Tales of a fifth draft nothing

Matchsticks 2

I can’t find an original artist to credit for this so my efforts to be better at unthieving are thwarted

I am – somewhat to my surprise – approaching the end of another draft of Oneiromancer. This is the fifth time I’ve been though it; here are some random-ish thoughts on the process and the results.

  •  It’s done! Until the next time I do it, it’s done!
  •  It took forever. Due to child-wrangling issues and the perversity of life in general, this draft took around ten months to complete
  • Because of this, changes I made in August took until February to be acted upon. This is not ideal, but…
  • …It was aided by my Big Spreadsheet of Things, upon which I noted the page numbers of each chapter, a rough account of what happens in each scene, and through whose eyes we view it. This meant finding errant links was simpler than would otherwise been, and swearing was kept to a minimum
  • This is, hopefully, the last really substantive edit I’ll have to do…
  • …But I know this won’t be the case as no novel survives contact with the industry
  • The problem with taking a long time over an edit comes when you take a big chunk o’ work from the beginning and reinsert it two-thirds of the way through. Can you remember just what you were thinking six months earlier? You can not. If you’re lucky you left yourself a treasure map and a series of ever more intricate clues which lead you further and further into a conspiracy spanning continents, decades, and, quite possibly, planes of existence
  • Cryptic notes are often worse than no notes
  • If you can cut, cut. Unless you shouldn’t. In which case, add
  • Writing is confusing
  • The novel is, generally, not too bad: much of the plot hangs together…
  • …But I still worry, especially about characters, mood, and finding the right balance between description and overwhelming the reader
  • The climax still thrills me, which is clearly a good sign. The problem is that, in this state, you can miss errors as you’re too eager, or too much seeing what you want to see and not what’s actually there
  • Worrying over fine details is, at this stage, pointless. If the hook’s strong enough, if I can get someone to read past the first ten chapters they’ll stick with me until the end. Then they’ll tell me everything I did wrong and I can fix it
  • Getting someone to read past the first ten chapter (and by ‘someone’ I mean an agent or editor) is the tricky bit
  • The novel currently stands at 125,776 words. The previous draft was 130,767. That’s a trimming of 4,990 words, or (roughly) a twenty-sixth. Should more go? Draft One was 140,034, so we’re heading in the right direction. Obviously I’m presupposing that shorter is better, but that’s not true. Leaner is better, but muscle weighs more than fat and skeletons rarely know true love

And that’s all, folks. Now I have to think about something different to blog about for the next few weeks until I’m deep into a new project. Hopefully I’ll have exciting Night Shift news for you soon too. Smoke me a kipper, wonderful folk, and I’ll be back for breakfast.

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The beginning of the end

Calvin
I’m writing a short story. I am, in fact, writing the same short story for the fourth time. I’m not editing – changing one word here, switching a character there – but actually writing the story over, from scratch, for the fourth time.

There are reasons for this lunacy. The first is simply that I can. I have no pressing work, no great inspirations, no editor beating down my door for work as yet undelivered. I have lacuna-ed and I’m just taking a quiet moment to do as I damn well please, thank you very much. Sometimes it’s fun just to write.

The second reason for all the rewrites is that this story is teaching me even as I try to get it down. The original idea was of a terrorist attack and its immediate aftermath from the point of view of one of the attackers, but as I wrote it I realised that the event itself wasn’t very interesting. The escape is where it’s at.

So I rewrote it, losing the first half entirely. I got it down, knowing it wasn’t very good (get the ideas on the page then endlessly refine, that’s the writing way), and printed it off. But as I mulled it over I realised the location was wrong. I’d set it in a church, but it needed to be in a museum. And that I needed another character as an interlocutor.

So I started a third draft. And it was going fine until I started to think about how the story would end. And it occurred to me that this was the interesting bit. The aftermath of the aftermath. The characters. This was the story I wanted to write, not some faux-action cliché with dull people and dull arguments. I wanted an exhausted survivor with her hostage on public transport at night.

So this is what I’m writing. Not an all-action balls-out sausage-fest but a quiet, reflective piece on the nature of belief and causes, and let’s just throw in a little fake news there as well.

What I’m not writing is a novella. You might be reading this and thinking that I’ve been building and building and building a story and that I should just tell it all. But what I’ve done is tell myself the background (though that background has shifted somewhat from my first attempt), and this is incredibly useful: I know, in detail, how my characters got where they are now.

But my readers don’t need to see that background. Not because it isn’t very good – I have confidence in my abilities to make it good, with the help of my friendly neighbourhood writing group – but because it’s not the story I want to tell.

