Finished … Kind Of

September 24th, 2008

Much to my delight, I finished the first draft of the final part of Best Served Cold while I was away, on holiday (rolls eyes toward heaven). That means I have an entire first draft, running from beginning to end. Currently just over 235,000 words long, which is about the same length as Last Argument of Kings. I was aiming at the start for something between 150-175,000 words (still a big book by most reasonable standards) so you could say I’ve spectacularly over-fulfilled, or you could say I’ve spectacularly mis-planned. Either way, it’s long been plain I wouldn’t realise my ludicrous ambitions in anything less, so I’m actually quite pleased it’s as short as it is. Hopefully I’ll cut another maybe 10,000 words during the process of revision and editing, though oftentimes I find I add as much as I remove… Perhaps something shorter in future, Joe?


So the book is finished! Pop the Asti Spumante, motherf*ckers! Right?

Well … not quite.

In fact … not at all.

There’s always a lot to do following a first draft, but more in the case of this book than with the books in the trilogy. That’s partly deliberate, in that I felt since this was a standalone I could go back and revise the entire book en masse, rather than trying to get things right as I went along. I’ve therefore pretty much written each of the seven parts on their own, revised them, then left them as they are while I pressed on with the rest, the characters and the methods of writing them changing, developing, taking shape in my mind as I went, and the plot shifting a bit with them.

So the earlier parts of the book feel like a cupboard that’s rammed full of rubbish from my childhood that I know I need to sort out but somehow never can. Daren’t go near, lest when I open the door the contents fall out and crush me. The time has now come when I must open that cupboard and gaze upong the wreckage within. As with most tasks long put off, I’m sure it’ll be a lot less daunting when I actually get stuck into it. I hope. But there is certainly work to be done. A fair bit of work is needed both to introduce elements of the plot that came to me later in the writing process, or became more (or less) important as I got towards the end, to add details of the world that came to me as I went along, and (most importantly) just to impose a much stronger and more consistent sense of the characters, some of which didn’t necessarily take shape until I was a fair way into the writing process. Knowing the end sure does help with the direction of the beginning…

So from here, for anyone who cares, the plan is:

1. Make any significant changes to the actual events that happen, if they’re necessary. Mostly this is small stuff, slipping in hints of things that will be important later, and introducing a couple of characters and themes earlier on that have turned out to be more significant than I thought. I also need to write a small chapter to insert near the front, as things have turned out.

2. Kick the shit out of the first part. Which currently doesn’t have the right feel at all, partly due to just slapping it together and getting on, and partly due to the fact that I was still very much fumbling around with the characters and overall arcs at that point, especially with the main character, and my conceptions of how they should behave and develop have changed quite a lot. So it needs to be reworked to match how I see the whole thing now. The front is the most important bit, right?

3. A quick run-through of the whole thing. Mostly a read-through, just to try and get the whole shape into my head, see what works and what doesn’t, hack out any obvious crap (what, me?), see if anything needs a lot more work, see if there are any plot points I didn’t resolve well enough or, er, forgot about as I was going along. Also to remove some tricks I was trying earlier on and proved to be too clever for their own good (or not clever enough, depending on how you look at it), and to find if there are any tricks or constructions that work nicely and could be applied more widely during…

4. Character Pass. And now we come to the meat of the exercise. You have to imagine me being interviewed, probably on a darkened stage with a single spotlight, in a black leather armchair like Mastermind, by Melvyn Bragg, possibly? I’m wearing a corduroy suit and a thoughtful yet slightly sour expression like I just tasted a fine wine and detected the slightest aroma of piss about it. And I say something like, “well, you understand, Melvyn, this is when I take on the mantles of my various characters, this is when I absorb them into my id. This is when I become them … Or do they become me?” (humbly apologetic smile, round of applause from the sycophantic audience, you get the idea). Basically I try and get as complete a sense of each point of view character as possible in mind, often taking one particular chapter that worked particularly well as a model. Then I spend a few days going through every chapter and part of chapter from their point of view trying to get as strong a sense of that character down on the page. Usually involves some cutting down, some tinkering with the prose style to try and get it consistent across every appearance of that character, some work on the dialogue to get the voice right, some application of clever tricks and catch-phrases, or repeating constructions, and so forth.

