Thursday, 20 March 2008

First Draft Struggles

Some writers loathe it, others view it as a necessary evil but would prefer somebody else to do it, others – like me – positively look forward to it. Editing.

Actually, perhaps editing is the wrong word. I do editing all the time – yesterday’s work always comes in for a stiff combing-through before I get on with today’s effort – but perhaps what I’m really talking about is second-drafting. I’m with Stephen King on this – your first draft is where you work out what your book is really about (as opposed to what happens) and your second draft is where you make sure that you’ve done all you can so that the reader is also aware that your book is about more than simply the storyline.

But Stephen King plans his books better than I plan mine. I’m also discovering not only what my story is about but who the characters are, how they interact with events and how they feel about each other. And a whole load of tweaking, rewriting, enhancing and chopping is going to have to go on in the second draft to bring some of that to the forefront because, as so often happens, the way they feel about each other turns out to be what drives the narrative.

One of the reasons I’m looking forward to second drafting at the moment is because finishing the first draft is such hard work. I’m at the stage of the novel where the final 20% usually almost writes itself but the work-in-progress is refusing to do that. It’s sitting back with its arms crossed going ‘No, you do it. This was your idea.’

I’ve just come to the end of a long set-piece which I had known was going to be there for some time now. It was hard to write because it involved following my characters through a particularly action-packed and significant day and my writing tends to focus more on particular key episodes and conversations here and there, rather than – for me – such a relatively long time-frame.

The struggle to get it done in a way I’m happy with has put back my self-imposed schedule. I had hoped to have the first draft finished by Easter. That’s tomorrow. So the new deadline is the end of May, when the Other Half and I are planning to go away for a week. It would be good to go on holiday knowing that I wasn’t leaving my characters at a crucial point; not having to spend the week with a nagging worry at the back of my mind as to whether I was going to be able to pick up the psychological thread exactly where I had dropped it.

However, I’m hoping that I can gather enough speed and momentum as the days lengthen and my energy levels increase to finish the second draft by my original target date of September, so I’ve got something I’m happy to show Will, my editor.

At the moment, though, that seems a long way off.


Faye L. said...

I feckin' love redrafting. That's usually when the whole thing really comes to life for me.

Alis said...

Wow, Faye - that's so cool. Glad I'm not the only one!

David Isaak said...

I wish I loved redrafting, but I don't. I find the process of rewriting both painful and fiddly--a bit like a surgical operation where you have to ensure the veins and arteries are still all hooked up correctly so the blood will still flow.

But I don't think a love of redrafting is rare. In fact, most of the writers I know are eager to get a first draft down so they can get on to "the real work."

Alas, Alis (hey, I like that), I am not one so inclined.

Alis said...

Hey,David! I think amongst the writers I know you are in the majority - maybe we should swap writing acquaintances?

Aliya Whiteley said...

I like it when I can see I'm improving things, but when I'm just twiddling about because I know it's not quite right yet... God, that's horrible. I know I should wait for inspiration to strike but I just can't. A born twiddler.

Tim Stretton said...

I hate all the stages beyond the first draft (and sometimes the first draft too...).

The first draft is an absorbing place because I'm learning: about what happens to my characters; about whether my characters are who I thought they were; and most of all how my narrative voice will undercut what started out as a deeply portentous drama and give it a slyness which changes the tone of the whole thing in my mind.

But unlike Faye, I feckin' hate redrafting. This is the kind of bean-counting I do all day at work: necessary, important, but definitely a chore.

I read somewhere that Muriel Spark "never redrafted". I'll take that as hyperbole, but I don't think it's a given that first drafts are just a cathartic outpouring of ideas which need a firm dose of Madam Whiplash to coerce them into shape.

The shape of none of my novels has changed much after the first draft. My story is that I put the effort into getting it right first time. Others might think I release them into the world half-baked. Others will be better judges on this...

KAREN said...

I like re-drafting because I feel I'm getting it 'right' the second time round. The first time I'm just getting the story down and feeling my way around - seeing if there is actually a story there! I try not to go back and fiddle too much first time, in case I put myself off :o)

Alis said...

Hmmm... so, beginning to look like a gender-split. Women (unless they're Muriel Spark) like redrafting, men don't. I can feel another post coming on...

David Isaak said...

The gender theory of redrafting? I dunno... At the extreme are those very few writers who almost never revised. There are almost as many women amongst these (Muriel Spark, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick) as men.

And it was Mister Testosterone himself, Hemingway, who asserted "All first drafts are excrement."

I've never been able to find a gender divide on the issue--but, then, probably 90% of the writers I know are women, so it's hard to get a good sample.

I find the biggest divide to be along speed lines. Those who write slow, revise-on-the-page first drafts (I average a page an hour), tend to dislike the rewriting phase.

Those who put down their first drafts more rapidly tend to expect and even look forward to redrafting.

Faye L. Booth said...

I dunno, David, I'm not the speediest of first-drafters, either, and I do revise as I go along as well. Still (feckin') love redrafting. I have to be awkward.

Alis said...

Hi David, Hi Faye - I'm like Faye; not a quick first-drafter and yet I still really look forward to redrafting. Maybe it's the difference between what might be called fiddling (editing words and sentences) and structural editing - 'Oh dear, my novel really appears to begin at chapter 26'...) I fiddle as I write but need my redrafting hat on to look at the structure of the book.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Faye, hi, Alis--

Interesting: slow drafters who like redrafting.

As to structure, I've not yet had the experience of finding my book to start later than the first chapter, though I gather this is not uncommon. My biggest structural problem is a rushed ending; in the second draft I have to back up and drop in two or three more complications to prevent things from sorting themselves out too easily.