First draft blues

waste paper

The trouble with dishing out advice is that you kind of feel you should practice what you preach. If you’ve visited this blog before you may have read my exhortation to ‘whack out’ the first draft of a book. It won’t be great, in fact it will probably be a mess, but you’ve got to start somewhere and that first draft just has to get written.

Well I still believe that, but I’m currently about halfway (I think) through the first draft of the sequel to Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. I’m planning a three-book (initially) series, and I’ve started work on the second book even though the first isn’t yet finished. (The first book has gone through four drafts, but I’m now getting more feedback and going for a fifth, figuring that the book can only get better as a result, I hope.)

And it’s been a bit of a struggle. I love writing but at times it’s a bit more love–hate. I find the first draft the toughest one. Sure, re-drafting and editing is hard work too, but it’s somehow easier for me when there’s something to work with already there, even if some of the changes are pretty extensive and often involve adding whole new chunks as well as excising others.

Perhaps that’s the point: the first draft is the rawest, purest act of creation, of creating something from nothing; and that process of wresting words, sentences, paragraphs, dialogue, plots, characters, from brain to screen can seem painfully difficult at times. It always seems to demand more of me than any other part of the writing process.

It also takes persistence, especially when you can clearly see the flaws in what you’re producing. Because although I know the first draft is inevitably going to fall short, that knowledge makes it harder to plough on. At least in the re-drafting/editing I can see how the book is improving, and it’s immensely satisfying to see that happening. But when I’ve spent an hour hammering down a chunk of prose for the first time, and then look back and realise it’s a bit ‘meh’, that can be more than a little de-motivating.

This can lead me to break my own rules about splurging it all out and worrying about quality in the second draft. I do find myself back-tracking a bit at times and making some minor alterations, as well as fixing some of the more annoying typos. (If I type ‘starts’ instead of ‘stars’, or ‘this’ instead of ‘his’, many more times I swear I may cut my hands off.) But then rules should sometimes be broken. I don’t see the point in writing total garbage. (Partial garbage, sure.) My first drafts are always going to be somewhat dodgy, because I know if I tried to fix everything at once I’d never get anywhere, but I need to see something good in what I’m producing.

What makes it even worse for me is that the Danny Chaucer books, being children’s / middle-grade level, aren’t very long. The first book is around 30,000 words, and for the second I’m aiming for about the same. How long can it take to write a 30,000-word book? I’ve written longer (BASIC Boy is twice that length), and adult novels are typically much longer. I really admire anyone who writes a decent 80–100,000 word novel. That takes some effort.

But I’m forging ahead, slowly but surely – though slower than I’d like and not entirely sure of myself. Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t keep going with something I completely hate. I’ve chosen to write, and I’ve chosen to write this book at this time, so I shouldn’t keep belly-aching about it. No-one’s holding a gun to my head. Actually that would be pretty motivating, but in its absence I keep reminding myself of a few things when it comes to first drafts, to help me keep going:

  1. It’s just got to be done. I bet a lot of would-be writers fall at this first hurdle, and that’s a shame.
  2. All writers’ first drafts are dodgy, even the really famous and successful ones. It’s part of the process.
  3. If you can already see some of the faults, then that’s great. You can’t fix them if you can’t see them. (And if you can’t see them, don’t worry, you will – or otherwise someone else will show you if you ask.)
  4. Find you own method and pace. You might be a ‘slap down the words as quickly as possible and fix the problems later’ type; or need to spend more time to get more right first time. Both are fine if they work for you. And your approach might evolve over time, or vary between projects. Just don’t get too bogged down – get it finished.
  5. Finally, remember that you’ve got plenty of time, and subsequent drafts, to improve the work, And there will be plenty of good to improve, not just faults to rectify. The first draft is the necessary – if often difficult – first step along the road to a book you can be proud of.

So with the above in mind, I should probably stop writing this and go back to writing DCFS2.

Now for the scary bit …

The scream detail

Last week I finished the second draft of my children’s book Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. I’ve previously written how I went about whipping the unkempt mess of the first draft into the slightly less unkempt mess of the second. Now that’s done, it’s time for … the scary bit. (Cue diabolical laugher.)

Up until now, the book has been my secret, inside my head and on a screen that only I’ve seen. All of it – good, bad and indifferent – has been my own special baby. I’ve tried to make it as good as I can, and in reviewing the first draft I genuinely attempted to be as objective and dispassionate as I could about identifying its flaws and areas for improvement, and implementing them. And over the course of writing two novels and absorbing the advice, wisdom and experience of many others (including some of you good people), I believe I know quite a bit about what to look out for and how to make writing better.

