When Is a Draft Just a Draft and When Is It a Book?

February 25th, 2010

Replacing the Boards

There’s an existentialist riddle that goes something like: “A man owns a boat for many years and every time a plank rots or breaks, he replaces it with a new one.  If he eventually replaces every single plank on the boat with a different one, does he still own the same boat he started out with or a different boat?”

I think of this riddle all the time when I’m rewriting (so much so that I may have mentioned it in an earlier post).

I’m a note-taker.  By which I mean that if an editor I respect (and so far I’ve respected all my fiction editors) asks me to change something in a manuscript, I’ll change it.  So far, this has worked for me, and why shouldn’t it?  Editors want to sell books as much as authors do.  Maybe even more so.  So I trust them to want to want to make the product better.

Usually this means tweaking a plot point or two, cutting the fat (there’s always fat when I write), even getting rid of a character or adding one in.

And sometimes it means starting at page one and rewriting almost everything until I get to the very last page, slashing and adding and changing and renewing.

I’m in the middle of that kind of rewrite at the moment and it’s not easy (it’s also why I didn’t post anything last week: Kim took pity on me, bless her heart).  It’s the kind of process that can keep you up at night with the excitement of new ideas and new problems to solve: it’s like a puzzle, trying to make the new pieces fit with the old ones (hammering in those planks).  (It’s also the kind of process that can make you break down in tears if you’re feeling a bit hormonal but that’s another story or at least the subject of a very different post).  It’s also the kind of process that allows you to humble your children when they start complaining about having to edit a two-page paper as per a teacher’s demands.   “Oh, please,” you can say, “I have to rewrite a three-hundred page manuscript!”  They may not learn to embrace editing but they do learn not to complain about it so much.

Anyway, the point is, this massive rewrite got me thinking about what a huge process it is to edit a novel.  And also to think about what constitutes a “draft” and what’s a separate new book (or boat) in its own right.

When I was a teenager and reading everything D.H. Lawrence had ever written, Penguin published not only all his known works–major and minor–but also something called John Thomas and Lady Jane which turned out to be an earlier draft of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (An even earlier draft called The First Lady Chatterley has also appeared in print.)  I haven’t read any version of LCL in decades but I remember at the time being vaguely annoyed that something I had spent money on thinking it was a book I hadn’t yet read by a favorite author was, in fact, simply an earlier version of one I already owned and had already read–a similar emotion to finding out that Agatha’s Christie And Then There Were None was simply the politically correctly titled reprint of Ten Little Indians.

The point is, I guess, that as drastically as I may change things from a first draft to a final one, I still consider the first draft only a stepping-stone to the final one and not a book in its own right.  The same boat, not a different one.  You write multiple drafts to improve something and even though you invariably lose some things you love, (“Kill your babies” as some famous author once advised–although which famous author seems to vary according to who’s quoting the line), you emerge with something tighter, smarter, more what it should be.  So who wants to see the mushy middle product of that?

I don’t think D.H.Lawrence was around when those earlier drafts of LCL were published, but John Fowles was around–and the instigator–of a revised edition of his novel The Magus.  Non-fiction writers revise and update their books all the time.  In fact, it was the request that we do an updated edition of Overcoming Autism that led to my co-author’s and my writing a whole new book instead.  But it’s pretty rare in the fiction world for an author to do more than change a word or two–and of course add a new foreword–to a novel before a reprint. Fowles did it though and I’m guessing, if he’s anything like me, that once he had the new version out in print, he just wanted the old one to disappear.

As far as I’m concerned, a first draft is like a younger stage of your life: it leads to what’s there now–and is a large part of why it is what it is–but it’s also completely replaced by the newer version and–except for some ghostly traces–doesn’t exist in its own right anymore.  Move on, move out, move along.

But save the early draft for your future biographers.  🙂