There was a time I was posting here three times a week, but there’ve been no posts for over a month because I have had my head firmly in putting together the 2nd draft of Half a War, third book in my Shattered Sea trilogy.
When I first started writing I’d revise every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter as I finished it. Every time I wrote I’d start off by going over what I wrote last time. This was a really useful exercise for working out the basics of how to write, how to pace, what to attend to in a scene and what to ignore, for getting confidence from seeing that I could produce something worthwhile, for distilling down the voices of the characters and getting comfortable in their skins. But it’s not a very efficient way of working.
I’m a pretty thorough planner, but even with the best of plans, it’s not until you reach the end of a book sometimes that you really know where you’re going, really know how you’re going to get there, really know what you need the characters to be, how you want them to change to get you from the start to the end in a believable and compelling way. Over time I’ve started to get a better result from scratch much more quickly, so I’ve started to really push through the first draft as fast as possible, sketching each chapter honestly pretty roughly, then having a look over and tidy up of each part as I finish it, planning the next one in detail, thinking about what I might need to change as I go on.
The result is, I must admit, a pretty shoddy 1st draft, often with the characters rather inconsistent and incoherent especially at the beginning, probably resolving themselves and taking their proper places as we get towards the end, and often with a few plot holes as new ideas occurred or I changed my mind about things. Typically, I hate the book at this point. The process of producing the 2nd draft is perhaps the key phase these days. Here I’m doing the heavy lifting of revision, especially towards the start of the book. I’m thinking hard about how the point-of-view characters might need to change to have a more interesting and coherent arc. What defining experiences of the past and motivations for the future might shape them. What character traits and emotions they might need to display throughout. How their key relationships, especially with each other, might form and develop. I’m further defining and differentiating their individual voices. I’m fixing plot holes and introducing information that might have become necessary as new ideas have occurred. Partly I’m working from a checklist of stuff I’ve put together that I know I need to include – some things specific, some more general to bear in mind as I go. Partly I’m just reading it and seeing how it feels. I’m doing an awful lot of tightening – partly cutting stuff that no longer seems necessary or appropriate, partly just general tightening and sharpening of the writing. Some scenes might go altogether, though that’s pretty rare for me. There might be new ones I need to add from scratch.
A lot of this is about just trying to get the book firmly in mind, knowing where everything is, reminding yourself what happens where, how everything interlocks. I spend a lot of the first draft forcing myself to put the chair time in. By the time I get to the second, hopefully, I’m at the screen for hours at a time, thinking about it constantly. In bed. In the shower. Walking to the postbox. Ideas should be constantly firing off. Probably quite annoying for those around me, but I know I’m cooking when I frequently walk out half way through conversations in order to add something, flicking through chapters, yes, that conversation is the right place for that thought, that line, that idea which guides us through that development of that relationship.
This is the part of writing I most enjoy, where you take the ugly clay of the first draft and mold it, form it, chop it away until you have something resembling a book, where the characters make sense and develop in a meaningful way, where each scene is punchy and effective and contributes to a believable and coherent plot. There’s still an awful lot of work to do, a whole set of further phases of revision and editing to go through. But by the time the second draft comes together, I’m hopefully starting to feel I may have something worthwhile on my hands…