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This article was first published in AbsoluteWrite, a website for writers. In it I discuss the creative process behind my first children's novel, Befiddled, for which I wrote seven drafts over ten years.
Snow White and the Seven Drafts
One afternoon you write a few paragraphs while in the grip of a heady creative rush (quite possibly soon after coffee kicks in), and even as you put it down on paper you can barely believe how amusing, how insightful a writer you are. The next morning you read it again, and you can barely believe how awkward, how superficial a writer you are. “Know thyself,” the ancients enjoined. There’s nothing harder in this life than to develop a modicum of objectivity about oneself. The difficulty is universal. But the writer—and above all the writer who writes about himself—must face the difficulty daily, weekly, monthly.
My first children’s novel, Befiddled, was published by Delacorte Press (an imprint of Random House, New York ) in November, 2005. It’s the story of a 13-year-old violinist, Becky Cohen, and her music dreams. She suffers from a lack of natural talent, an unsupportive mother, an impatient violin teacher, and the scorn of her classmates. Her allies are her younger brother, Benjy; and Roy Freeman, an older black man who becomes her friend and mentor.
The book was born inside my head at around the winter of 1994-5, after I met children’s author Susie Morgenstern at a writers’ conference in Paris . Susie is a big person with a big personality, a big heart, and a big career. Until I met her I had never even entertained the idea of writing for children, but there was something so compelling about her presence and her teaching that I found myself drawn to a whirlwind of creativity and writerly ambition. I took a handful of workshops with Susie, and my first efforts at writing for children consisted largely of short jokes, poems, scenes, and sketches that Susie called all but unpublishable—clever and amusing, but insufficiently structured and developed. One day Susie told me that I should write like a man who needs to make a living from his writing, and her comment—or rather, her loving kick in the backside—started off my novel project. Susie also gave me the germ for the novel’s premise. Besides being a writer, I’m a cellist and teacher of the Alexander Technique, a method for improving your coordination and well-being through changes in the way you react to the world around you. “Can you explain the Alexander Technique to a child?” Susie asked me. Befiddled is the answer.
It took me about two years to write my first draft, roughly from mid-1995 to March 1997. “Befiddled” contains a number of autobiographical elements, as befits a first novel that tells a coming-of-age story. While composing it, sometimes I felt that I was writing—and re-writing—my own life. In some ways I had been very much like my heroine when I was her age: an awkward, introspective child who dreamed of becoming a musician. In other ways I was very much like my heroine’s brother, a precocious boy in thrall to words who once wrote his own home newspaper. And in yet other ways my adult self is like my heroine’s mentor, a music teacher who helps children and adults to find their vital center in order to play better and live better. Befiddled comes from deep within myself, and I laughed a lot and shed many tears writing it.
My first draft clocked in at 22,000 words, with 17 chapters and an epilogue. The basic plot was there: the heroine’s quest, her obstacles, her ultimate triumph. The book’s most important relationship, between Becky and her mentor Roy Freeman, was fully developed. Upon completing the draft, I thought I held a nearly finished book in great shape, right in my hands. I showed the draft to a half-dozen people. Someone thought it perfect. Someone else liked it very much but saw some gaps and inconsistencies. Susie Morgenstern whose normal mode of discourse is flaming enthusiasm, told me the book would one day be much loved by its readers… but it needed work.
This was the hardest point in the writing of the book: distancing myself from the material, from the personal identification with it, from the sense of accomplishment and pride. Realistically I knew that my critics were right and my manuscript needed work. But I didn’t know how to proceed, and most important, I didn’t want to change my book. My book was ME! And I was proud of it! I ended up putting the manuscript aside for four years, during which I worked on a number of other writing projects and carried on my teaching.
My first breakthrough came when I decided to have Becky’s brother, Benjy, write a monthly newspaper that would actually feature in the book. His newspaper would provide lots of humor and a second point of view, giving a sort of running commentary on Becky’s musical activities—almost like an exoskeleton, an overlay of structure highlighting the book’s construction. I titled Benjy’s paper “The Splinter,” in reference to the newspaper that my older brother and I wrote when we were kids in Brazil , and which was called by the Portuguese equivalent of splinter, “A Farpa.” Interviews, lonely hearts, classifieds, letters to the editor, the weather report, sports scores, and even a country-music hit parade all found their way into “The Splinter.” Monthly issues ran from October to June, covering a school year. I wrote the newspapers with great glee, inserted them into the manuscript, and made the necessary adjustments to the original text. It took me two years to accomplish it.
Then I thought I really had a great book in my hands! I showed it to some readers, who enjoyed it very much… but who felt there remained a number of problems, plus a few new ones. “The Splinter” didn’t seem organic to the rest of the text. I wrote a new chapter, showing Benjy at work on his newspaper, and inserted a number of short scenes in other chapters making references to “The Splinter.” Some readers were puzzled at Becky’s utter loneliness. Didn’t she have any friends whatsoever? My readers were right. For dramatic purposes, I had painted too bleak a picture of her life, which now seemed implausible. I drafted two new chapters featuring a new character: Damian, a schoolmate of Becky’s from the grade above hers, who takes an interest in her at their school’s cafeteria. These chapters also fleshed out Becky’s school life and her relationship wit her other schoolmates. The book opens with one of Becky’s violin classes, where she’s bullied by her teacher and the rest of the class. How come we never hear about this woman later in the book? I wrote a new chapter, featuring a second violin class. And I broke the last chapter, much longer than all others, into two. My third draft had 22 chapters in total, plus 9 issues of “The Splinter.”
