Strange Methods: Zadie Smith's First Twenty Pages

How revising the opening can finish your novel

Note: this post is part of a series on different writing processes. The previous entries are Michael Moorcock's 3-Day Novel and César Aira's "Flight Forward."

If there’s a central thrust of this newsletter, it’s that fiction is an infinite machine that can produce infinite objects and be created in infinite ways. As such, I like to highlight unusual ways of writing. Strange structures, weird forms, unique drafting processes. Not because these forms and methods are better, but because I dislike the way that a lot of writing advice (in MFA programs, craft essays, etc.) coheres around just a few paths and risks making writers avoid paths they might thrive on.

A good example of this is the idea that the best way to write a book is to vomit it out as quickly as possible and then revise later. This approach is so popular that there’s an entire month devoted to getting writers to jot down a draft as fast as humanely possible. Many times I’ve been told that you should “never edit as you go” and that “every writer produces shitty first drafts.”

There’s nothing wrong with that process. Many authors I know excel at it. Need it even. But it’s simply not true that every writer produces bad first drafts. And many writers, myself included, like to edit as we go. Producing, perhaps, shitty notes and shitty first drafts of paragraphs. But often finishing the actual first draft in a pretty good spot! I felt awkward about my own process in grad school—I would write a bit, print out, edit by hand and add new bits to the end, then rinse and repeat a dozen or so times until a story was done—which is why it was extremely refreshing to hear Zadie Smith visit my MFA program and deliver a (fantastic) lecture on process, describing how she… well why don’t I let Smith speak for herself.

(Note: Smith’s entire lecture is available online at The Believer. I’m going only to talk about a part of it, but the whole thing is well worth reading. And shout out to Joy Baglio and Mary South whose tweets reminded me I’d meant to write about this for the Strange Methods series.)

Smith, in the section I’m interested for this post, begins by talking about two types of writers. The Macro Planner and the Micro Manager:

A Macro Planner makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot, and creates a structure—all before he writes the title page. Because of this structural security, he has a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forward or backward, their difficulties multiply with their choices. I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for each other, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters, and perform frequent—for me, unthinkable—radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title. I can’t stand to hear them speak about all this, not because I disapprove, but because other people’s methods are always so incomprehensible and horrifying.

Smith is the opposite, a Micro Manager. “I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last.” Smith can’t swap around endings, because she can’t conceive of an ending until she gets there. Her process is entirely different. Instead she must fully understand and hone her work’s opening. Nail down the POV. Perfectly hit the tone. Only once that’s done can she finish the rest. And this honing can take a long time:

Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line. When I begin a novel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I feel I have to be very careful: I can change the whole nature of the thing by changing a few words. This induces a special breed of pathology for which I have another ugly name: OPD, or Obsessive Perspective Disorder. It occurs mainly in the first twenty pages. It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question: What kind of a novel am I writing? It manifests itself in a compulsive fixation on perspective and voice. In one day the first twenty pages can go from first-person present tense, to third-person past tense, to third-person present tense, to first–person past tense, and so on.

Smith goes on:

In the case of On Beauty my OPD spun completely out of control: I reworked those first twenty pages for almost two years. I really felt I was losing my mind. I can hardly stand to look at my novels in general, but the first twenty pages of each in particular give me heart palpitations. It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which I was once incarcerated.

Yet while OPD is happening, somehow the work of the rest of the novel gets done. That’s the strange thing. It’s as if you’re winding the key of a toy car tighter and tighter…. when you finally let it go, it travels at a crazy speed. When I finally settled on a tone, the rest of the book was finished in five months.

Emphasis mine. Sitting in that auditorium, I felt my own process validated. Mine wasn’t quite the same, but there was a similar sense that the rest of the work is pulled from the opening and one must go back to it again and again to figure out what comes next. I’ve never written a story starting in the middle or the end. I can’t even conceive of how you do that, although kudos to those who can.

I’m sure the idea of reworking 20 pages for 2 years horrifies the NaNoWriMo bros, but I think the bolded part above is vital here: the overall process is not necessarily any longer! The vomit up a draft and revise, revise, revise crowd is still lucky to fully finish a book in 2.5 years. Much less a novel as brilliant as Zadie Smith’s.

Again, any process that works works. That’s the main thing in writing. But I will say that the type of process Smith mentions at the start, where the writer might change major factors like the setting, POV, or ending, can also be debilitating. I’ve seen students who get so caught up in the possibilities of the work that they never finish it. If you vomit out a rough draft, but then spend forever changing the POV, plot line, and structure and never actual finish a real first draft, well, that’s not going to get you published.

So if you’re feeling like the vomit out style doesn’t work for you, why not give Zadie Smith’s first twenty pages method a try. Polish the opening of your novel (or story) until the tone, voice, and language is in place. Then let the rest unspool from there.

And read the entire talk over at The Believer. It’s a great one.

In personal news, I had a lovely talk with SF legend Kim Stanley Robinson last night and you can watch a recording here. We talk about breaking down genre barriers, the importance of utopian fiction, punk rock, Kierkegaard, and more.

My novel is coming out in 11 days. Eek. If you live in NYC, I’ll be doing a launch at PowerHouse Arena on the 21st with my old friend Isaac Fitzgerald. I’ll also be reading on Monday at Franklin Park with an amazing line-up: Brandon Taylor, Alexandra Kleeman, Marie-Helene Bertino, and Simeon Marsalis.

If you don’t live in NYC and want a signed copy, PowerHouse Arena is taking preorders on them.