Maybe this tale will turn into a novella, but it won’t go back to the beginning; if anything it’ll extend from where I thought the end was. Or maybe I’ll just realise that I still haven’t found the right beginning and I’ve another start to find.

So I’m writing a short story. Maybe one day I’ll find where it ends.

Fear of deadlines

writers-clock

There is one thing that scares me about the prospect of writing for a living, and it’s the thing I want most. It may be an illusion, an unfounded fear, but the prospect of writing a book a year is troubling me.

I should say that this is not an imminent prospect. Nor do I know anyone in the situation. This concern is solely based on casual lines thrown out in author interviews online and in ‘Writing’ magazine. But the knowledge that ‘one book a year’ is standard in publishing contracts – exactly the sort of thing I’ve strived for over the last ten years – is currently atop my mind.

I’m not worried about suffering writer’s block or my well of ideas running dry. Hell, I’ve got ideas all over the place; my biggest problem is which to draw and which to keep sheathed. I’m just worried about the simply logistics of getting a publishable work out to a specific timescale.

Let’s look at this in detail. My current work-in-progress is Oneiromancer. The first draft of that took nine months to get down. I then did a quick read-through to kill obvious errors – the plotlines that I set up then chose not to develop – and to weave in anything that, come the end, I felt I’d not set up properly. That took two months. Then it went to beta-readers and I had the agonising two-month wait for feedback. That’s over a year right there.

My readers gave good advice, spotted errors, spotted weaknesses, that needed addressing. This led to my major copy-edit. That took six months. Now I’m doing my read-out-loud through to improve rhythm, dialogue and pace as well as to further hunt out typos and other errors. That’ll take another three months. And then..? Back to readers? Or out to agents?

That’s 22 months minimum before I’ve got something approaching a decent standard.

And that’s what I’m worried about. I care about the quality of my output. I could churn out words fast enough to keep the publishing wolves from the door, but only at the expense of quality. The time I spend editing is the most important time. I want to produce good work – words that grab, a story that bites and gnaws and doesn’t let go.

A book a year? A draft a year, no problem: but a work worthy of publication? I’m not so sure.

It doesn’t help that I have a more-or-less full-time job. I’m under no illusions; a book contract won’t allow me to give up Paid Employment. I’ll be writing – like I do now – alongside other intractable commitments.

It’s quite possible I’m worrying unnecessarily. Quite apart from the improbability of my finding an agent in the first place, it’s my hope that experience shortens the process. As I grow the errors should diminish. You also have the benefit of an agent acting as primary reader. Again I’m basing this on author interviews alongside my own limited experience, but an agent will read a draft and will be able to tell you where the work is falling down and where it needs to be propped up. Add in professional editors and the whole process should be shortened.

This is all theoretical. I have no agent. I have no publisher. But I do have work I believe in, and a (possibly misguided) feeling that each work I produce takes me closer to my goal. And, for all I’ve just written, a traditional publishing contract remains my target. I’m good enough. I’m walking the right roads. I’ll get there.

But that goal isn’t the end of the story. It’s merely another page on a longer, harder journey: a trek littered with Deadlines and the fear of pushing out underdeveloped work. I’ve read too many rushed novels to know that isn’t a possibility. But how to avoid falling into that trap myself?

A page is a playground

A page is a playground, a wonderland. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of letting the fingers roam where they will – in a non-innuendic sense, of course – and creating something new and free and unique to you.

Dust

I’ve been writing for some years now and maybe the surprise is that it’s taken me this long to realise this. Maybe it’s a consequence of writing this blog; I have a new outlet for my scrawls-in-the-dirt; I’ve freed myself to create words and to trust my voice. But I’m noticing it in my real writing too.

I’m midway through my major structural rewrite – or at least the first structural rewrite – of Oneiromancer. This involves hacking at the tangled undergrowth of words with the blunt machete of confusion. It means cutting and saving sections separately, writing new linking scenes, then shoving the first lot of words back in a totally different part of the manuscript – which of course involves considerable rewrites as dead characters come back to life, previously vigorous people have gone for a little lie down, and all that was no longer is.

It also involves writing whole new scenes. What fun! What joy! To stretch back, kick off one’s metaphorical boots and dig out the dog-eared Slippers of Creation. This is playtime. There is no pressure. There’s plenty of time to worry about whether the words are any good or whether you’re hitting precisely the right notes. You know the whole novel’s going to be reassessed later – both by yourself and, hopefully, by those mythical outside influences: writing colleagues, tutors, professional editors or, in my case, parents.

