Archive for category How to write a book
How many drafts does a novel need? Some are ready for an editor by the second or third draft. Others – like mine – are assembled in slow layers of revisions, a process of discovery. There’s more about that in What Takes Literary Authors So Long.
I wouldn’t be surprised if I went through a manuscript at least 50 times, but I’ve never counted. So for Ever Rest I’m keeping a draft diary. How many times do I set out from the start? What am I doing each time and how much difference does it make?
Right now, I’m starting draft 10, which on my usual timescale is early days. But my draft diary has already revealed some surprising and paradoxical benefits of slow writing.
Outline first, obvs
Ever Rest has been with me a long time. I wrote it originally as a short story, read it out at a workshop and the feedback was unanimous – it had enough guts to be a novel. So began long hours of staring at plot cards in uffish thought, and much collecting of Undercover Soundtracks (music for writing… see here). Finally, I’d assembled a set of troubled characters and some torments for them. I put my headphones on and began writing.
Draft 1 – inhabiting the scenes for the first time. I was trotting nicely through the outline when a couple of characters went off piste and sent everything to pot. Somehow, though, it made glorious sense so I clung on and wrote to the end. And hurrah, I had a wordcount of 76,123. The original short story was 7,000 and I’d been worried it wouldn’t make novel length. Onwards.
Draft 2 – dealing properly with the disobedience in draft 1. It made intuitive sense, but why? Draft 2 was understanding this, pushing the characters harder. When I landed at the end I had 107,471 words. Shortness wasn’t going to be a problem. I suspected much of the wordcount was flab, but I now had room to cut.
Draft 3 – getting strict about facts. I’d left a lot of factual gaps so I didn’t nonce around with research I wasn’t going to use. What colour is a police uniform in Kathmandu? Now it was worth finding out. Also I filled the gaps in back story. How do x and y know each other? When did crucial event z happen?
This draft fizzled out, alas. Other deadlines intervened and I made my ghostwriting course for Jane Friedman. After that the manuscript looked like an exam in a language I didn’t speak, so I started again, draft 3.2. Pretty soon, draft 3.2 did something that disrupted the beginning, so I rewound again and started draft 3 for the third time.
Drafts 4-7 The original short story was a first-person narrative. In enlarging it, I added a lot of people and it grew into an ensemble piece, with short chapters from different viewpoints. Several characters had matured much further than their original roles, so I needed dedicated drafts to give them proper space.
Meanwhile, the book’s Undercover Soundtrack was now the size of a small record shop.
After a detour for a little travel memoir, draft 8 began with a radical scene reshuffle. The book had never felt balanced so I put a main character’s introduction earlier, where it ran more smoothly. Often I don’t know why something is wrong until I make a drastic change; then it seems to sigh with relief.
I was also worried about easing the reader into the story, so I promoted an outsider character to a bigger role. If I introduced the story through him, the reader could learn alongside him. His back story looked thin, so I tipped a lot more words in to give him a more defined life. But despite all this, he was boring. What to do? One of the other characters had a job that resonated with the novel’s main themes. What if he did her job? At first this seemed inspired; a perfect fit. Then I began to hear a false note. Instead of a pleasant resonance, it screamed the smart parallels in the reader’s face.
By the end of draft 8, they were back to their original professions. And I realised I’d been right the first time. The person who originally had that job had a bigger arc I hadn’t suspected. I only found out by breaking the book.
Draft 9. I now knew the supporting character couldn’t kick the book off. So I tried the most complicated character as centre stage. I hadn’t before because I’d thought her situation was too strange and required copious explanations. But if I could find one detail that would plug the reader into her world? I found it. Geronimo. With this new opening, I then chopped a number of redundant scenes and made a list of scenes that were missing. I usually find these tricky to write, but I found if I started typing and made the characters talk to each other, they took the scene further than I ever imagined. When you know the characters, they will surprise you when they talk for themselves.
And now I begin draft 10. What now? In the previous drafts, I’d been singling out particular threads or problems. Now I’m going to read the book in its entirety, to listen to the whole mix. I think I know what I’ve made, but I’m not yet certain. Wish me luck.
Oh and what’s the wordcount? 110,213. Each round, I’ve culled and added a lot, and I’m sure there’s more that can be trimmed, but it seems to have found its comfortable weight. Expect a whopper, guys.
So here are my 3 wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process
- A massive switch in my original plan was so intuitively right … that discovering why helped me understand the whole book.
- Sometimes you have to break the book to understand how it works. Swapping characters’ roles, giving the opening chapter to a different character, even changing the main viewpoint were all useful experiments. Even if you restore it to the way it was, you come away with a stronger understanding. (You might also like Revision is Re-vision.)
- When you know the characters, that’s when they might surprise you most.
Thanks for the balcony pic, Maxpixel.
