Just How Bad Was Your First Draft?

May 21st, 2013

The Inquisition should be uprooting treasons and bringing dangerous criminals to book, but they just won’t leave me alone, and it seems they’re fixated on the process of writing, or at least what passes for it in my case.  Today a question via email from Practical George Allen, who describes himself as, “a cringing, neurotic, self-deprecating aspiring novelist.”  Don’t talk yourself up, George.  His question:

“Just how bad was your first draft of The Blade Itself? Not the original attempt, however many years ago, I mean the first draft of the book that actually got published, and went on to conquer the hearts of millions.  Of course a lot of professional writers will tell the ever-hungry mob that they had to draft and re-write and revise endlessly, polishing to perfection. But I haven’t read any statements to the effect of just how big a steaming pile of incoherent crap the original attempt was.

Was it crap? Did you look at it and think ‘Now it’s done, how the frak am I going to make it publishable?’ 

Or was it actually pretty darn sweet?”

As with most questions, there’s a short answer and a long one.  The short answer?  Yeah, it was actually pretty darn sweet.  The long answer?  Ah, well . . .

As George points out, I’d actually had a lot of the ideas for the First Law for a very long time.  Some of the characters and settings go back well into my childhood.  I first tried to make some actual prose writing out of all that mass of stuff shortly after leaving university in … er … 1994, would you believe, mostly as an exercise to practice my touch typing (employable skills, and all that).  It was mannered, it was adolescent, it was cheesy, it took itself way too seriously, it was not very good.  And there was no Glokta in it, either.  After writing three or four chapters, I gave up, though the ideas still kept bubbling away in there.

Fast forward some seven years or so, and I’d grown up (a bit) and had some experience of life (a bit), and read a lot of stuff outside of fantasy (I always had) and also read Game of Thrones (as it goes), and I was working as a freelance TV editor, mostly of live music and documentaries, and found myself with significant blocks of time off in between jobs, and thought I needed a worthwhile project to undertake rather than JUST playing video games all day.  So I thought I’d have another go at the old fantasy epic.

And, you know what, straight away I was intrigued by what started to come out.  I mean, no doubt I would cringe at some of it now – I cringe at plenty of my published stuff now – but I felt there was something there, in the wit, in the world-weary way of looking at things, in the personalities, in the honesty of the voices that emerged, that was original.  That I was fascinated to explore and develop.

But I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing.  So I spent an awful lot of time in those early days revising, refining, reading over, experimenting with what worked and what didn’t, developing a style.  Or perhaps different styles with the different points of view.  So whenever I wrote a line, I’d look at it, re-write it, think about it.  Whenever I finished a paragraph I’d revise it.  Whenever I finished a scene I’d look over it again, add, take away, reorganise.  Every time I sat down to write I’d start by reading what I wrote the last time.  So working out what needed to be described and when, how to pace a scene, how to use dialogue, mostly working on instinct and trial and error.  That was very important to do, I think, not just in achieving a good result, but in working out how to achieve a good result.  After a few months of this I maybe had seven or eight chapters, and I plucked up the courage to show them to my family, who are very literate (not to mention ruthlessly honest) people, and discussing it with them gave me a whole new set of things to consider and ways to improve.  I started taking it more seriously, planning it more carefully, probably starting to write faster and more confidently but still revising an awful lot as I went.  Eventually I got to the end of the first book, and I’m sure went through many rounds of revision, shortening, self-editing at that point, taking on a lot of comments from my family.  I’m pretty sure my Mum, who’d been an editor of educational books, did a full mark-up edit on it as well.  At that point I took a deep breath and started sending samples to agents.  It was about as good as I was going to make it at that time, though whether they were going to consider it publishable, I had no idea, and indeed a lot of them clearly didn’t.