It was a great book, I thought. Yet I re-read it and made hundreds upon hundreds of small corrections—infelicities of construction, nearly imperceptible shifts of point of view. How come I never saw these flaws before? They jumped at me as I read the script, and I could barely believe that I had proudly shown this flawed text to so many people. My fourth draft had nearly 35,000 words… more than 50% longer than my first.
I had worked on my first novel for nine years now, and I had created an intricate masterpiece, tightly plotted, elegantly written. The time had come for me to try to publish it. Networking—that impossible-to-overestimate professional tool—led me to the first bit of luck I’ve had with the project. I met a woman at a small party given by my best friend to celebrate his wedding a few months earlier. She was an old friend of my friend whom I had never met before. I told her about my project, and she told me that her sister was an agent specializing in children’s writing. I submitted my script to her, and she liked it enough to invest in a “reader’s report,” a sort of outside-expert evaluation of the script. Her reader liked my book… but thought there were some problems with it. In particular, he thought that the opening was weak, and the author’s voice intruded upon the point of view. My agent-to-be intimated that she might take me on as a client if I made some changes to the book.
Well, my agent and her reader were right. The opening was indeed weak. I re-wrote the first chapter extensively. But I also created a new issue of “The Splinter,” which in earlier drafts made its first appearance only three chapters into the book. The new “Splinter” became the actual opening for the book, followed by a highly rewritten first chapter. And I made some more hundreds of changes to the rest of the script. After these changes the agent agreed to take me on, and proceeded to submit the book—now in its fifth draft—to three publishers, one of which—Random House in New York—made us an offer three months later.
When I had the news of their offer, I nearly suffered a heart attack, so intense was my joy. Nine years of hard work had finally paid off, and I was on my way to a quick publication, fame, and riches. Needless to say, I was wrong. My editor at Random House sent me her notes after several months of reading and thinking, and she had spotted a number of problems with the text. Benjy’s behavior was inconsistent throughout the book; sometimes he was as innocent as a 6-year-old, sometimes he showed a teenager’s sense of humor. Well, in my first draft he was young indeed…. But when “The Splinter” came along, Benjy was only a year younger than Becky. I hadn’t paid sufficient attention to the change, and my editor was absolutely right about the inconsistency. My editor liked the character of Damian very much, but he seemed to disappear for a long stretch of the book. And my earlier drafts included a secondary character, Ramsey, who was Becky’s violinist rival. Ramsey was barely present in the book, therefore not an effective rival. I drafted two new chapters, one involving Damian, the other involving Ramsey; and I created new scenes elsewhere for both of them. And, lo and behold, now I had a masterpiece in my hand, the nine-year-old sixth draft of my novel. The manuscript went to the copy-editor.
A few months later, I received the copy-editor’s comments. I had really, really, really thought my script was in great shape… but the copy-editor had found hundreds and hundreds of small inconsistencies, typos, punctuation and spelling mistakes, factual errors about locations, implausible plot turns—you name it. I couldn’t believe it! My beautiful script had dozens of red marks per page! But my copy-editor was right in 99.99% of her comments, and I spent a few weeks working through these changes, answering her questions, writing new sentences, paragraphs, and whole scenes. My seventh draft went into production, and the book came out in November, 2005, a decade after my pen first touched paper.
These are some of the things I learned in these ten years.
- The greatest difficulty for every human being is to achieve a little objectivity about himself or herself. When a writer writes himself into a book, the difficulty multiplies manifold.
- People often say that writing for film is a collaborative endeavor, while a novelist has total independence and control of his writing. I had a great many collaborators in writing my novel, and—retrospectively—I can’t see how it could be otherwise.
- Reading, writing, revising, and editing are co-equals for a writer. In the absence of these skills, the creative impulse alone is but wasted energy.
- To create and to publish are separate yet interrelated endeavors. It’s useful to write as if you needed to earn your living doing it—it shapes your writing into something suitable for other people’s eyes. And it’s just as useful to write without obsessing about publication—it keeps your writing authentic.
- Achieving critical distance from your writing is difficult and requires time. This alone would justify your undertaking more than one project at a time, so that you can let project “A” mature away from your eyes while you work on project “B.”
Befiddled is the story of Becky Cohen, a 13-year-old violinist whose musical and personal journey of initiation is the novel’s main thread. Stage fright, social ineptitude, a dead father, a grieving and demanding mother, lack of money, unsympathetic teachers, and bad hair all conspire to make Becky’s life difficult. Her allies are her younger brother Benjy, who writes “The Splinter,” a monthly news sheet that comments (rather unreliably) on world events and on Becky’s travails; and Roy Freeman, an older black man who becomes Becky’s mentor and who provides a counterpoint to the uncharitable adults in Becky’s life. Befiddled is a story of bereavement and healing, of the struggle to assert one’s individuality against the pull of opposing forces, and of unorthodox artistic adventures.