Chapter Twelve - First Drafts24 August 2010
Completing a first draft of your first story or book is the hardest challenge any writer will ever face. But it doesn’t have to be as scary as it might seem! The first draft should be seen as the first stepping stone to a good story, not the end all and be all of the writing process. Hopefully the following comments from various books that I’ve worked on over the years will help demystify the process and make like a bit easier for anyone facing it in the near future.
I’ve been busy working on two books over the last few days, the one-off fantasy novel that I plan to release further down the line, and the final edit (except for when I check the page proofs) of Death’s Shadow. The two tasks couldn’t be more different. DS is in its final stage, requiring only the most minor of touches and flicks—changing a word here, the structure of a line there—the sort of trivial details which most readers would never notice, but which I like to attend to in order to make the books as tight and seamless as possible. The fantasy book, on the other hand, is still at a very early stage. I was very pleased with it last time I edited it (about a year ago), but this time round I can see that it needs to be trimmed quite substantially. I put in lots of details in the first couple of drafts about the world and society that I’ve created for the book. And they were details that I needed in order to ground the story and exert control over it—it was important that I knew the history of the countries involved, some of the wars that were fought, the customs and laws of the people, etc. But readers won’t need to know those details. So now I’m going through, whittling the book down to its main story, deleting passages which don’t advance it. I’m not getting rid of everything of course—certain parts, or bits of parts, need to be maintained in order to let the story function and make sense. But this is one of those cases where it’s best I not share all of my knowledge with the readers.
When you write a first draft, you have to do it for yourself, and your only goal should be to interest yourself—you have the freedom to take the story off on side-tangents and learn non-essential facts. But if you’re going to publish it and take it to a wider audience, in later drafts you need to focus on what readers are going to take away from it, how they’re going to respond, what they need—and, just as importantly, what they don’t. I’ve cut out some of my favourite paragraphs so far, lines I really liked, that I spent a lot of time thinking about and composing—but they’re paragraphs which aren’t necessary, which are only of real interest to me. You can’t afford to navel-gaze when you write a book—you have to make it accessible to others, make it as much fun for them as it is for you, help them see what you can see in the story.
I think this book is one of my best. It’s certainly one of my favourites out of everything I’ve written over the years. I watched United 93 tonight, the very powerful movie about the 9/11 attacks, and the plane which was forced down by its passengers. It’s a finely made film, terrifying in all the right places, but not overly sensationalised. While watching it, I began to remember that the fantasy book started life back around then. It’s a book I wrote partly in response to that horrible day, to the way the world changed afterwards, to the divided society it has helped lead to. While on the one hand it’s an exciting, action-filled novel, it’s also my way of looking at the world post-9/11, of commenting on it and trying to make sense of it. But in earlier drafts, I let myself wander, wanting to explore all sorts of issues and angles. Now that I’ve let the book rest for a while, I can see that it needs to be faster, that it can’t cover every angle at the same time, and more importantly, that it shouldn’t have to. Good writing is every bit as much about what you don’t say as what you do. Sometimes, for the sake of the story, you need to cut away limbs that don’t serve it. And that can be painful. It can be something you fight. But in the end the story always has to come first. If you can’t accept that, you’re always going to struggle to be a writer. Writing shouldn’t be about what you want to say. It should always be about the story. In a way, writers are only a way for stories to be told, not much more central in the bigger scheme of things than a pen or a typewriter or a PC. We’re tools that stories use. Being a good writer isn’t about proving to the world how skilled you are at wielding words—it’s about finding out if you can get to a point where good tales flow through you. We’re conduits, no more, no less.
If that doesn’t make any sense to you, don’t worry, there’s no reason it should. It’s a writer’s thing. And if you’re a writer or a wannabe writer, and it still doesn’t make sense? Again, don’t worry. One day, if you keep plugging away, it will.
Finished the latest edit of my fantasy book on Sunday. I trimmed it by about 20,000 words, so it’s much leaner and pacier than it was before!!! This is what many young writers don’t understand and get frustrated about when they first begin seriously writing—they think everything good about a book happens first time round, and grow disheartened when their first draft work isn’t as polished as that of the published authors they admire. What they don’t realise - what the general public never sees - is that there’s a whole lot of work that goes on unseen with a book, a lot or re-writing and editing and tinkering. When I wrote the first draft of this book a few years ago, I was delighted with it. Then when I left it a while, I realised quite a bit of it had to be changed. Then when I left it another while, I saw that lots more needed to be tightened up. And as pleased as I am with the current draft, I’m sure I’ll find even more ways to fine-tune and improve it next times round, and the time after that, and the time after that. A first draft is always a work of belief—it will be rough and half-baked and in need of serious re-writing, but you have to believe that the finished article will be something much smoother and more impressive. And if you put in the hard work and re-writes and edits, it WILL be.
I finished the first draft of the first book of the new series today. Just 8 days—that’s a record for me!!! But, having said that, I almost always fly through first drafts—I don’t believe in dragging out the process. I think you’re better off to get through the story as quickly as you can first time round. Once the bones of it are down on paper, you can crack on with the the re-writing and editing process, and spend as much time on it as you need to get it right. There are already some things I want to change about the book, a few structural tweaks I became aware that it needed while I was working on the first draft. But rather than stop, go back, and work on those points now, I pushed ahead and finished. I’ll see to them next time round. The problem with side-tracking yourself midway through a novel is that you might lose focus, and lose sight of where you’re heading. Many a writer has come unstuck by pausing to fix something in an early chapter—they spend so much time working on an element of the book, that they lose touch with the overall aim of it, and end up never completing it.
