My writing buddy Jacq recently showed me an article she described as ‘game-changing’. It was called ‘The Thousand Pages’, and it argued persuasively that the first-time novelist will likely throw away in the region of a thousand pages in the course of getting their book right.
‘Only a thousand?’ I said, thinking of the years of dead-ends and scenic byways I’d taken with my own first novel. The article, by J. T. Bushnell, is aimed at short-story writers who, like Jacq, have turned their hand to the longer form. Its brilliant tips galvanised her into ditching dozens of pages that same afternoon. She was thrilled.
A thousand pages, depending on line-spacing, is around 300,000 words. Yep, I easily chucked that, and then some. Whenever I tell creative-writing students that my first novel took ten years, give or take, they’re either incredulous (‘how could it possibly take so long?’) or resigned (‘sounds about right. Another six years to go’). Though some of this delay was just life getting in the way, most of it was down to writing gazillions more words than I needed.
Why are first novels such page-wasters? I think it’s because you’re learning how to write a novel. Even if you’ve been on a creative-writing course, it’s almost impossible to avoid first-novel chaos. I approached some fellow writers on social media to ask about their thousand-page experiences. Louise Tondeur said of her first book, The Water’s Edge, ‘I wrote about the same amount (90,000 words) that I didn’t use. Part of the problem was that 1) I didn’t know how to write a novel and 2) I thought of everything I wrote at the time as ‘The Novel’ but I hadn’t planned it.’
Ah yes…planning. First-time novelists tend to just dive in, working out the story as they go. This is a perfectly fine way of writing. In some writers’ circles it’s known as ‘pantsing,’ i.e., flying by the seat of your pants — but it can easily go awry.
A classic feature of first-novel attempts, not unrelated to pantsing, is writing astonishing amounts of what later turns out to be backstory. I cringe to recall the several dozen deathless pages I excised from my first draft which explored all my characters’ irrelevant educational histories. Stephen Cox, author of Our Child of the Stars, had a similar tale: ‘What was deleted was good scene setting and character development I needed to know but the reader did not.’
Another common trait of first-novel attempts are the daring-but-futile experiments with point of view (‘second-person viewpoint, as told by a frog!’) and structure (‘sixteen timelines set in past, present and future!’). My laptop is a boneyard of abandoned versions of my first novel, including one with an unworkable five narrators; one with the entire thing rewritten from a child’s perspective; and ten confused chapters where I switched from first-person to third. Several more, too, before an agent agreed to take it on, with instructions to ‘lose 30,000 words, dear,’ (another hundred pages gone).
Not everyone has the thousand-page experience, of course. One writer I spoke to said, ‘Getting rid of 1000 words? Why, sure.’ When I clarified it was pages I meant, they made use of a conveniently situated fainting couch. But most writers are right there with J.T.B. and me. Eve Ainsworth said of her debut adult novel Duckling, published this year, ‘I cut 80,000 words…I basically had to rewrite the entire thing from start to finish. Then that wasn’t right and I had to cut it in half again. Painful but so worth it. It’s taught me that I do need a sort of plan.’
New novelists reading this may cheerily assume, as I once did, that this is only a phenomenon of the first novel. And certainly, many writers do manage to streamline their method in subsequent books. However, I regret to report that others – including me – never do. Although I’ve got much better at planning, not one of my six novels was written without reams of unnecessary pages. It’s got less wasteful for sure; by the sixth novel, I probably only chucked out three hundred. Scarcely a novella. But it’s still a thing.
And I’m in good company. Thriller writer Clare Mackintosh told me, ‘I throw away tens of thousands [of words] with every book. My first draft bears very little relation to the last, and is always the better for it. I’m constantly frustrated by how inefficient my process is (particularly as I plot in quite a lot of detail!) but it’s the same with every book.’
Novelist Rowan Coleman is another big page-chucker: ‘I always cut and re-write in excess of fifty thousand words. But I don’t consider them wasted, these are the words that pave the journey to a finished novel.’
So, what’s going on? Do we really have to learn how to write a novel each time? I don’t think so; the page pile-up seems to be caused by two other things (both of which are admittedly present to varying degrees in the debut). Firstly, the extra pages are a by-product of us searching for the story. At least second time round, we hopefully know to keep most of our backstory well away from the manuscript, but we still have to work things out on the page. Planning helps, of course – many writers discover planning’s quiet joys with their second novel – but there’s no substitute for actually writing the pages to see if it works. The story reveals itself during the act of writing, no matter how tight a grip we think we have on it before we start.
Secondly, the more experienced we become, the better able we are to ruthlessly cut when something is wrong. If there’s a problem with a story, ‘there’s no running away from it,’ Keith Mansfield told me. ‘I find the crack widens and widens.’ For one book in his Johnny Mackintosh series he deleted 25,000 words, ‘a gut-wrenching moment’, and kept the cut words just in case. ‘Then you never look at it again!’
Eventually, most writers come to terms with the page cull as an essential, even positive, part of novel creation. Crime writer Alison Layland said, ‘I’m no longer worried about having to ditch thousands of words, but consider it good exercise — you could say, if a novel is a marathon, your discarded words are the fitness training!’
The novel-as-marathon metaphor is also used by J.T.B. in the original article. He says, ‘If you want to run a marathon, you have to put in a lot of miles before you make your first real attempt; if you want to write a novel, you have to put in the pages.’
How true! And not just of your first marathon; every subsequent one too. And it’s the same with the novel. The first might require the most training, but you’ll likely need plenty more each time you attempt this crazy business of shaping an entire fictional world.
I’m sure it’s possible to write a novel without any waste, but it seems relatively rare. For many of us, the extra pages are just a mysterious, almost magical part of the strange discipline we’ve chosen. However, one writer I spoke to, Harriet Kline, was able to describe her process more clearly. She actively incorporates writing that she knows she won’t use into her routine:
I’ve learned to accept that much of what I write will be discarded. In fact, I begin the day by purposefully creating output which I have no intention of showing anyone. I have been known to write with my eyes closed or with my left hand. By thinking about my novel but deliberately avoiding any attempt to write anything decent, I can somehow discover what it is I really need to say. An image will come to me, or a problem with a character will be solved. However, it only works if I know that the words will not be used. Sometimes this seems like a big waste of time and paper but on the days when I don’t do this, I am not as productive.
Maybe that’s what all Thousand-Pagers do; we just haven’t articulated it as clearly. Novel writing is a lengthy art form — poetry, painting and songwriting can seem like park runs or sprints in comparison. Writing reams of pages that don’t make the final cut just seems to be part of the practice for each new marathon.