Also during this phase, and particularly with the three more important characters, I’ll be trying to draw out some of the theme relating to that character a bit more strongly, especially early on when I wasn’t (ahem) totally sure what their themes would, like, be. I will be trying to sketch their arcs more distinctly. Trying to boil them down to a more decisive essence of person. Melvyn. Whoever said I was pretentious? I’m just like any other master craftsman or great artist at work…

When this pass is done the book should hopefully be coming together nicely. (Not that it isn’t already brilliant, you understand. You understand, right?) The groundwork should be laid for…

5. The axe-man cometh. Time to read through in order with an eye for anything overly repetitive or redundant, cut down and simplify as much as possible, try to correct any factual blunders and pick up on any mistakes or wooliness that I might have missed out in my previous goes at it, smooth out any crappy writing (as much as I’m ever going to, anyway) or clunky exposition. Up until this point, the chapters are all separate documents. At this point I’ll probably combine them into their seven parts and work on them as units. Also, and you’ll laugh here, you really will, I occasionally MAKE THE TEXT REALLY BIG. I’ve got a big monitor which will usually fit two pages side by side. Now I zoom in so as to fit only a half-page or so on at a time. Sounds absurd, but I actually find the big letters can sometimes help you to focus on the details…

This will probably all take me a month or two (I hope). During that time I’ll also be absorbing general comments from my editor into the process, as well as from the folks from my family who act as readers (Mum, Dad, Brother). Ideally, when it’s done I’ll be, like, WELL happy. For about 10 minutes. This is my happy time during the year, so I’ll make the most of it. I might even smile.

Then the more specific editing will begin, with a detailed look and a proper marking-up. The process goes a little something like this. Of course, during that period, I’ll be working up ideas for the next book.

(gut wrenching sigh as from the dead in hell)

Indeed, that YOU may be entertained, MY torm
ent must never end… Melvyn…

Posted in process by Joe Abercrombie on September 24th, 2008. Tags:

13 comments so far

  • Wow, great post. This is Writing Gold to those of us still trying to figure out the process end.

    Particularly this:

    “So the earlier parts of the book feel like a cupboard that’s rammed full of rubbish from my childhood that I know I need to sort out but somehow never can.”

    I feel EXACTLY like that when taking a pass through a draft. I thought it was just me.

  • iamza says:

    Ouch. I’d never really thought about the amount of work that goes into writing after the first draft is done. Not only the rewrites, but all the editing as well — have you read any of your novels since they’ve been published?

    Hope the revisions go well.

  • Eric says:

    I did indeed laugh at the big text part.


  • daft sod says:

    Your torment for my entertainment? Sounds fair to me. If you apply all the craftsmanship you laid out in your entry to every book you write, the world will be a better place. At least for me that is.

  • Steve Aryan says:

    Thanks for posting this, it’s really great to have some real insight into the process from first draft to on the shelf book, and the previous post about not shooting the editor was fascinating. One thing that wasn’t mentioned that I’m curious about – the cover and artwork. Are you involved in that process? And if so, how much control do you have over it? In the editing post you mentioned that ultimately you have final say and can ignore some amends if you really wanted to, but what about how it actually looks on the shelf? Typeface of your name, position of the title, who the artist is etc. Do you submit ideas? How does it work?

  • michael,
    No, I suspect it’s everyone. I think there’s a romantic notion that the maverick author simply spills out perfection onto the page. I’m sure for the vast majority it’s a question of painstaking revision, cutting, rewriting. It certainly is for me.

    I had to proofread the books for the american editions some time after publication in the UK. Inevitably you see a whole raft of things you’d do differently. Not TOO cringy, though.

    At least you know I’m in there now…

    daft sod,
    It is the devil’s contract that all writers must sign.

    Steve A,
    Glad you found it informative. If you click on the little button on the left that says ‘process’ you should find some other stuff about the writing and publishing game which you might find interesting, including, at the bottom, a piece about the evolution of the cover for the last book. I’ll be going into even more detail about the cover for the next book – which is looking fricking ace, thanks for asking – in the next few weeks, hopefully.

  • Susanne says:

    *bounce* *boioioinnng*

    So, yeah. If you, er, need any, er, help, y’know, with that? Just send it over here.

    Mwa.. mwuahahahaha.

  • bryan russell says:

    Nice post. I always love hearing writing process stuff, and this one is particularly apt for me right now as I’m in the midst of long long long edits. 10th draft? I’ve lost track. The pages keep getting sort of swimmy before me, like when you’re looking through jet exhaust.

    Exhaust… ain’t that great word choice? Diction is always key, you know.

  • Juliet says:

    Holy Cow. Sheer torture, but I’m sure the result will be worth it.

    Pencilling you in now for another of those ‘weeping genius with laughing clown mask’ interviews when the new book comes out as there should be heaps to talk about re the evolution of your writing process.

  • Theology Jen says:

    Hmm – never expected to see the words “Asti Spumante” and “motherf*ckers” in the same sentence but, oddly, they go together rather well. Another literary triumph, Mr Abercrombie.

  • Jason says:

    Good to have you back from your swanning around Europe!

    Great to hear the books coming along to, really looking forward to reading it, and what you decide to do for your next project 🙂

  • Arve says:

    Say one thing about Joe Abercrombie, say he’s a world-class author.

    I’ve just recently found your blog (silly old me never even thinking that you had one), and I’m currently in the process of reading it as I keep on waiting eagerly on the “Best served cold” HARDCOVER edition (what, me hardcore? I guess so.), pre-ordered several months ago.

    I’m no expert, but your blog is as well-written as any of your books (this means that most of your editing is in vain, I guess :-D)

    Best regards from a Norwegian fan

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