Monday, 14 March 2016

Reflecting on the Writing Process for my new book

I'm currently writing a new novel and I thought I'd share the various stages of the process for any readers who might be interested and for any writers so they can go 'yes that's an interesting approach' or 'no way can you possibly make that work!'

After quite a long period without an idea for a novel, during which I published two new collections of flash fiction, around November an idea came together in my head. For some reason it always seems to be around November when I undertake a major writing project, but that's probably because it has two advantages; 1) I can shadow NaNoWriMo (write a novel in a month) which means I can share some of the impetus of that whole thing of others writing feverishly during November and 2) it's not too long for the extended holiday period in December when I usually get a lot of uninterrupted time to write.

So last November I sat down and started to write. I'm not a planner (of which a bit more below), but usually I sit with an idea for about 6 months to let it seethe away in my sub-conscious, so that a bit like baking a cake, at the end of the period it's ready to come out nicely risen. However, my previous novel hadn't followed this process and neither did this one. Usually during the seething period, I make no attempt to start writing anything but a few notes, certainly I don't start on the first draft. But in this case before I formally started on the first draft, I did do some detailed sketches of some of the chapters.

1st Draft: This is my favourite part of the whole process. Because anything goes! I refer to it as like playing in a sandpit. Throwing sand around. Filling moulds with sand and turning them out to make solid structures. Turning some out and seeing them collapse in front of your eyes! That's why I say I'm not a planner. I often hit upon sections of the writing that surprise me and if they come as fresh to my eye, then hopefully they will be equally fresh for any reader.

When I'm on this draft, I don't go back over what I've written but keep ploughing on through. That way I keep the creativity rather than start to lose some of the flow and momentum with editing and thoughts of shrinking and reducing. I trust I can do those necessary things in editing drafts down the line. I know other writers are different, but I don't think it matters which preference you have, it's just what works for you personally.

I have a day job at 28 hours a week, so I was writing a chapter here or there up until Christmas, then got about 6 chapters done over the holidays and carried on into the new year at about 2 chapters a week, one during the week and one at weekends. By the end of February I'd finished the first draft, 31 chapters in all, 60,000 words in length.

I left it about a week then started the 2nd draft, always a big moment. It's big because this is really where the writer sees if they've got a viable project. It's akin to having a dream that half wakes you out of your sleep and you write it down because it seems very important that you remember it; but when you read it back the next morning, at best you wonder why you thought it so meaningful and at worst it's complete gibberish. Well, after the playtime of the 1st draft, the second draft reveals the critical verdict. Is your project viable? Is it coherent and does it hang together? Reading through the 2nd draft often reacquaints you with the early bits of the 1st draft that you may have forgotten as you pressed on deeper into the book. And if on rereading you feel that hey, actually there's some pretty good bits of writing here in these early parts, then you're probably going to be alright across the whole piece.

Plenty of writers will tell you that in all cases, their first draft is gibberish and that the book is only made viable through vigorous editing and rewriting. I don't concur that it has to be that way at all. Some writers have almost perfectly formed 1st drafts emerge. I think if you are very plot-bound as a writer, you are more likely to have to make surgical changes to a first draft to resolve plot issues which may require an overhaul of the whole structure. The same can be for a character when you decide to introduce and additional emotion or motive, then you have to go back throughout the whole novel sewing that in seamlessly and how that may impact what you'd already written. All in all in my  case, I'd left three of the chapters unfinished in how I ended them  as I pressed on with writing the 1st draft. I knew I'd complete and fix them in the 2nd draft.

The 2nd draft took a fortnight, starting rewriting bits but I knew the book worked. I ended up taking out 1 chapter, because the writing wasn't up to the standard of the others, nor the ideas in it (which probably explains the less confident writing also), bringing it down to 30 chapters, though in rewriting some of the more clumsy sections as well as completing the unfinished chapters the word count stayed at around 60,000.

The third draft. Normally this is the draft where the real detailed revisions comes, drilling down into every word of every sentence. But that will actually be my 4th draft (see below). This is because the nature of this particular book is that the 30 chapters are linked thematically rather than through a protagonist carrying the action of a plot. So the 3rd draft is the key but really difficult process of deciding which order the chapters will be. I know how tricky this process is from having published short story collections. But there's another muddying factor. I actually envisage that this book can be read in any order, that the reader can pick and choose how they want to read the chapters. Whether this happens or not will probably come down to convincing the editor/publisher and whether there is a budget for such a production as the chapters will have to be loose leaf in some manner. So in the consequence that I can't bring that about, I will need the contingency of having ordered the chapters. This is where I am currently. It involves a spreadsheet as each chapter is laid out with its theme, tone (comedic/heavy, stylised etc) as you're trying to avoid chapters with similar feel or theme next to each other. So far I've got to separating the 30 chapters into 1st half or second half  of the book, so that now I've only got to order 15 at a time.

The 4th draft will be the detailed revision. I will go over a chapter as many times as necessary until I almost have every word pulsing inside me. That way I can recognise repeated words, check the flow of sentences. I  really do work at the level of each individual word during this phase. I won't read any of the other chapters until I am satisfied the one under current review is finished (unless I need to cross-check whether I've repeated myself in a different chapter).

The 5th draft is a real chore but a vital one. I read aloud each chapter., Doing this really helps you judge the flow for the reader. You'd be amazed how many sentences running three or four lines long you pick up at this stage which don't reveal themselves even during the process of draft 4, because of the difference between reading something silently inside your head and reading it aloud. Reading aloud the whole book chapter by chapter is a long haul, but a valuable one in the editing process.

The 6th draft may make some of you laugh. I do a word search for every your and you're and its and it's because even though I have some 112 books behind me now, I still get these wrong from time to time. I think it's a product of the speed at which I write the first draft, nothing is to slow me down, so I'm writing it how I hear it inside my head which may involve getting these mixed up. It doesn't take too long and  can be done in one session. I may also do a word search for words that seem to crop up a lot in the book and see if I can't change some of them out. I already know that in this work which is about the different stages of development and maturity as children grow into adults, that the word juncture seems to put in a lot of appearances and may need to be pruned out. This would be the 'juncture' for doing that here in this draft.

The 7th draft is the penultimate one, a final read through of the full work, since the previous detailed edit was done on a chapter by chapter basis and I just need to check the piece as a whole. This may be done more than once, it just depends how the book is flowing as a read.

The 8th draft is a final proof copying one. Do NOT rely on Microsoft Word's spelling and grammar check. It will not pick up words that are homonyms, that is correctly spelled but not the right word you'd intended; eg one I perennially fall foul of sew/sow. Hopefully reading aloud in draft 5 picked all these up.

And there you have it. My A-Z, or perhaps 1-8 of the writing process. Hope it was either or both of some help and interest for you. I'm really excited about this book. It encapsulates many of my ideas about literature that I've explored in my writing and discussed with other writers in the most comprehensive and I hope coherent manner that I've yet been able to attain.

Watch this space...

1 comment:

Kat said...

I'd be blind after the third draft and possibly crazy after the sixth. Lol. That, Sir, is some serious dedication. :)