Finished my latest edit of Book 9 of The Demonata. I’m pleased with how it’s shaping up now. The first draft was unwieldy—I had a LOT of information which I felt the need to convey, and the middle third of the book dragged like a legless elephant!!! I’ve now managed to whittle the book down by almost 17,000 words (!!!!), and it feels nice and tight now. The excesses of the first draft were necessary for me, in order to get everything down that was in my head, so that I could then sift through it, keep what was essential to the story, eliminate all the bits that didn’t need to be in the book. Sometimes you have to do that when you’re writing. It’s always easier if you know exactly what you want to say, and can peg the structure first time round. But if you’re unsure, it’s better to forge ahead, slap your thoughts down messily, and then sort them out later. I’m a big believer, as I’ve said before, in the powers of action. It’s normally much better to dive into a book and get writing, than to sit around thinking about it so much that you start to get scared of the story. Writing can often be a leap of faith—you need to believe that the story will come good in the end, that you have the power to mould it into shape in later drafts. And you have to keep that faith, even if the first draft turns out a lot messier than you anticipated, if at all seems to be too much to deal with, if the story feels like it’s spun out of your control. You should never give up, just keep chipping away and re-writing and editing and tinkering ... and eventually it will all work itself out. Fingers crossed!
I’ve been busy over the weekend, editing more of City of the Snakes. I haven’t needed to make any major structural changes, but I’ve found lots of ways to trim things down, to tighten up lines, to get the rhythm just right. This is one of the most important parts of the writing process, and something that every young writer needs to come to understand before they can move forward with their work. With very few exceptions, writers don’t get things right the first time round. (Indeed, I can only recall one writer, Mickey Spillane, ever saying that he only did a first draft. And while I’m a big fan of Spillane’s fast-paced, trashy, throwaway work, he’s probably not the best role-model for would-be authors!!) A first draft is a starting point, and it’s normally longer and flabbier than it needs to be. When I started out writing novels, my first drafts were very rough—I had to re-write them afterwards, sometimes a few times, before they began to click into a shape that I could work with and edit down. These days I usually do a pretty good first draft, in terms of writing something that’s close to the final structure of the published book. But it’s still only a starting point. I never worry about the finer details of a novel when I’m doing a first draft. I throw down anything I think the story might need. Sometimes I’ll know I’m not going to use what I’m writing, but I’ll write it anyway, just in case anything good comes out of it. Then, when I’m done and I have a finished draft, I go back through it, time and time again, editing, tightening up, searching for the right way to structure each line, working on the pace, the style, the flow. It’s like whittling down a piece of wood—you carve out the rough shape of what you want, then spend a lot of time patiently working on the finer lines and curves. It’s important in this business that you learn to put together a good first draft. But it’s even more important that you prepare yourself to devote the time and effort required to see through the editing process. Don’t be disheartened when you don’t get things right the first time—nobody does. You need to go through your work again and again and again. By the 5th or 6th edit, if things are going well for you, you’ll start to have something.
I’ve been busy editing all 12 of the “Zom-B” books over the last few weeks. I’ve finished first drafts of all 12 books already, but I like to spread the editing process out over a few years, giving myself plenty of time to tweak and get each book exactly the way I want. This is the first time I’ve been able to read through all 12 books, one after the other—it will also be the last, as I’m close to producing my final drafts of the first couple of books—once I’ve done my final bit of work on those, I won’t be returning to them. I’ve been reminded, editing so many books, of something that I can’t stress enough to young writers—YOUR FIRST DRAFT IS USUALLY BETTER THAN YOU THINK!!!
I find writing the first draft of a book the hardest part of the writing process. It’s also the most disheartening. When I’m in the middle of a first draft—indeed, even when I’ve finished it—I often think that a book is deeply flawed, that it isn’t working, that I’ll have to re-write it completely or even scrap it. The dialogue will seem stilted. I won’t feel like it has rhythm. Sometimes I’ll wonder why I ever started it in the first place. Then, I leave it for a few months, and when I return to it, a magical thing happens—it gets better without me doing anything to it!! Of course nothing has actually changed when I return to a completed first draft—except inside my head, and the way I respond to it. Having finished a first draft and given myself a good break from it, I can look at it more objectively, and what I find more often than not is that the book works far better than I feared. Sure, I’ll have to go through it several time before it’s ready to be published, tweaking and fine-tuning and sharpening-up. And yes, sometimes, I have to cut out a lot of passages, or re-write certain scenes, or fit in new scenes in certain places. But, generally speaking, the books are far more solid than they appeared to be when I was huffing and puffing my way through the first draft.
As I say elsewhere in my Writing Tips, it’s vital that you finish what you start. You won’t really make great advances as a writer until you start completing first drafts. You never learn as much about story-telling as when you take a story all the way to its natural end. So it’s important not to judge your first draft too harshly. Have faith in yourself and the story you’re telling. Ignore the voice of doubt at the back of your mind, the niggling worries that it’s no good, that you’re wasting your time. Nobody gets it perfect first time round, and even established, experienced authors like me worry. It’s natural to worry. Just don’t let your worries put you off your stride. Keep pressing on, stick with it, and see it through to its end. Because what you’ll almost always find when you look back is that your stories—and you—are usually a lot better than you might think they are!!!!