The Key To A Successful Novel? Revise Until You Throw Up

According to the infinite monkey theorem, it is almost sure that a monkey randomly hitting the keys of a typewriter will be able to produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. To verify this, researchers from the University of Plymouth ran an experiment in 2003. They had left a computer in a room with six monkeys, but, after a month, the monkeys produced only five pages, mostly consisting of letters S. The lead male was not very happy about that outcome and began to bang the keyboard with a stone.

If you are reading this, you are most likely a human (or an incredibly smart monkey).

Anyways, even for a human being, the probability to write a masterpiece straight off is extraordinarily small.

Not just for me or you, but also for [name a great writer here], [here], and [here].

Only God gets it right the first time

Stephen King

At the start of the writing process, no author can predict the final outcome of their novel.

Think about it: if the exact draft of the final version of your novel were all already in your head, it would take you a few weeks to write it down. It would be a miracle. You would be God. Or a monkey with an infinite amount of time.

But you aren’t! Ahem, are you?

Allright, maybe chatGPT is

The act of writing is discovery, exploration, trial and error.

Wait… It reminds me of something. Of course! The Schrödinger equation — That beautiful quantum thing that describes the motion of an electron around an atom.

© Anja Stiehlerr

Meanwhile In 1926

— Scheisse! How do I zolve zhis? — mumbles Erwin Schrödinger looking up at the board where he has just written an equation. Outside the cabin in Arosa, Switzerland, the cold wind hisses through the trees. — I do not know how the solution should look like. —

So, what does Erwin do?

He hazards a guess and makes a random solution up. By feeding it into the equation, he produces a new solution. It is still a crappy solution, but slightly better. Erwin gets excited now and continues on and on until the last solution is not that different from the previous one.

At dinner, Erwin forgets to thank his wife for that delicious soup she has cooked and instead says: — Anny, I have solved the Schrödinger equation today. —

— What’s that honey? —

— Ask Mr. Feynman. —

Let’s leave the Schrödingers to their dinner and go back to the equation. To solve it for realistic molecular systems, our quantum hero would need to employ an iterative procedure.

Iteration is the act of repeating a process, to generate a sequence of outcomes, with the aim of approaching a desired goal, target or result. Each repetition of the process is also called an “iteration”, and the results of one iteration are used as the starting point for the next iteration.


Why am I telling you this?

Because this iterative approach is similar to what many great writers do when writing a novel.

Disclaimer: This text is not approved by Schrödinger. In his trip to Arosa, Erwin was most likely accompanied by one of his mistresses, not his wife. And if you really want to solve his equation, one way to do it is described here. Iteration methods are typically used to solve the Schrödinger equation for realistic molecular systems. Have a look here.

Rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and…

Personally, it only takes me a few months to finish a first shitty draft. I believe that writing fast and without judgment is key. But then, I spend years to transform that first crappy text into something that I would dare to call a novel.

This transformation process has many phases, the first one being the rewriting phase.

The value is in how many times you can redo something

John Irving

While in the fast and furious phase I’m like the artist consumed by life, in the rewriting phase I resemble more a scientist with the hands of an engineer and the mind of a mathematician.

Similarly to Erwin Schrödinger, I rewrite that horrible first draft — The quasi-random guess of my final novel — word by word. Every new draft, a little bit less crappy each time, is the input for the second iteration. The second draft for the third one, and so on. Perfection guides me through this iterative process.

One rewriting session focuses on the plot. Another on the chronology of the novel, on the characters, on the dialogues, etc. I do this with one thing in mind: Cut all useless shit. On every page, I only want to see wow stuff.

Every rewritten draft is, hopefully, getting better and better, until a point where the last draft is not that different from the previous one.

“When do you stop?” you ask.

Rewrite your novel Until You Throw up

That is right.

You think your novel is good? Think again.

Cut. Rewrite. Repeat.

Your novel is getting better? Do it again — Cut, rewrite, repeat.

It is almost perfect? Do not believe that voice!

Cut, rewrite, repeat.

After days and weeks of pain and sweat and all of that, one evening, after dinner, a miracle happens. You reach your manuscript with the intention of starting yet another rewriting session, but, once at the desk, you feel funny: In coordination with the diaphragm, your abdominal muscles contract, resulting in an intense pressure to the stomach. When the pressure is suddenly released… You throw up.

Now, this disgusting moment represents the end of your rewriting phase.

You can’t possibly improve that draft. Another iteration may do more harm than good. Congratulations: You have done the best you can.

Final Thought

The rewriting phase is a pain, I admit it. It is not fun at all. It is a lot of work. For example, the first shitty draft of the manuscript I have recently submitted consisted of 250.000 words. I have cut them down to 140.000 words during more than 70 rewriting iterations.

This process is like climbing a high and steep mountainous path, not knowing what you will find on the top. But believe me, after such a climb, the landscape of what your novel has become is breathtaking. And from there is all downhill.


I took the “Million Copies” cover photo in Buenos Aires.
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