The other day I picked up John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, his best-selling novel about spies and espionage during the Cold War, and started reading the introduction that he'd written in 1991 for the book, which first appeared in the United States in 1974.
Two things struck me about what LeCarre had to say in retrospect about writing the book, the first in a trilogy.
He had written a manuscript, an unfinished version of the story, and had stored it for years in a desk drawer before he started writing the story in earnest.
And that unfinished version didn’t even contain George Smiley, the main character.
There’s a third point, too, and it's the most surprising point of all, I think.
You’ll discover it when you read the excerpt below:
I have always wanted to set a novel in Cornwall, and to this day Tinker Tailor is as near as I ever came to doing so. The unfinished version that had lain in my desk drawer for years before I started writing the story in earnest did not contain George Smiley at all, but opened instead with a solitary and embittered man living alone on a Cornish cliff, staring up at a single black car as it wove down the hillside toward him. I had chosen in my imagination a spot not unlike the little harbor of Porthgwarra in West Cornwall, where the cottages lie low on the sea’s edge, and the hills behind seem to be pressing them into the sea. My man was holding a bucket in his hand, on his way to feeding his chickens. He had a limp, as Jim Prideaux has a limp in the version you are about to read, and like Jim he was a former British agent who had walked into a trap set for him by a traitor inside his own service, called “The Circus.”
My original plan was for the Circus investigators to put this figure back into harness, in a way that would provoke the unknown traitor to try his hand again, and thus reveal himself. I wanted the entire story to play in contemporary time and not in the flashbacks I later resorted to. But when I got down to writing the book for real, I discovered that I was painting myself into a corner. I could think of no plausible way to pursue a linear path forward while at the same time peering back down the path that had brought my man to the point where the story began. So one day, after months of frustration, I took the whole manuscript into the garden and burned it, and began again.
LeCarre burned the whole manuscript.
And, after months of frustration, he began again.
Burning the manuscript didn't mean he'd given up on the story.
It meant just the opposite: the story was starting to come into focus.
Try to remember this when you feel as if you've come to a dead-end, an impassable wall, and are ready to burn your manuscript.
Each draft, even those we feel we must burn, helps us get to the next stage.