In many ways, at least for me, it’s when I’ve got a complete first draft of a book that the most important work begins.
I start with a reasonable idea of who my central characters are and what the plot’s going to be, but both the plot and the personalities inevitably flex and shift as you start to write, as the characters and their relationships develop, as new ideas come to you. You find the people need to be a certain way to make events believably and meaningfully unfold how you want them to, or you realise the people need to be slightly different to begin with so they can change into something else, or they just are a certain, somewhat unexpected way when you write them and you need to tweak the plot to fit. Inevitably, by the time you end a book, you have a much better idea what you’re doing with it than you did at the start (at least you bloody hope you do).
When I first started writing The First Law I was working with characters that had been steadily developing in my head for years, and I would revise every sentence after writing it, every paragraph after completing it, every chapter several times once I had it finished, every chapter from each point of view character together, then every part once it was complete, usually responding to the comments of readers on each chunk of four or five chapters as I finished it. An awful lot of revising as I went, in other words, which was time consuming but meant that chapters were generally pretty polished, or at least well considered, by the time I finished them. These days I tend to plunge forward with a much rougher first draft, which takes a bit more faith and confidence, I think – knowing you’re leaving some problems in your wake but not necessarily concerning yourself too much with the solutions – but is much more efficient. As you get towards the end of the book, your conception of the central point of view characters, of the arc they each need to follow, and therefore of the type of person they need to be to believably follow that arc, refines and comes to a point. Certain things grow in importance, others shrivel, perhaps are no longer needed at all. Inevitably, therefore, when you finish your first draft your last part is pretty tight, but your first, which was probably drafted months before, is a bit of a mess.
The first chunk of serious revision, going from a first draft to a second, has really become the key phase in the way I’m working these days. The first draft will probably have some dead ends, some wasted time, some plot holes, some blurry, indistinct characterisation, especially at the start. The second draft may still be a little bland (further phases of revision will work on the detail of the primary and secondary characters, the backdrop and the language) but it should be coherent and consistent, with meaningful arcs and believable characters, with plotting that makes sense and is properly developed from start to finish, with no significant dead weight. That’s the hope. There may be some significant scenes to add, some others to take away (though it’s pretty rare for me to cut whole scenes). There’ll generally be an emphasis on cutting – it’s amazing the improvement just cutting out sentences and paragraphs that no longer seem to help can make. There’ll also be some general rewriting and sharpening of language wherever something seems particularly ropey or better ideas occur.
In the case of Half the World, there are two point of view characters. One’s basic plot, personality, and development I’ve had a good grip on since the start, and has worked pretty well as it is. She needs some better set up of her background early on, though, to give later developments much more bite. The other character is the reverse – his background works fine, indeed it’s helpful that it’s not too much fleshed out early on so it can be revealed later, but his destination has changed somewhat, which means that where he starts has to change, and his personality needs to be a good deal more complex. He’s a bit nondescript initially in this first draft, and needs to be cleverer, quieter, and be hiding something of a temper. He’s also developed some patterns of speech over time that need to be present throughout. Partly this is about differentiating the two voices: she I want to read as slightly obsessive, slightly over-thinking, quite withering about herself and others, he I want to read as less intrusive in the thought process, expressing himself more through speech and deed. Outside of making these two central characters work smoothly, there are a few more general plot points that need trailing earlier on. There are a couple of secondary characters that need to be more significant in the first three parts, which I’m going to achieve partly by cutting a third character altogether and splitting his dialogue and contributions between the other two where they’re worth keeping. There’s also a character who becomes very important later who I toyed with introducing early on, decided not to, and now realise I have to after all. Might have to experiment with the names of a couple of characters as well. A simple name change can often reap surprising benefits…
So February’s an important month for Half the World. Hopefully, by the end of it, I’ll have a leaner, tighter, much more coherent book with an effective pair of central characters and a consistent supporting cast, ready to be looked at by some readers for the first time. Then we’ll have to go from second to third draft, of course, which is where I try to work on the characters, dialogue and setting and make them as vivid and arresting as possible. After that it’ll be ready to be edited. Excuse me, but I’ve got rather a lot of work to do…
14 comments so far
How does the total time from blank page to finished novel break down, between first, second and subsequent drafts? It’s looking like taking me a year to complete my first draft.
Your insight of the writing process is very interesting as always, and I’m eager to read the books and see who these characters you are talking about are.