I’ve done edits like this before but this is possibly the first time I’ve felt this sense of freedom. The reason for this? I think it boils down to confidence. Somehow, over the course of the last year and without me even noticing, I seem to have found some self-assurance from somewhere. It’s not that my work has improved but that I’ve stopped caring so much about the quality. That is to say (because I can’t let such a bold statement go unqualified) that I know the quality will come. Not in this edit: this is about getting the story right. But over the course of future drafts.

So for now I am building castles in the sand. I am playing in the mud. I am waving my wand in the wrong direction (again in a non-innuendic sense. Get your mind out of the dirt, you mucky person). Some – maybe a lot – of what I’m doing will be cut, deleted, or moved. So what? Mistakes are the first step to success. Some scenes will have to be shortened; some will need to be expanded. The only thing that’s limiting me is my own impatience: at some point I want to send this manuscript out to agents; at some point I want to start a new project.

But the future will take care of itself. Right now it’s time to lie back and enjoy the feeling of dirt beneath my fingernails.

Phoney war

I am redrafting. Specifically, I am doing my third draft of Oneiromancer, and things are quiet, calm, and sedate. The phoney war is underway.

The first draft was the initial creation: nine or so months of blood, sweat and metaphors. Then came a quick(ish) four-month canter through the text to smooth out the kinks: to eliminate underdeveloped ideas and massage out the obvious imprecisions. Then came the beta-feedback, which was then combined into a new Masterscript (a physical printout much abused and bescribbled). Now I am back at the computer trying to turn all this information into a coherent story.

Editorium End

The Masterscript. Actually an old version as I’m too incompetent to access fresh files

It is slow, steady work. I suppose technically speaking it’s a copy-edit: scenes are being moved, split, merged, rewritten. Points-of-view are changing. Structural changes are afoot. But I am incapable of doing a pass-over without a little bit of line-editation in the margins. Typos – bane of my existence – are being squished and the odd clumsy line rewritten.

This is a dangerous time. Neither fish-nor-fowl, I risk missing big things for the sake of the little and little things for the sake of the big. I guess it’s worth saying that I don’t see this as my final rewrite. This is, after all, only my third draft. Every other piece I’ve completed has gone through at least seven run-throughs. Bitter experience has taught me that a novel is only finished once you’ve released or abandoned it. Five years ago I could think ‘yeah, this is it, this is nigh-on perfect.’ No more.

But back to Oneiromancer. I call this stage the phoney war because I’m still marshalling my troops, assigning reinforcements and strengthening the line. Because I’m still in a state of uncertainty. Aside from a few simplifications to my earliest scenes (removing aliases and a POV that prevented immediate graspage of characters) the changes have so far been small and unthreatening. I’ve decided to ignore calls for more description because I’m not that sort of novelist. Small changes.

(Possibly too small: there is still information that I may want to go back and squeeze within the introduction. But I’ve left this because a) I can’t find the places to put it in and b) I’m unsure whether it’s really necessary. I’ll need another round of feedback to decide me.)

Ahead, though, lurk the greatest changes. There is one particular scene that my betas all demand be moved. Were that it so simple. Moving one scene requires fairly wholesale changes: a flank withdrawn, the cavalry force-marched across bitter terrain to open up a whole new salient. Injuries must be bandaged, wounds cauterised and peg-legs installed. The real work lies before me.

And that’s just this draft. Every change risks an epidemic of blood-sucking typos, of vampiric continuity-errors, of characters suddenly lacking motivation and depth. Every copy-edit requires its own line-edit.

Worse: every draft requires a new phalanx of test-readers. I want to get this novel published. This is perhaps the most commercial work I’ve ever done. I want to find an agent. I want to see this on the shelves.

But you only get one shot with every agent/publisher. This is why beta-readers are so important. You’re never been the best judge of your work and an outside opinion is essential. My team have done a superb job of highlighting the many sins I’ve committed. Now I have to take my time and get this damn thing right.

It might take another year – longer – before I dare launch my assault on the bastions of respectability. The work I’m doing now is essential. The furnaces are burning, the mill-wheel is grinding. Progress is slow, controlled.

Soon the guns will be firing in earnest. But only when I’m ready.

A new beginning

A few months ago I put the opening scene of Oneiromancer right here on this very blog. It was a first draft. It wasn’t very good. And that’s fine: part of the reason I posted it was because it wasn’t great. It’s part of the process – a fair reflection of the sort of shit I churn out as I find my way, as I walk that road towards – hopefully – publishability.

