I was just reminded (re-reminded?) that Hemingway rewrote his ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times (or forty-seven times depending on the source).
Considering that a novel-length manuscript can be re-written any number of times during its initial creation, then again before giving it to first readers for their impression, then again after taking into account their comments, at least a few more times before submission to an agent, a few more times before the agent’s submission to a publisher, then if accepted, a number of times with a content editor, then again when the manuscript is in production and the fine tooth comb of a managing editor’s staff is brought into play. Let’s see, that’s a process of several years, so, thirty-nine times? Forty-seven times? Yep, that sounds about right.
But wait. That’s not for just a memorable ending phrase, that’s the whole magilla; no scratch that. The whole ball of wax. No, that’s not it. The Big Enchillada. We’ll go with that. What I mean is, in the years that it takes to go from the first words written on the first page of a first draft to a published novel, I would not be surprised to find that I have re-read and re-written the book forty times before the public sees it.
That’s not to say that I have changed every word, and in effect written forty distinct novels, but that there are changes with each and every edit, and the end product may look quite different from the original. I remember an author saying, ‘if you can’t write a three-hundred page novel then have the courage to scrap it entirely and start over at page one, then don’t bother.’ That’s a bit extreme, but he makes a point.
I remember completing my first novel. I had it stuffed into an envelope and mailed to agents before the ink was dry. It was replete with typos and grammatical errors and I didn’t have a clue about proper manuscript format. And it was accepted immediately by one of the top literary agents in the U.K.
How delighted I was to be invited to have tea with the owner of the agency at her London office in the neighborhood where Charles Dickens had once walked. She praised my work and suggested a few changes. A few WHAT?? Perfection was not achieved on the first pass?
Re-writing was painful in those early days. I believed my first draft to be so sacrosanct, I would print out the whole thing and preserve it, keeping the original draft in hard copy as a reference when making subsequent changes on later computer files. The man hours involved in the organizational process alone was so very tedious, and the boxes of draft manuscripts filled a garage.
I’m all grown up now. Cut, slash, delete, and often add. I do all of the above to the original draft thinking not of the beginning, but the end product. I guess the downside is that no anthology of my work will ever include a reference to my thirty-nine re-writes, or forty-seven, depending on the source.