How important IS spontaneity in fiction? The answer is: It depends. Some works benefit from having a style that appears spontaneous. However, in my experience, when emerging writers talk about spontaneity and the fear of losing it by redrafting, they are usually talking about the experience of feeling spontaneous as they write. This, they believe, will give the work immediacy, that jumping-off-the-page effect that they admire. O-kay. Spontaneity, the feeling, can be an essential component of good early first drafts for certain types of writers and writing. But this type of spontaneity is not helpful once the writer has got down the substance of the work in the first three or so drafts. So, just like a bikini, spontaneity has a place (for some writers, not all), but it’s not helpful to apply everywhere.
Every writer’s different. Some have story boarded their work before they start. For them, the word spontaneity won’t have the same meaning as it does for a different type of writer, one who likes to write free form early drafts. The second type of writer is of necessity going to require more drafts than one who has planned their whole novel beforehand. The second type of writer must do draft after draft, usually online, until they feel they have got down the bulk of the material they were aiming for. It is from this second type of writer that I most frequently get queries about the worry of losing spontaneity by later drafting. So, from here on, I address myself to them.
The spontaneous, let-it-rip writer, who sometimes doesn’t even know where the story is heading, may be as spontaneous as s/he likes in the early drafts. I don’t want to put a number on the drafts needed because everyone’s different. Only the writer knows when the major content of what they wanted to say is now there on the screen, however imperfectly expressed. Once they sense that this has occurred, then is the time to take a more cool headed approach.
Putting this another way, when the first flush of creative writing is over, at that point, the writer needs to ask: Have I said what I wanted to say? When the answer to this is yes, and only when the answer is yes, then a different approach is required. Then the writer needs to ask: Have I said it the best way possible to get this across to readers? If they want to be read at all widely, at this point they must take their focus away from themselves as writers and turn it towards their readers. I would recommend still working onscreen, doing another couple of drafts, making certain that the content is well expressed — maybe not perfectly, but well enough. What you’re looking for is to make sure that, whatever your vision was, it’s all there, and readable. You might at this point find yourself adding little bits that have been omitted those first few times around.
When that’s done, the writer needs to put the work away for at least three weeks, and then print it out, using one and half line spacing and wide margins. Then the writer sits down with the pages and starts to read, as if reading someone else’s work. What is this fellow trying to say? How well is s/he saying it? You’ll find yourself wanting to make corrections as you read, so have a biro handy. At this point there is little room for spontaneity. You are now refining the style. The time for spontaneity is past.
A note here: It takes a lot of raw enthusiastic energy to dig manually for diamonds, but you would not apply that same raw energy to the cutting and polishing of them. The gung ho type of writer needs to remember that.
And do we ever complain because the cut of a diamond doesn’t look spontaneous?
PS My thanks to Ray, whose question in a comment about my Ten Ways to Make Certain Your Novel Won’t Be Published Traditionally prompted me to write this post.