Posted on February 3rd, 2014 in process
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…