On writing the second draft of a book
Sometimes, just for the hell of it, especially when I’m working on a second draft of a book in Scrivener, I first save my file then hit the ctrl-z buttons (which delete prior edits one-by-one) and hold them down until what I’ve written over the past five, ten, thirty minutes disappears. I’m then left either with a blank page, or unedited text. This isn’t done out of despair, or concern, but curiosity, because I know that all I need to do, to get back the work I just completed, is to hold down ctrl-cmd-z and all the text or edits repeat themselves before me magically, like a player piano writing its own music as it plays. I do this because sometimes it’s fun, or useful, to remember not just how much work one can do in a surprisingly short period of time, but how much work can go into a surprisingly small amount of text.
I did this, this morning, after writing for about twenty minutes or so in the book that will be my ninth. I edited three paragraphs while doing my second draft run-through, then on a whim pressed ctrl-z — but this time, instead of keeping the keys held down, I counted out the taps. I found I had taken a total of 216 words and edited them into 235. The number of actual edits, based on the number of times I tapped the ‘undo’ keys, came to 169. Which means in roughly twenty minutes I had made 169 edits, which in turn meant any number of decision calls concerning placement of text, chronological arrangement of actions, thoughts and observations, description and so forth, all while juggling all the different actions, scenes, events and character motivations in the story.
I find this interesting because it’s a reminder that writing a book is actually quite a great deal of work. Those who aren’t writers sometimes don’t realise writing a book is, in a sense, like trying to construct a wicker basket the size of a bus. You start off with an apparently tidy base, but before long you’ve got this monstrous tangle of threads sticking out every way possible, and somehow you’ve got to take them all and make them into this semblance of a (bus-sized) basket — except infinitely more complicated. And then, when you’ve completed it, it’s kind of lopsided and weird looking, and you know you’re going to have to go through the whole thing, thread by thread, and rejig it until it looks like a damn basket, even though it’s going to take you about as long to do this as it did to make the basket in the first place.
Like a lot of writers, I don’t actually spend as much time writing as most people do on their regular day jobs. Sometimes it’s just a couple of hours. Sometimes it’s longer. This makes it sound easy, but the length of time you spend actually sitting in front of a word processor typing belies the nature of the very real mental acrobatics involved. The brain is an organ, like any other, and it needs energy to work, and there have been times, most especially after major edits or close to a deadline, I feel about as exhausted as if I’d run a marathon. I can barely mumble let alone talk, and my mental acuity away from the computer drops sharply. I most often lose or misplace things immediately after handing in a manuscript.
Sometimes I wonder what it would look like if I could play an entire novel from the beginning, watching every single word and subsequent edit take place before me — but substantially faster than it would in real time. At the very least, I think, it would make a terrific piece of video art.