Fiction Writers Review’s interview with Charles Johnson covers a lot of ground: his Buddhism, his friendship with August Wilson, his feelings about the death of civility in American society, and more. What leapt out to me, though, was his discussion of his writing process. He wrote six “apprentice” novels before publishing his 1974 debut, Faith and the Good Thing, and though every writer talks about the importance of revision, Johnson seems especially committed to it, and he’s kept track of how much he’s cut:
My ratio of throwaway pages to keep pages is often twenty-to-one. For Faith (written in nine months), I tossed out 1200 pages; for Oxherding Tale (written in five years) I tossed out 2400 pages; for Middle Passage (a six-year project), it was 3000 pages; and for Dreamer, more than 3,000 over the seven years I worked on that book. However, as [John] Gardner mentioned to me in the early 70s, as the years—and decades—roll by, it becomes possible to write fast and with a high level of craft or professionalism because you no longer make the mistakes you made in your youth. Also because by the time I sit down to do a first draft of something, I’ve already composed in my head (or sketched out notes for) the opening sentence and thought a great deal about the movements in a piece. In other words, one of my cultivated, literary habits when I think is to revise a thought—playing with diction or word choice, and sentence structure—before I speak or put pen to paper. It’s just one of those habits you develop from writing for forty years and teaching for thirty-five.
(h/t National Book Foundation)
One thought on “Charles Johnson’s Throwaway Pages”
Thanks for pointing out this interview. It’s wonderful to hear Johnson say it takes decades to develop real skills. A nice dose of realism for anyone hoping to write a great book in their spare time. A 20-1 toss/keep ratio isn’t surprising really. Junot Diaz took 10 years to write “Oscar Wao.” Who knows how many pages he discarded. On the other end of the spectrum, Lawrence Durrell said he churned out the books in his Alexandria Quartet in 4-6 months each, and when in “good form” he could lay down 10K words in two days. He notes, however, that he felt those books building up in him for 15 years. And of course he was writing other things that whole time, too, staying in shape.