The Joy of Burning Down the House

by Ben Schrank

Writing a novel should be fun. At the beginning, meander. Don’t be afraid to play around. Get lost. Fall down. Get dirty. The stakes aren’t high because whatever is written will be tossed, ideally without fret or regret. When I began to write Love Is a Canoe I thought I wanted to write about a girl who gets advice from her grandfather while paddling around in a canoe. I meandered for over a year before that girl turned into a boy. I wrote additional narratives that wandered far afield of the novel I would eventually complete, built complex lives at a country inn and indulged in pages of imagery and then, when I found characters I believed in (a senior publishing executive who had disappeared into her persona, an unhappy young married couple, a writer who wrote a popular book of advice on marriage) I wound their stories together. But on the way there, Peter Herman, the character who wrote the book within my book, Marriage is a Canoe, officiated at marriages and then got horribly drunk at them. He was attacked in his house by an unhappy married couple. He started work on a novel. I had a wild time at that wedding, was shocked at the violence an unhappy couple can inflict, and I plotted and wrote a lot of Peter Herman’s dirty, indulgent novel. Then I tossed it all.

Most, if not all, writers work through several drafts. The concept of the writer writing and then throwing material away is not new. But they never say they liked doing it. Julian Barnes says of first drafts in an interview with the Paris Review: “The pleasure of the first draft lies in deceiving yourself that it is quite close to the real thing. The pleasure of the subsequent drafts lies partly in realizing that you haven’t been gulled by the first draft.”
 Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan tells us, in an interview with CNN, that when she writes a novel, it may go through 50 or 60 drafts. Egan says: “The key is struggling a lot.”

Some years ago, Alexandra Alter interviewed 17 authors in the Wall Street Journal about process. All shared some variation on this line, from Amitav Ghosh, “It never gets easier; it’s always hard, it’s always a test.” None said, “It’s indulgent and can be messy and I love every minute of it.” Why does no one writer want to admit that the process of writing, while often terribly trying, can also be bliss? Are writers trying to keep this secret to themselves? I don’t mind dwelling for months on plot lines that likely won’t work. I am happy to lose myself for hours in a conversation between characters that isn’t relevant to the story I know I’ll eventually tell. Perhaps the pleasure I take in process makes me unprofessional. I don’t care. I’m rather a Spartan person but I am defensive of the luxury I indulge in by writing this way.

Visual artists often talk about the allure of retaining the qualities of a child. Picasso’s line is most famous and also most representative: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” But novelists only chest-thump about the pain involved in making their work. Why? If they have been attempting to erect barriers to keep would-be writers out, surely all can agree that that attempt at gate-keeping has failed.

I am now meandering again, working with images I find compelling, like a couple arguing on the moon and a woman sitting on her brownstone stoop in summer. I don’t know how that couple got to the moon or when that woman will get off that stoop. I do know I will happily spend as much time as I like building their stories. Then I will blow them apart without ever feeling bad about the time or energy spent. I am not harming anybody. I believe that if you don’t enjoy the actual process of writing, why write? Pressure to publish? How could one possibly feel a thing so ridiculous at a time like this? Writers should admit that novel-writing is a pleasure.
Ben Schrank is president and publisher of Razorbill, a Penguin imprint that is home to many award-winning and New York Times–bestselling books for children and young adults. Ben is also the author of the novels Consent and Miracle Man. He wrote “Ben’s Life,” a monthly column for Seventeen magazine, in the 1990s. He grew up in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and son. For more information, please visit the author’s website, You can also follow @BDSchrank on Twitter.

Love Is a Canoe, Ben Schrank’s most recent novel, will be published in January. You can read an excerpt here.