There's No Such Thing as Good Writing: Craig Nova's Radical Revising Process

The author of All the Dead Yale Men doesn't just tweak when he rewrites—he tries on entirely new points of view and genre styles to learn more about the story he's telling.

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Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Craig Nova, author of All the Dead Yale Men, is a manic rewriter. He showed me a picture of what he calls his "slag heap"—a huge stack of manuscript pages, piled several feet high, that accumulated as he wrote his latest book. Nova does not merely tinker with word choice the way some editors do; instead, he writes again from scratch. Sometimes he'll approach a first draft in radical new ways, adopting new points of view—even trying again in different genres—to learn more about a character or scene. Directly contradicting the "first thought, best thought" code of spontaneity espoused by the Beats, Nova feels his work's not done until he explores each scene or section from every possible angle.

All the Dead Yale Men continues the Boston family saga that began with The Good Son (1982), which John Irving called "the richest and most expert novel in my recent reading by any writer now under 40." Nova's work has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, and The New York Times Magazine; he teaches writing at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Craig Nova: All happy writers are the same, but each hardworking writer has a train wreck that is perfectly fitted to the task at hand. After all, as every novelist knows, writing a book is a collision between what one wants and what one gets.

My version of this started the moment I read a line by Robert Graves, who said that there is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting. Please see the photograph below.

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I found this to be doubly true, if this is ontologically possible, when I combined it with a comment from F.R. Leavis, or I think this is who it was, in an essay called "Technique as Discovery." This essay made the point that if you changed the form of what you wrote from, say, drama to poetry, you would discover something about your subject you didn't know before.

It occurred to me that if this worked when you moved from one form to another, then the same thing should happen when you changed the basic elements of a novel.

Take point of view, for example. Let's say you are writing a scene in which a man and a woman are breaking up. They are doing this while they are having breakfast in their apartment. But the scene doesn't work. It is dull and flat.

So, applying the two notions mentioned above the solution would be to change point of view. That is, if it is told from the man's point of view, change it to the woman's, and if that doesn't work, tell it from the point of view of the neighborhood, who is listening through the wall in the apartment next door, and if that doesn't work have this neighbor tell the story of the break up, as he hears it, to his girlfriend. And if that doesn't work tell it from the point of view of a burglar who is in the apartment, and who hid in a closet in the kitchen when the man and woman who are breaking up came in and started arguing.

It seems to me that each time you add a new point of view and tell the story again, you will discover something you didn't know before. And if this is true for point of view, it should hold true for structure, language, and all the other elements that go into a piece of fiction.

Of course, in the real world, in the day to day work, you discover a lot, and in fact it has happened to me that near the end of a book or what I thought was the end, I found some one, or something like the famous wooden leg in Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," or the theft of that wooden leg, which would force me to go back to the beginning and work towards it or perhaps even begin with it.

I think the basic belief behind this way of writing a novel is that the entire business is one long discovery, and no one, or no novelist I know, sits down one morning, the complete book in mind, and types it straight off. At least, with the writers I know it is one long slog through the most trying parts of the imagination and memory.

I would like to add one warning here. Or make that two. You do come to the point of diminishing returns, and at that point it is time to stop. You have what you are going to have, and that's that. After a certain point, the novel will get worse the more you write.

The other warning has to do with mood. When I have worked and have the feeling that I have just produced something that makes me feel like saying, "All right Ford Madox Ford, take that. You're toast," this is a sure sign that I have written something so ghastly as to defy description. The best work seems to come when I am mildly depressed and have the smallest ambition. I will look at a sentence from the day before and think I can do something with it. Maybe. Just maybe. With a lot of luck.

It is all a mystery, and these ways of working are an attempt to come to terms with the frank chaos that the writer faces, at least in the beginning.

And yet I often think a book is waiting there, in the darkness, another Gatsby, and all it needs is to be written down. The question is, How to find it?

This pile of paper is one man's slag heap in this pursuit.