I like to open up old first drafts and see how bad they were. I had to do this recently because I picked up Lexicon for some reason, the published version, and before I knew it, I was all like, “Gosh, this is quite the dizzyingly intricate array of character and plot. Why isn’t my current work-in-progress like that?” Then there was some soul-searching and comfort eating.
Luckily I found a 2008 draft of Lexicon on my computer that was 31,000 words—that’s about one-quarter of the finished length—and really terrible. It has the same underlying concept and almost all the same characters, including most of the same relationships, but everything about it is wrong. Characters stop to explain things, and the explanations go on forever. There are interesting set-ups and then the scene ends and I never come back to it. Background characters nobody cares about have emotional journeys.
Exactly two scenes from this draft made it to the published book; together they comprise about a thousand words. The other 96% of this pretty advanced work-in-progress I completely jettisoned, including plenty of scenes I’d worked and reworked.
It’s comforting to remind myself that good stories don’t come out that way the first time. I have always needed to write a ton of bad stuff to find the good stuff. Sometimes I need to write a ton of bad stuff just to figure out that it’s bad stuff. Good novels don’t depend (totally) on good ideas; they depend on lots and lots of work. And I’m happy to do that work. Work, I can control.
The way I start a new novel is by writing lots of disconnected scenes. I’m always tempted to begin putting things together as soon as possible, to think about how they connect, and why, and in which order. Because novels are meant to, you know, make sense. They need beginnings and middles and ends. But it’s easy to write a lot of mediocre words just because they fit. If I’m writing something purely because I think it’s good, maybe it never fits, but at least it’s good. And it might just turn out that it’s not this scene that doesn’t fit: It’s the other 96%.