Messy Inefficiency: Writing a Novel

by Ed Davis on October 23, 2015

A Mystery 

“Good,” my wife said. “Now you’re free to write the real book.”

I’d just described an interview in which I’d received information that would require an entire re-envisioning of my latest novel-in-progress’s plot—a rewrite that might require another year to produce a second draft. She then asked me why I hadn’t conducted the interview before writing my first draft? A really good question which should’ve been easy to answer but wasn’t—and got me thinking about my messily inefficient novel-writing process.


While I did significant research on hydraulic fracturing and learning disorders, both of which play important roles in the book, I proceeded on faith in constructing plot points relating to child custody/visitation issues. It wasn’t until I finished the first draft that I decided it was time to consult my friend Joan, a long-time volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for abused and neglected children in Greene County. Since I write realistic fiction, not fantasy, I knew I’d probably have to tweak some things for verisimilitude.


During our two-hour interview, Joan unknowingly shot down plot point after plot point, explaining what really happens when a parent who’s abandoned a child ten years earlier returns to legally challenge grandparents on visitation rights. But as I mentally deleted scenes I’d agonized over, I found myself not discouraged but energized when I thought about making the recommended changes. I began to see what we were discussing weren’t plot points for Joan but passion points. Her enthusiasm for serving kids was infectious. 


As a CASA, Joan has devoted incredible time and energy to helping her child clients have a better life. I, on the other hand, was writing another novel, which, if published, would add to the glut of already-existing books. No wonder my plot was superficial; I wasn’t committed enough. But maybe if I listened and absorbed, I’d have a shot at making a real contribution to the conversation on parenting troubled kids. I was being not merely educated but liberated from earlier misconceptions and prejudices.


“Still,” my inner critic persisted, “couldn’t you have been just as inspired and educated by doing your research earlier?” Maybe. But I wonder if I would’ve had the humility to really hear and feel Joan’s passion if I hadn’t first struggled alone, discovering the crucial questions and exposing some of my own biases. Getting recalibrated was good for me. Writers must feel fully in control of their books long before they get into the hands of readers, but humility is essential to prevent knowing too soon (or thinking you do). Thus, the more humility in the face of facts and experience, the better. 


While much of the fiction-writing process is as rational as calculus, this practice of writing first without knowing feels mystical, paradoxical and very messy. I don’t exactly know why, but this is the way I had to write this book’s first draft. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the way I write the next one, too. I recommend it highly—but efficient it ain’t.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Liz October 26, 2015 at 6:08 pm

Nice piece, Ed. I think there is also something to be said for “going with the flow” whenever the flow is occurring during the novel-writing process. You wisely went with what was flowing for you at the time that allowed you to even write whatever it was that you wrote! No small task, that…


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