That draft, I’d say, wasn’t too bad, and probably not massively different on a word by word basis from the book that was published as The Blade Itself.  But when it found a home at Gollancz, there was still a lot of work to do with my editor Gillian.  She got me to write a new start, I turned the Dogman chapters from 1st person to 3rd, and there was a whole mass of revisions and tightenings to be done.

So how bad the first draft was I guess would depend on what you define as the first draft.  I don’t think I really thought about it in those terms at that time, from the start it was a constant process of refinement and revision.  Maybe that comes partly from my experience as a TV editor, where you’ll go over and over a sequence steadily tightening and improving, but it always seemed the right way to work, and though I’ve got a lot better at achieving a reasonable result much more quickly, I still go through a lot of rounds of revision on every book.  My own feeling is that the sense of effortlessness you strive for as a writer actually derives from an awful lot of effort.  But having said that, there was some spark in the book that became The Blade Itself right from my first efforts that I at least found fascinating.  Without that, I’m not sure I’d have got past the first page.

And crap?  Was it ever CRAP?

This will not stand, sir!

Also, for a laugh, you can see fellow purveyor of gritty fantasy Mark Lawrence grappling with the concept of Grimdark over on his blog

Posted in process, The Inquisition by Joe Abercrombie on May 21st, 2013.

15 comments so far

  • Hamish Mack says:

    but I felt there was something there, in the wit, in the world-weary way of looking at things, in the personalities
    That’s it isn’t it? You have to have some belief, have to back yourself a bit. If you can write something and read it a year later and still like it, you’ve got something.

  • Roger says:

    Thanks for the insight Joe. Really interesting.

    If you ever run out of ideas for new posts in this blog (that is, when you’ve run out of whisky), I would absolutely love to be able to read a sample of those Dogman chapters written in first person. It was a stylistically brave choice, and I’d like to see how it worked and compare it to the final result.

  • bobbby says:

    Yes Joe, we would like to read some of those changed chapters. Specially the opening sequence that you mentioned.

  • Deb E says:

    Echoing Roger, thanks for that, Joe. It’s wonderful to get a bit of a look-see at your process. By the sounds of it, you must have been sending out a pretty spiffy manuscript when querying. And still people passed… eye-opening.

  • Frank Fitzpatrick says:

    Sounds like you were fortunate to have a very knowledgeable mother to help you throughout the early stages.

    Did you ever have spells of doubt though? Perhaps you thought that nobody would want to publish it etc.?

  • bobbby says:

    “Some of the characters and settings go back well into my childhood”

    Err,you sure you had a happy childhood ?

  • Scassonio says:

    I love love love love this sort of posts. Moawwr please!

  • FarmerMonkey says:

    Curious, what was the pre-Gillian beginning?

  • Sword1001 says:

    Ask your mum if she could read my first draft


  • AntMac says:

    No, tell your mum we are very sensible of the great debt we owe her, and our gratitude exceeds all but unreasonable hyperbole.

  • Markz says:

    Do you still draft that way or has the process changed?

  • Dave says:

    Wonderful insight, Joe! Thanks. I am fascinated by the actual process of writing a novel. I have been told my whole life that I should write. People have told me that they love my work…but I never did. Writing take real courage and I found mine…lacking. I’m glad you had the courage to press on beyond your self-doubts.

  • Craig says:

    You get your Mum to edit? 🙂

    I make my Mum read through my stuff, partly as there is still a joy that survives into adulthood about showing things to your mother, and mainly because she spel heap gooder then I do. (I am phonetically deaf and my spelling skills have improved over the years by remember what words look like rather what they sound like.)
    I still like the feedback I got from her on one of the earlier drafts of my current project;
    “I don’t really understand it but it is very witty.”

  • […] This was posted on Joe Abercrombie’s blog the other week. I know at times it seems like I must be working for the man, but genuinely, it came up in my Facebook news feed and I thought it was particularly interesting and inspiring. […]

  • Raid says:

    So, you asked your mum to read your grimdark fantasy drafts? Okay.

Add Your Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *