I’ve had a few minor bits and pieces to deal with the last couple of weeks including a short story now squared away, which leaves me with no alternative but to tackle a third draft of Half the World, curse it. Few weeks ago I was talking about work on the second draft, which focused on getting the arcs of the two central characters right, adding a couple of key scenes and setting a few things up better, and doing a lot of general cutting. That’s now been done, read by my first readers (mum and dad, bless ’em), and reacted to.
Reader reaction is always an interesting, even a slightly challenging thing to take on. Your gut reaction to the first mild critique usually varies somewhere between you’re wrong and fuck you. Working as a TV editor – where you often have to accept changes from others and use them as a jumping off point to making things better from your point of view as well as theirs – helped me overcome some of this instinctive reluctance to change things, shall we call it, and experience over the past six books has helped me overcome a lot of the rest. These days I ignore my initial reaction and try to listen, absorb, and mull over. Things that one reader says but the other doesn’t necessarily, I many act on if I see a sensible way, but may ignore. Things that both agree on, I’m likely to act on at least to some degree. Things that cause the strongest resistance on my part are often the ones that I later find myself agreeing with most, and if we’re all agreed, I better attend to it. Once you start considering and acting on comments you often find that a few quite minor changes or additions can shift emphasis or clarify or flesh out in a way that subtly answers a point that might have seemed like it would need major work.
In the case of this book there’s really one serious issue throughout – my laser-like focus on getting the two central characters and the relationship between them right has led to a bit of a spotlight effect in which a lot of the secondary cast are lost in the shadows and not really coming through very strongly. Not enough screen time, and what time they have isn’t making an impact. At the same time I’m labouring the point a bit with some of the development of the central two. In particular one is training to fight, and there are too many scenes of training which are a little repetitive and also maybe detract from the impact of actual violence when it occurs. So, cutting of some training, cutting of some repetition, to leave room for some development of some of the secondary characters, including a bit of backstory, a few recurrent concerns and personality features, some more arresting and distinctive mannerisms, some work on their looks. Once you get stuck into this kind of thing you often find they strike interesting sparks from each other and from the central characters too, making the whole interplay of the group more arresting.
A second issue is a bit of a lack of clarity in the politics, the background issues, the importance of what the characters are doing, the stakes if they succeed or fail, with a consequent loss of tension. So some more spelling out of those things, preferably done in such a way that it fulfils some of the previous aim of fleshing out some of the secondary characters while I’m at it. Two birds, one stone. The end is also slightly weak right now and maybe needs some attention to give it a bit more punch.
Aside from those there’s a lengthy checklist of specifics to tweak and details to introduce. Some of this is setting-related, and may get rolled up into a separate pass where I’m stuck into the setting specifically, both the world building aspects (creating an interesting, vivid, coherent backdrop for the action that ideally impacts on the way the characters think and behave) and the smaller scale issues of bringing in vibrant detail that makes the locations feel real, even if only in passing, thinking about lighting, giving scenes some weather or landscape that enhances the action, this type of stuff.
When all that’s done we’ll have a third draft which is getting reasonably close to as good as I can make it without further outside input (though the details of the language will still need a fair bit of work towards the end), and it’s time for it to go off to the editors. Four of em, all told, in this case…
11 comments so far
At what stage of drafting do you look at your manuscript and think, “Wow, this is actually pretty good?” and stop being riddled by self doubt?
Generally I’m starting to get reasonably confident by this stage, but the doubts come and go up until some time after publication, when you’ve got a good body of reader reaction.
How is with the short stories? I get the impression that those are often given in commission or wished for from editors or publishing houses in accordance with a theme, as opposed to the novels where the author has do the hard legwork and peddle his goods but on the other hand has more artistic freedom.
It’s nice to see how you emphasize the importance of the characters, as you make sure each one gets enough “spotlight” and depth.
I have tried looking for it, but couldn’t really find out if you watch anime or even have time for it. I did find on reddit that you were a fan of Ninja Scroll, so I’m hopeful. I think anime, besides books, often succeeds best at conveying a character’s emotions. After all it is just another way of telling a story, something which has fascinated us humans ever since our forefathers started telling them around the campfires. There are lots of exciting things going on in the anime world as authors try to craft new stories (there’s a lot of crap too though). I’ve been really impressed lately by “Shingeki no Kyojin” (English title: “Attack on Titan”). The concept of the show seems quite simple at first, then you see how the author fleshes out this world, with politics and schematics of machinery etc. There’s violence and gore you wouldn’t expect in a story made for a shōnen demographic (technically age 10+), but it’s just there as backdrop for the character development.
I enjoy these “working” articles of yours so very much. Thanks for taking the time to do them for us. I bet you could sell them as a collective “How to write Grimly Dark Best-sellers” text book.
Hey Joe – Can you elaborate on the plot of TOUGH TIMES ALL OVER? Who would be the familiar faces ? I’m jacked about Half a King but equally looking forward to more First Law .
Is anything set in stone during the whole process? Are there certain things that you will not change NO MATTER WHAT? Surely there are some central elements that define a project in your own mind?
Islay Blood Fued update?
I like the new layout here 😉
Joe, do you have some guidelines, or wishes for how we crazies comment the posting here? Are we invited to stay on topic? And to keep it short?
It’s a 10,000 word mosaic story set in Sipani some time after Red Country. Many points of view. Friendly appears. A few others we know from a distance.
No real guidelines, other than the universal internet advice of, ‘don’t be a dick.’
“I copy, Gold Leader”. 🙂