When I tell people I scrapped the entire first draft of my first novel, all 80,000 words, their reaction is inevitably some variation of a full-body cringe. I’ve watched more than a few friends throw a protective hand over their gut, as if they’ve been punched in a tender place.
“Really?” they’ll ask.
Years ago I took two M.F.A. writing courses and remember a particular discussion about revision. The more experienced writers in the room said they had thrown away whole chapters, often more than once. Or, after months (or years) of agonizing, they finally realized their book started somewhere in the middle of the manuscript, and so they pushed delete on everything that came before. One classmate said he had revised a single chapter more than 40 times.
“Really?” I asked.
I, too, was in disbelief.
How many words was that? How many hours? Those were numbers I could not bear to calculate. But here I am all these years later having been forced to make a similar decision.
It took me a long time to arrive here. A good friend and sharp reader pointed out to me the flaws in my first version at least four years ago. They absolutely were correctable, but required a focus of attention I didn’t possess at that time. I kept writing, little by little, not sure where it would end up. Turns out the skeleton of the story I had built couldn’t hold up the body.
Making the unkindest sort of cut to my manuscript didn’t hurt as badly as I thought it might. It felt more like that scene in the movie “Titanic,” when an elderly Rose stands at the railing of the research vessel salvaging the Titanic’s wreck and drops her much-sought-after, 56-carat blue diamond into the ocean. A tiny sigh slips from her mouth as she lets the priceless jewel fall deep into the sea beneath. Somehow—however inexplicably—it was the right thing to do.
Our words never are so precious that we can’t let them go. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that every discarded draft is a sacrifice toward something much bigger.