing. Because quite often, I think that’s what writers have to do.