But that’s my rational brain talking. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about it; vulnerable, embarrassed. It wasn’t very good. Letting the great wide world see something so raw and incomplete is terrifying. Plus it’s counter-productive: I’m trying to build a following. Anyone who read that will think I’m an amateur. It will not get me a publishing deal. It will not awe people with my hard-earned skills. It will not make anyone eager to read the rest of the work.

Now I’ve completed the first draft and I’m on the rewrite. So I’ve decided to put the second draft here on my blog and to expose myself again. This is partly to do all the things I’ve just said: I want to impress. But I also thought it’d be interesting – for anyone interested in the process – for people to be able to compare and contrast the two versions. To see what I’ve kept, what I’ve cut, the ways in which the scene has developed or changed emphasis. If that’s you, the link above will hyperspeed you to the original post.

Or you could just want to read an opening salvo. In which case, read this version. It’s better. If you disagree then something’s gone badly wrong somewhere.

And please, please, please let me emphasise: this isn’t finished either. It’s closer, but two drafts are nothing. Many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip etc etc. Let me show the whole thing to my beta-readers first. Let me get serious, deep feedback. Only in context will we know if it works or not.

Comments, as always, are welcome.

 

*          *          *

 

“You’re ready?” Rosenkrantz asked. He held his sword by his side, handsome in his doublet and hose.

Guildenstern shivered, though the night was warm. The estate wasn’t silent – never was, not in the middle of London – but it was the quietest it would get, mid-way between the pubs closing and the rush-hour starting back up again. “Are you –”
“We’ve been through it how many times?” Rosie cut her off. “We want to make a difference, right?”

Gilly sighed and turned away. She looked over the concrete balcony at the half-lit plaza – more concrete, the occasional stunted tree failing to bring life to the yard. In the distance there was a scream and a thump, as of someone running into a wheelie-bin. She twitched back her long dress, unsure, now they were actually out here, just how to go about being a vigilante.

Rosenkrantz touched her arm. “There,” he said.

She focused on a ground-floor gap in the buildings. A woman, colour swamped by the amber of security lights and streetlamps, burst into the square created by the arms of squat tower-blocks in which they stood. She looked terrified; even from their vantage point – twenty metres away and another fifteen up – they could see her eyes were wide, her breathing laboured. She glanced behind her – and into the amphitheatre came a man. Broad-shouldered, well built with a black beanie pulled tight over his ears, he sighted the girl and made for her.

Gilly felt Rosenkrantz tense as he raised the sword again and turned for the stairs –

“Wait,” Gilly said.

“What? This is what we’re here for. Vigilantes, remember?” Below the girl was sprinting for the far exit, the narrow gap between towers on the east side. The man was catching her, though; easy loping steps that covered the ground deceptively quickly. “She needs –”

“Something’s not right here,” Gilly said.

Rosenkrantz shifted uncomfortably. The sword remained unsheathed.

Below them the girl finally realised she wasn’t going to make the exit. She turned at bay; seeing this, the man too slowed, adopted a stance more ready for combat. Gilly watched his empty hands flex. He said something – a question, maybe. By way of an answer the girl reached into her demin jacket and pulled out a flick-knife. Street-lights reflected off the blade.

Still the girl backed off, the man cautious, now, but still coming at her. She slashed the air between them.

Rosenkrantz was fiddling with his scabbard, rocking it back and forth. “Gil –”

“No,” Gilly said. “Just… just watch.”

The girl below them slashed again, skipped forwards as she thrust towards her opponent’s chest. But this time, almost faster than the watchers could perceive, the man’s hand shot out and crashed against the girl’s wrist. The knife skittered across the paving stones.

The girl had backed up against one of the bare trees that seemed so out of place in this land of concrete. She shook her head mutely – and then, and then –

She changed.

Slowly she stood up straighter until she was taller than the man before her. The fear went from her expression, her mouth drawing tight and contemptuous. The man took a half-pace back and she laughed, hard and cruel, and there was something unhuman in it, some harmonic that rattled the fillings in the teeth. For a moment the background noise, the ever-present traffic, the nightbirds and night-dwellers were silenced.

Then the dogs started barking.

The woman held up her arm. Gilly watched as her fingers, her nails – they grew, sharpened, became talons. Her face darkened but there was no shadow on her now; as if a tattoo was only now coming to the surface.

The man stepped forwards and rammed the heel of his hand into the bridge of her nose. The snap echoed around the courtyard. She staggered back against the tree. And all the time she was changing, chin becoming pointed –

The man was on her before she could recover, grabbing a wrist in each hand and holding those horrible bladed fingers up and away –

“She’s not bleeding,” Rosenkrantz muttered. He was right. The nose seemed distorted but there was no splatter, no trail – and no sign of pain on the woman-thing’s face.

