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!