Kafka vs Hosseini: writing vs re-writing

Listen to Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, both best sellers, talk about his writing process, and in particular the role of first and subsequent drafts:


Writing is largely about re-writing…  So I use the first draft purely as a frame… I understand that it’s going to be lousy…. the heart of the story has to be there in the first draft… I abhor writing the first draft, I love writing subsequent drafts.

This is the exact opposite of the way that Franz Kafka apparently did it:

… it took a single night. On Sunday, Sept. 22, 1912, the day after Yom Kippur, the 29-year-old Kafka sat down at his desk and wrote “The Judgment,” his first masterpiece, in one all-night session. “Only in this way can writing be done,” he exulted, “only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.”

My first reaction is to place Hosseini into the catagory of “old masters” and Kafka into that of the “young geniuses”, using David Galenson’s theory. Remember what that means: Some writers see the creative process as a search, as discovery, as learning; others see it as a finding,  as the execution of a bold idea. Cézanne was the first, Picasso the second, and so forth.

And my second reaction? Well, it was to wonder, once again, whether I am more of a searcher or more of a finder. I certainly could not do a Kafka and write my book in one single night. But I did start with one simple idea and the book is hewing closely to it. As I approach the end, it turned out pretty much exactly as planned.

On the other hand, I proceeded exactly as Hosseini did, by racing through a sloppy first draft in order to erect a skeleton which I have since been putting flesh on. And, of course, there were plenty of discoveries along the way.

So perhaps Galenson’s categories are better thought of as poles, with a spectrum between them.

Incidentally, in the same interview, Hosseini talks about how he first got started selling the book.

I cold-called a bunch of agents through mail. I just sent them three or four chapters with a query letter and a synopsis, … I got rejected more than 30 times … I still have the manila folders of all of the rejections that I received from agencies. I didn’t take it personally, I knew that you have to have a thick skin, that rejection is part of the game…

The rest, of course, is history. He ended up being published by Riverhead, which happens to be my own publisher. Let that be an omen!

5 thoughts on “Kafka vs Hosseini: writing vs re-writing

  1. Only when you begin receiving your “……storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills……..” will you know whether you are a
    “young genius” or “old master”.

    Even then…………..

  2. Ah yes. A “searcher” can only hope to become an old master, a “finder” to become a young genius. 😉 Most of us never do.

    But even if we don’t, we still tend to be either searchers or finders. Just on our itty-bitty teeny-weeny mere-mortal scale…

  3. I think that there is a spectrum for every category of thing you can think of. Take me, for example. It takes me about sixteen hours to write a comment for this blog. Of course, this is due partly to the fact that I’m not dead yet, just partly dead, and I still care what people think about me (see Hannibal blog 3 Jan 09) and the venerable surname of my Crotchety forefathers.

    When I think of re-writes, I always wonder about someone like Charles Dickens. How could someone so prolific have time to re-write? (With a quill, no less.) You have to get pretty close the first time.

    I had tea over the weekend with a very successful author and extraordinarily nice person who writes under the name of T.A. Barron. Mr. Barron sez: “And I do lots of rewrites. How many? As many as it takes to get it right! Like a good stew, novels get better when you boil them down and integrate all the ingredients. Most of my novels take six or seven full rewrites and two years to finish.” See: http://www.tabarron.com/.

  4. The ancestral pressure of the Crotcheties must be overwhelming at times. I believe there was a Crotchety posting comments to the Canterbury Tales; another, under a nom de plume, apparently distributed Senryus during the Edo period….

    T.A. Barron seems like an extremely prolific writer. I must check some of his books out.

    But you reminded me to be baffled again that anybody ever wrote anything at all before word processing. How did they do it? I cut and paste, and move and shift, and annotate….

    If you gave me a quill, I would stop after “Once upon a ti…”

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