Are you a slow writer? Have you discovered any wondrous paradoxes? Share them here.
Need a writing plan? My method (including time spent staring at plot cards in uffish thought) is in Nail Your Novel.
Want to know more about Ever Rest’s progress? Get updates in my newsletter.
Have you got a manuscript that might be ready by July 2018? You might be interested in this competition from the writing/publishing collective Triskele Books. And I’m honoured to announce that I’m the judge in the final!
If you’ve been around this blog a bit, you’ll know that Triskele is a publishing house owned and run by authors. The members provide all the support and editorial finessing that occur in a publishing house (many other posts about them here).
Anyone can enter, whether it’s your first book or whether you’ve published many times before. Triskele are looking for a standout manuscript they can help along and the winner can tailor their input to their needs – whether it’s polishing or developmental work or help with the nitty-gritty of publishing. Last year’s winner, Sophie Wellstood, was so excited after working with Triskele’s feedback that she pitched to a literary agent – and had representation in three days. The only proviso is that the manuscript must be unpublished. Other rules? You’ll find them here.
Triskele’s team will sift through the entries and choose six finalists … and then it’s my job to pick the final winner! I’m sure there will be adventures and insights to report, so stay tuned. If you want to tweet it there’s a hashtag #thebigfive. And perhaps you’d like to have a go.
Those walls and rooms, the fields under that bright spread of sky, contained me in my earliest years. A family house is one of your guardians. As a quiet, imaginative child, I had spent as much time alone with it, on my inward paths, as I had with its people. I had a relationship with it in its own right.’
This is from the opening piece in Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction, just published in the winter edition of The Woolf. The piece is an obituary for the Arts & Crafts house in Alderley Edge, Cheshire that was my family home and was demolished in February. The Woolf has made a special feature including my photos, so if you’re already familiar with the piece you can see the wood-panelled hall, the distant view of Jodrell Bank radio telescope, the house with its original windows and its ‘bus-garage’ makeover that I was so snooty about. And a rare sighting of the giant stone ball that caused a madcap afternoon long, long ago. Do come over.
Prefer to go straight to the book? Find it here.
This year I’ve been one of the guest tutors at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s site Writers Helping Writers. It’s my turn to take the lectern there again, and the subject they asked for is endings.
Are there any must-haves for an ending? Well, the answer isn’t simple, but there are some abiding principles that hold good no matter what you’re writing. You can read about them at Angela and Becca’s site … and if you want even more, there’s a chapter about them in my Nail Your Novel plot book. Have fun!
I don’t often reblog my past posts, but this is particularly topical right now. All the resources you need for a successful NaNoWriMo. Have fun!
I can’t believe it’s already October. And that means it’s just a month until NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, it’s a worldwide writing lockdown where scribblers of all levels undertake to write a 50,000-word draft in just 30 days.
So here’s a list of NaNoWriMo resources I’ve written on this blog and further afield.
1 NaNoWriMo – should you? No, you can’t write a publishable novel in one month – or very few of us can. But that’s not what NaNoWriMo is about. And you can use NaNoWriMo to get a proper, publishable manuscript up and running. Here’s a post about that.
2 So how do you do it? Preparation is key. Yes, it’s allowed. Here’s a work plan I wrote for Writers & Artists.
3. Most outlines focus on the story. Is that too constricting for you? Would you rather just write and see what happens? Here’s…
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Oh my heavens, it’s publication day. Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is no longer a tease in a tweet or a blogpost. It’s a real thing. A paperback book. A hunk of Kindle estate, or Kobo, or whatever other ebook format floats your boat. (Though there are no boats in the travels … plenty of buses, however.)
And my writer/designer friend Henry Hyde has invited me to his blog to chat about it. We cover technical stuff like developing a writing style, influences like Bill Bryson and Gavin Maxwell, and some of the main thematic stops such as the romance of old houses, impostor syndrome and 1970s Doctor Who. Do hop aboard. Oh, and you can find the book here.
Ruinlust. It’s a word that means ‘the unseemly feeling of attraction to abandoned places and crumbling buildings’. At least, that’s what Robert Macfarlane said when I had a chat with him about it on Twitter. And if anyone would know, he would. (Here’s why.)
I don’t understand the ‘unseemly’ part, though I suspect Husband Dave might. He is not as ruinlustful as I am. (‘Must we trek all that way to look at that half-derelict tower, Roz?’)
Anyway, how is this connected with ideas and where they come from?
When book blogger Davida Chazan (The Chocolate Lady) reviewed Not Quite Lost, she pounced on a note in the afterword where I mentioned the settings that had appeared in my fiction. A magnificent decaying mansion in Devon. The remains of drowned towns in Suffolk. They were the seeds of Lifeform Three. Ruinlust, through and through.
