The Gift of Penciling It In - Maggie Stiefvater NYT Bestselling Author
November 18, 2019

The Gift of Penciling It In

Back To News

For every novel I write, there’s two novels I throw away.

Sort of.

I’ve now been doing this for a decade — I’m on published novel number 13 or so, depending on how you count ’em — and I’m beginning to figure myself out. Or at least, I’m beginning to accept the things I won’t ever change about my process.

Like throwing stuff away.

I have massive “outtakes” files for each of my novels, the word count for each usually at least as long as the finished novel ends up being, sometimes nearly double. Everything I cut from my manuscript-in-process ends up in them. Sometimes a sentence, sometimes a paragraph, sometimes a scene, sometimes fourteen scenes, sometimes the entire book.

I throw a lot away.

Sort of.

I used to wonder why I always began every novel so wrong. My process generally goes like this: for months, I arduously research and plan. I begin to write. I amass ten or twenty or thirty thousand words of novel.

Then I throw it away.

Sometimes I do this fake beginning two or three times. Sometimes I get further than thirty thousand words in. Sometimes less. Sometimes I show it to my critique partners. Sometimes I even show it to my editor. I always believe my first beginning is the real one. But it never is.

For many years I tried to figure out how to stop trashing so many words. Did I need to plan better? Did I need to wait longer before I began? Less time? What was the magic formula? Surely, I thought, there was a way to simply begin at the beginning and then write the real book instead of so many fake-outs. All that did, however, was result in me making more realistic looking fake-outs that took longer to throw away. I became more married to my wrong beginnings, more certain that this time I had cracked the code, more frustrated when I finally realized that no, this one had to go in the bin, too. The process got slower, not faster.

Then I realized that I was just writing the same way I draw.

If I’m doing a quick line drawing, or something in black and white, or something that I don’t have grand plans for, I’ll just draw it. I don’t need a ton of planning, and I never really think to myself “what if I get into trouble with perspective down the road.” I just shoot from the hip and go for it. Everything just gets finished to the same level. I start, as they say, at the beginning, and go on to the end.

But if I’m doing something with more complexity or something I intend to stand the test of time, something with any level of doubt or problem-solving, I do more planning. I do value studies. I do color studies. And then, when I finally get ready to work on the actual piece, I pencil it in.

I pencil in light shapes of what I intend to do, each line light enough that it will eventually be obliterated by the real art. Light enough that if it’s in a very wrong place (and they often are), it can just be worked over. It’s work that will never be visible by the time the piece is done, but I absolutely need them in order to get started. It’s too daunting, otherwise. I’ll get the overall piece wrong if I just begin at the beginning and work through to the end, because I’ll give so much attention to the small picture that I’ll lose sight of the bigger one. I’ll end up with giant hands or misshapen wings that meet in the wrong place or too much darkness in my focal point. 

Instead, I have to break up that big empty piece of paper into art-sized bits, and then adjust from there. Change a wing position. Hair size. Hand placement. Delete, delete. Draw things, then throw them away.

Sort of.

Because penciling it in isn’t really throwing it away. Those lines were never meant to be seen, so making them disappear isn’t really destruction. They did what they were meant to do.

Likewise, I’ve come to understand I need to pencil in my words, too. I need to lightly draw in big shapes just to break up the blank page, to understand the book I’m trying to create. I need to make rough shapes to understand how they interact in the big picture. People often beg to see my deleted scenes, not understanding how dull, how strange, how disconnected they are. They aren’t for the reader, they’re for me. They’re incomplete thoughts. They’re shorthand, problem solving, work in margins.

So I no longer try to prevent my false starts from happening. Instead, I let them be what they really are: raw lines on an empty page, shape against chaos. A first step. Pencil marks that let me be more confident when it comes time to pick up the stuff that leaves a more permanent mark.

I haven’t changed my process, I’ve just accepted it. A gift to myself, the gift of penciling it in.