May 03, 2011

The Year of Endless Re-typing

Here's another "on writing" quotation that has fascinated me since I first read it. From Joan Didion in this Paris Review interview:

When I’m working on a book, I constantly retype my own sentences. Every day I go back to page one and just retype what I have. It gets me into a rhythm. Once I get over maybe a hundred pages, I won’t go back to page one, but I might go back to page fifty-five, or twenty, even. But then every once in a while I feel the need to go to page one again and start rewriting. At the end of the day, I mark up the pages I’ve done—pages or page—all the way back to page one. I mark them up so that I can retype them in the morning. It gets me past that blank terror.

I also find myself continually rewriting my earlier sentences while in the process of writing new ones, but it is quite easy to do when you've got a computer, backspace/delete, multiple "undo" etc. The notion of retyping the whole thing over and over each day on a typewriter is nightmarish.

I can see the benefit though. My quirk is reading it aloud, which I do continually. That may well actually be more time-consuming than typing would be, now that I think about it, but in the end it does make the sentences better.

Posted by Dr. Frank at May 3, 2011 05:51 PM | TrackBack


Since writing a novel is a lengthy and labor-intensive process, are there items in your novels that you can't remember writing? Has anyone ever stumped you by asking a question about something from one of your novels that you can't remember?

I wonder just how much a prolific author such as Stephen King can remember from his own complete works.

Posted by: ben at May 3, 2011 06:37 PM

My writer friend Seanan McGuire (nominated for a Hugo as Mira Grant; yay!) rewrites constantly, maybe five times overall. But her output is pretty brisk (2 novels per year plus a few shorts), although she had a lot in the pipeline when she started getting published. Still, I'm sure she's a faster than average writer.

Posted by: Bill at May 4, 2011 02:06 AM

Great interview with Joan Didion. I read her book The White Album last year and really liked it. In the interview she says her favorite books is Victory by Joseph Conrad. I had a copy at home. I started reading it and it is very good.

Posted by: Lexington Green at May 4, 2011 04:07 PM

"Since writing a novel is a lengthy and labor-intensive process, are there items in your novels that you can't remember writing?"

Sometimes, I'm just kind of amazed that the things that came together did come together, and I often wonder "how did I do that?" (I wonder that in approving and regretful ways, sometimes with the two combined.) Writing is a mysterious process, and it gets more mysterious the more distant you are from it.

"Has anyone ever stumped you by asking a question about something from one of your novels that you can't remember?"

I have been quizzed on my books by people who want to trip me up, or "catch" me in an inconsistency, or spring some other sort of "gotcha" on me. There's a small but committed group of readers who seem to be quite angered by the timeline and setting of King Dork, in particular. I did work it all out very carefully, in fact, and I have fact sheets and calendars with the birthdates of all the characters, and important events in the book and referred to in the past, but without access to the notes I can't call it all to memory very easily. I do know, because I was asked by a petulant mom who didn't believe any "contemporary" teenagers could possibly have hippie parents, that Little Big Tom turned 16 in 1968. (The funny thing about that incident is, that lady was a total hippie herself; her daughter seemed kind of embarrassed.)

Posted by: Dr. Frank at May 5, 2011 04:43 PM

Lex, I've been meaning to re-read The White Album since you mentioned how much you liked it a ways back. Like so many of the good books I've read, I read it long, long ago and I'm very much a different person than I was back then. I have learned not to trust the opinions of my former self, on pretty much everything. In the case of TWA, which I did like, it's more a matter of missing things than re-assessing it on the like/dislike spectrum.

Victory is a great, great novel, the most impressive writing from Conrad in my opinion. The more famous ones don't work nearly as well for me (though I rank The Secret Agent highly.)

Posted by: Dr. Frank at May 5, 2011 04:51 PM

Thanks, Frank. I'm intrigued by how other types of writers work... As a journalist, my material is written and published with such a quick turnaround time that it's very easy to forget some of the things I've done. It's like breakfast: you make it; eat it; rush out the door; then evening rolls around and you can't even remember what you ate in the morning.

Posted by: ben at May 5, 2011 08:27 PM
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