She tried to kick out but the man was ready for her, twisting his knees to deflect her legs away. She tried to angle her blades to scalp him but his grip was too strong, too rigid.

With a flexibility that Gilly knew she’d never have, the man calmly extended a foot and planted it in the woman’s neck. He pulled on her arms, stretching her, throttling with the dark sole of his boot. She let out a little gurgling sound, drool spilling down her sharp chin, head forced back against the tree-trunk at her back. She spasmed and shook, the gurgling turning into a keening wail. Still the man kept the pressure on.

“We should go down,” Gilly said. But before she could move there was a crunch of cartilage and the girl-thing went limp.

The watchers made their way towards the staircase as the man kept his boot on the throat. It was only as they reached the harsh grey steps that he stepped back, let go of the girl-thing’s arms and let her slip motionless to the ground.

“Follow him,” Gilly said. “We need to know who he is.”

The man was looking round now, face calm and controlled. As if he did this sort of thing every night. Rosenkrantz drew Gilly deeper into shadows. She didn’t think they’d been seen.

“Follow him,” she said again and he turned and started to stride back the way he’d come.

“So this is vigilanteism, is it?” Rosenkrantz muttered. “Not exactly as I’d imagined. What about you?”

“I’m going to dispose of that… thing.”

“What? Why?” he asked as they hurried, as quiet as they could, down to the courtyard.

“It’s not dead yet. Not dead enough.”

 

Beyond the Editorium

Editorium End

The lambuscript and scene-by-scene guide all scribbled-upon and ready to be encomputerised

Update time: I’ve just finishing my first read-through of my first draft of Oneiromancer. For those new to this blog, don’t worry if that means nothing to you. I’ve not posted that much about the actual story, and I’m not going to start here. There’s plenty of work still to be done, and plenty of chance to snare you into my world of visions and wonder.

The read-through, all cosy in my Editorium, has been fun. The slog of the first draft, the puzzle-box devising, the tormenting of my characters and their individual journeys, is over. There is a sense that the hard work is done, although (if experience is any guide) that’s almost certainly untrue. I’m sure my beta-readers, when this finally goes out to them, will request extra bits in the most inconvenient way possible. They will demand I excise whole sections that contain crucial information that must be retained somewhere, somehow. And I will swear.

Back to this run-through. Let’s start by saying what the second draft not: it’s not going through and correcting spelling and improving prose. That’s what I used to think. When I first started writing seriously I thought that editing was improving the writing and killing typos. Now I know I was wrong. The most important thing here is to fix the plot. Sure, as I read through I’m keeping an eye out for base errors, for poor dialogue or clumsy (or simply second-best) prose; I’m incapable of not looking for things like this. But at this stage plot is paramount.

Sometimes you have to write things to work out in your mind where you need to go. This is where the famous soggy middle comes from, I think. Sometimes you can almost hear the author thinking ‘right, where do I need to go from here? How do we get there?’ These passages need to be written: they’re the author’s way of finding the path. But they have no place in the finished novel. Cut – cut cut cut. But in every excision there’s a small piece of information that needs inserting, or a particularly revealing snatch of conversation, so it’s not just a case of going through the text with a pair of scissors.

Then there are all the changes that the characters have been through. Of course you want them to end as slightly different people (in some cases they’ve changed from ‘alive’ to ‘metabolically challenged’) as they live through the novel. But sometimes their base identity changes: your heroes, you realise, are better slightly older, or younger, than you originally had them. Maybe you realise that the childhood trauma you gave them isn’t the right foundation upon which to hang their neuroses. The second draft is the place to go through and fix all these errors-that-aren’t-really-errors; to adjust initial descriptions, to foreshadow later shocks and to take the deus from the machina.

It is a twofold process. The first half is spent with the manuscript and a pen and copious ad-hoccery. That’s what I’ve now completed. The second half is spent on the computer actually entering in the changes and will take a lot longer. This is because most of my notes are either illegible or run along the lines of ‘insert new scene: ref. Jazz – she’s been to a club/gig (too young?)’ thus leaving almost of the work to Future Rob. I’ve been highlighting work to do rather than actually doing it. Past Rob is right pain in the backside, as anyone who knows him will testify.

So this next pass will take much longer. It will combine small, local improvements (the ‘writing’) and larger situational changes. Locations may change. Characters certainly will. I have at least two new scenes to write and a half-dozen to delete. Then and only then will the novel go out for reading by people other than me. I’m aiming at the end of February for that particular milestone. But don’t worry, lovely bloggites. Whether you care or not, you will be kept informed.

Happy writing.