But settings can give you more than just a sense of place. As I edited, I had a surprise. I wasn’t just dusting off old anecdotes, I was digging the archeology of my own themes and curiosities. Memory, identity. Buried histories. (More about that here.)
Davida asked me to come to her blog and write a proper post about it. It seems that even if you go back into your own past, it’s still a new journey. Out of sight, not out of mind. Do come over.
I recently had an email from a friend who has a literature PhD. He had read My Memories of a Future Life and wrote me a long, detailed response. Eleven pages, actually, which was quite daunting to open. Somewhat nervously, I read it. I needn’t have worried. It was kind and appreciative.
Indeed, it seemed to give me credit for a number of clever effects that were mainly accidental, not deliberate as he seems to have imagined.
For instance, my decision to give Gene Winter a leather bomber jacket. My faithful chronicler unpicked this as ‘bombing, linked to war – a sign that he will be destructive character’.
My actual reasons for Gene’s outfit were far more practical. I needed him to appear hunched, as if he was keeping the world out. A bomber jacket gives that postural shape in the reader’s mind. I could have left the kind of leather jacket vague, but then it might have suggested a scruffy biker. A different kind of bearing. So Gene wore a bomber jacket.
My friend also observed that Andreq, Carol’s incarnation in the future, is like a geisha. Once he’d drawn that parallel, he found more layers, exploring how geisha inhabit a separate reality, as Andreq does, and Carol has a different reality when she performs, and ‘recreates the spiritual environment that a piece of music represents, just as would a geisha with her client’.
Again, this seemed to give me credit for a lot more calculation than I actually did. When I wrote, I had much simpler aims. I was thinking only of the resonances between my two characters, Carol and Andreq. Though I’m very relieved that this aspect of the book made wider cultural sense.
Reading this essay, I was seeing the book in a new register. There are writers’ reasons and then there are the reasons readers find. Are they necessarily in tune?
I posted about this on Facebook and a merry discussion ensued. Some were reminded of school essays where they’d had to dissect texts for hidden meanings, which they were sure the author hadn’t consciously planted. This is just a fireplace. Anything else you can see is your own problem.
Of course, this is not to say we don’t take care when we write. Every word, image and phrase in My Memories of a Future Life was deliberately placed – but for reasons that were more to do with plausibility and nuance. My priority was controlling the reader’s emotional experience. With Gene’s jacket I was trying not to give a wrong impression, but in my friend’s essay it became a standout signal of its own.
That doesn’t mean I dismiss my friend’s analysis – not in the slightest. His version of the book is just as valid as mine. I wonder if he’d be disappointed to know how those creative decisions were made – that some of the effects he appreciated seem to me to be lucky accidents.
Fundamentally, I think this is a difference between writers and certain kinds of reader. I’m sure many writers are working more on gut than on grey cells.
This recent post at the Literary Hub rounded up a clutch of authors who didn’t have a formal writing education. They learned principally from reading and from life. It wasn’t study; it was an emotional process, a state of eternal noticing, a response as natural as breathing.
One of those writers, Ray Bradbury, I featured in my Guardian masterclass on self-editing. I took the beginning of Fahrenheit 451 and used my beat sheet method to study its structure. I found contrasts and balances that I hadn’t been aware of, subtle ways in which Bradbury plays with our expectations that add to the book’s enthralling effect. The book is itself a masterclass in pacing, balance and contrast (I’ve talked about that here) . In reality, I suspect Bradbury did most of it by instinct rather than by conscious design, but if you put the book through that process, it’s there.
I’ve written before about what creative writing teachers teach. Mostly we direct a sensitivity that is already innate, and awaken the blind areas. The other side of the coin – the learning – is about building habits: first consciously, then so that they become second nature (I’ve written about that here – the three ages of becoming a writer). An example: at first you might have to be told to prefigure a major reversal; after a while, it’s something you knit into the story by gut feeling.
Earlier in this post I talked about ‘controlling the reader’s experience’. You might have laughed in a hollow way because I seem to be proving precisely the opposite. We hope we’re directing the reader to notice the things we want, but actually they scoot off into the text like gerbils and chew random things.
In the end, readers bring themselves to a book. One friend drew a parallel with his work in IT – he said you never knew how a piece of software would work until the users told you. I suppose that’s what we’re doing. Our ‘product’ isn’t even a tangible thing like a theatre production or a picture or a sofa. It’s squiggles on a page or a screen that perform a transforming effect on the reader’s mind and emotions. A novel is code, and we can’t even definitively tell you how we assemble it or how it works.
So I guess that makes it magic too. Do give me your thoughts.
More about the beat sheet? You can find it in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.
Thanks for the chicken pic Christian Bortes on Flickr and thanks Cat Muir for the dancing fireplace.
Oh and this little thing is less than a month to lift-off. Rather excited. Here’s my latest newsletter if you want to catch up, including a free preview.