One question though: aren’t the two main POVs from HaW the same ones that appear in HaK? If so, are you able to modify their background or speech patterns now that the ARCs of the first book are already out?
I always appreciate posts like this. As a developing writer, it’s helpful to learn how the pros do it.
I primped and preened every paragraph/scene/chapter the first time around, too. Slightly less through the second… though I have yet to complete a totally un-tinkered first draft. Maybe on my 7th (o;
All I can say is, I’ve progressively enjoyed each of your works more and more, so I’m looking forward to the new ones!
Some really interesting points. I’m not a writer (as you can probably gather by my grammar),I could never hope to be, but I do read a lot, a hell of a lot actually. What is very interesting for me on this article is the amount of work that goes into making the books so enjoyable. The first six books you have done Joe, are perfectly put together, yet you also manage to create the impression that you write at the same speed the action takes place.
After reading this, I probably won’t look at any authors work the same way again. Just one question though, at what stage would you decide upon the characters death? Is this something you know during the creation of that character, or is it something that finds its own way into the pages?
Oooh, that varies a lot. With Half a King as the most recent example, obviously a much shorter book than some of the others I’ve done:
Planning – 1 month?
1st Draft – 6 months
2nd Draft – 1 month
3rd Draft – 1 month
Editing – spread out over the next 3, during which I’m also planning and starting the 1st draft of the next book. So crunching through the first draft is undoubtedly the majority of the time.
Different PoVs in Half the World. Yarvi, who’s the PoV of the first book, is still an important character, but not a point of view. Allows me to move time on between the books by a few years, but still have protagonists in the 16-18 range.
If it’s the death of a key character I would usually have it worked out from pretty early on, as to make those moments effective you want to build up to them in one way or another. Occasionally you might just feel a character has run their course and has to go, however…
Joe, it’s great to see an author giving back and showing a little insight on the creation process. It’s interesting that the second and third drafts each take a month and I just want to know with the initial creation of the character…is it more of a discovery or a planned process? You mention you have an idea of where you’re going with characters and plot, but is it okay from a time perspective to completely change the foundation to make the character more rounded? Because I feel like over preperation might become its own pitfall. But hey, better safe than sorry.
I ramble more here, too. http://social390tm.wordpress.com/
It feels good to know that my writing process is eerily similar to that of my favorite author. Can’t wait to read the next three books.
I have greatly enjoyed all of your books. Reading this post, I’m struck with a paradoxical feeling. I’ll explain: your world and characters seem old, well worn in and above all, real. They feel as though they have always existed; that you’ve merely removed the dirt from the window behind which they exist. So, it is odd to read about characters and plot lines being born, so to speak, even though I know that they are works of fiction.
I’m intrigued by your line on name changes . . Are there any examples you could give on say, the First Law characters?
Was Logen already called Fred for eg? :0
I kinda derived this from some of your posts previously about your process – but actually in this piece you’ve articulated a bit of an issue I’m dealing with at the moment and I’d really like your thoughts on it.
In the first law trilogy, you said you’d been cooking it for years, so you had a sort of well baked structure you believed would work. Later, you’re sort of working around a looser outline, then going back to re-jig it. Sort of like the difference between drafting detailed drawings for a chair, measurements and all, then making it – and deciding on the chair you want to make, chopping a load of good wood, then putting it all together to make a good chair.
My question is: How did you manage to make the shift in confidence from having something complete and trusted, to sort of backing yourself to achieve a similar result without that safety net of years spent gestating a story?
Maybe I’m wrong, but to me it seems 2 very different disciplines. It’s like trying to jump a gap between buildings – In the first instance you’re saying “well I know it’s 5 meters long exactly – all I need to do is practise until I’m jumping 5 meters regularly, then going for it”. In the second, it’s seems more “I know I can pretty much clear 5 to 5 and a half meters. Hmm…I reckon that gap’s 5 meters wide max. Lets Go!”
Kind of off topic have they discontinued the first law graphic novels. Excited about the new series. Keep up all the hard work we all appreciate it.
At what point in the process do you “share”? i.e with wife/family/friends to get initial reaction or do you fend them off until you have a finished product?
Yes it has been discontinued. No where has there been said anything about it being continued again. We Can only hope…
A look behind the curtains like this is always amazing. Thanks for sharing.