The Patient Process.Feb 17, 2019
The value of revision becomes manifestly abundant over the course of our very intense weeks on retreat at The Novelry, with writers taking prose through rounds of work towards a shining, tight truth by the end of our time together.
At tour recent retreat, I began the week with a lesson on 'Glamour' - and how what is concealed up front in your novel will of necessity be revealed. We begin our story by showing that to all appearances all's well but the veneer conceals a lie. It's the nature of THE LIE which is at the heart of your story, and it's the chipping away at it, the revelatory process which drives the plot. If you're a writer in search of an idea, start with a big lie.
We looked at how with The Great Gatsby it was Scott Fitzgerald's intention from the start to establish a veneer of glamour in his prose and story. He had his eyes on the big lie - the American Dream - which he foresaw as doomed.
I told my writers how Hunter S Thompson typed out pages from The Great Gatsby just to get the feeling, he said, of what it was like to write that way. If I were twenty-five again and starting to write, I think I'd probably start by copying out the book. Since our return one of my writers is doing that very thing. (Read more on her process here.)
Gatsby is an awe-inspiring achievement. But I want to add a few words of consolation and remind you that every writer builds a work of accomplishment and magic in layers.
We may draw great comfort from the drafts thrown away over the two-year process in which Fitzgerald repeated the drafting process a number of times. Like we do at The Novelry, he created his first draft fast, then went through rounds of revision.
It is good to remind ourselves of this so that we don't lose heart. We should expect to sit with our work in patience and faith that what is concealed to us as a writer will also be revealed in time.
- Summer 1922 Scott Fitzgerald writes to Max Perkins his initial thoughts on his next book. "Its locale will be the middle west and New York of 1885 I think. It will concern less superlative beauties than I run to usually and will be centred on a smaller period of time. It will have a catholic element."
- On 13th September 1922, Scott Fitzgerald wired his agent to promise the short story he was working on would be with the agency the next week. It was called 'Winter Dreams' and he would late describe it as a 'sort of 1st draft of the Gatsby idea.'
- Summer 1923 Scott begins drafting the book that would become The Great Gatsby.
- April 1924 Scott tells Perkins 'much of what I wrote last summer was good but it was so interrupted that it was ragged & in approaching it from a new angle I've had to discard a lot of it.'
- May 1924 the Fitzgeralds sail for France and Scott starts writing his novel in earnest. Most of the early drafts have been lost and Scott didn't date later ones, but it appears the novel was composed in sequence.
- That summer, he writes to a friend 'My novel grows more and more extraordinary. I feel absolutely self-sufficient & I have a perfect hollow craving for loneliness...'
- September 1924 Scott writes in his ledger 'The novel finished. Trouble passing away.' (The writing had coincided with a marital upset.)
- 27 October 1924, after some revisions, Scott sends the novel to Perkins.
- In November Max Perkins wrote to Scott to say he thought the novel a wonder. "It has vitality to an extraordinary degree, and glamour...'
- December 1924, revisions continued. 'With the aid you’ve given me,' Scott wrote Maxwell Perkins in December, 1924, 'I can make Gatsby perfect.'
- April 1925 The Great Gatsby is published.
The pencil draft and the much-revised galley proofs at Princeton library show how thoroughly and expertly Fitzgerald practised the craft of revision.
'Among the many lessons Fitzgerald applied between the rough draft and the finished novel was that of cutting and setting his diamonds so that they caught up and cast back a multitude of lights. In so doing, he found it unnecessary to have an authorial voice gloss a scene. The brilliance floods in upon the reader; there is no necessity for Nick Carraway to say, as he did at one point in the pencil draft: “I told myself that I was studying it all like a philosopher, a sociologist, that there was a unity here that I could grasp after or would be able to grasp in a minute, a new facet, elemental and profound.” The distance Fitzgerald travelled from This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned to The Great Gatsby is in the rewriting of the novel.' Kenneth Eble.
'What I cut out of it both physically and emotionally,' Scott Fitzgerald wrote later, 'would make another novel!'
This is how it works.
At The Novelry you get your skills with our online novel writing courses which feed you masterstrokes from the greats. You pick up a new good habit - the way of the working writer - and you reach out for support and feedback to help you revise to meet your ambition and newly-muscled judgement and to a bar that is set so high by all of our writers.
You stick with it. You make it better.
You will revise. Suddenly it will click.