My baby has grown and matured. It’s now a teenager – which means (and with apologies to any teenagers reading this, because this obviously doesn’t apply to you) it’s got spots, is frequently confused, has highs and lows; and is generally at that awkward stage of being halfway grown up and knowing a lot more than before, but not as much as it thinks it does …

So I’ve now taken this project just about as far as I can by working completely on my own. Now I need someone else’s input. The second draft is surely better than the first, and (unlike the first) it’s something I feel I can show to someone else without them laughing in my face and then slapping me around the face with it. (Which, let’s be clear, I don’t want when it’s on a laptop.)

But it still has a way to go. There are still things wrong with it, big and small, things that I can’t see because I’ve looked at them too hard and too long. There are still ways it can be improved, things that haven’t occurred to me because I’ve been thinking about it too long and can’t easily step back and look at it as a whole.

I need fresh eyes; and they need to be the eyes of someone I can trust. Someone that will have a completely new and fresh angle on the book, who has expertise and insight. Ideally a market expert. So, for DCFS at this point, that means two things.

First: well, who better to get feedback from than the real experts on children’s books – children? My eldest son is ten, putting him slap-bang in the middle of the target age range. His reading ability is average for his age, and he’s a somewhat reluctant reader. Which makes him a pretty much perfect guinea pig. My youngest is six, meaning he’d struggle to read the book on his own, but I’ll read it to both of them.

Reading out loud is an excellent way of checking how well the prose flows. I did read out some chunks to myself when writing, but to be honest I feel like a bit of a nutcase if I talk to myself too much. Reading the whole thing out loud again to a (hopefully) listening audience will be a good thing.

But just as important – if not more so – is whether the story really engages them. I recently read Neil Gaiman’s excellent Coraline to the two of them, and they hung on every word. When I stopped at the end of each chapter, they begged me to read one more page from the next before finishing. (And I’m pretty sure that wasn’t only to delay going to bed …) If I can get anything like the same reaction from DCFS, I’ll know I’ve got something good.

I’m not expecting a great deal of feedback from them, but any that I can get will be gold dust. The best feedback will be how much it holds their attention. However, I fear my kids are unlikely to deliver a full, detailed critique of concept, plot structure, characterisation or the over-use or otherwise of adverbs. They will know if they like it or not, but not precisely why.

So for a more forensic analysis, I’m paying for a manuscript critique. Next time I’ll talk more about that, and why I’m taking that route instead of asking for beta readers. But for now, it’s goodbye to blogging and hello to the bedtime story … good night!

Draft 2, here we go …

Flying saucer

Last time I wrote about my new project, a children’s book provisionally titled Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. The 27,000ish word first draft was finished a few weeks ago. I churned it out pretty quickly – as I’ve mentioned before I’m a bit of a first draft bodger. I had a rough plan but to be honest a lot of it took shape as the words hit the screen.

After that was finished I deliberately left it a couple of weeks. Then I held my nose and started to review what I’d written. This is a tricky time, because that first draft is – how should I put it politely? – a mixed bag. Or a pile of steaming horse manure, if you’re less generous. Bursting with typos naturally, but there will also be problems with plot and pacing, uneven and underdeveloped characterisation, poor sentence construction, too many adverbs, and more than the odd cliché. (Probably also too many parentheses – I’m a terror for that.)

The purpose of the first draft review is to find all those nasty little (and big) issues, to painstakingly (and painfully) document them. And to resist making any changes at all while I’m doing it. It hurts, let me tell you. But it’s a necessary step before I try to rush in and fix everything.

I keep positive in two ways. First: along with the wrinkles, hopefully I will also see a lot that’s good, or potentially good, in the first draft. Things that will be kept, or can be improved and enhanced, as well as things that need to fundamentally changed or cut out altogether. I should glimpse that good book that’s fighting to get out – and my first draft review will be the first step towards its freedom. Second: having written two books before, I know from experience that this really works, that the book will get better as I review and redraft. Something much better will emerge at the other end. Losing the dross is just part of that process. It can’t be avoided.

If you’re interested, here is my completed first draft review of DCFS. I don’t expect anyone to read all of this – indeed, much of it won’t mean anything if you haven’t read the book yourself. But anyway there are three sections:

  • A chapter-by-chapter plot synopsis
  • A list of characters and their main traits
  • Notes on what I think is good, bad and indifferent, along with ideas for improvement – generally, and chapter by chapter.

What this shows is that there’s a lot of work ahead in the second draft. The good thing is that I think the basic structure and plot is fundamentally OK. That’s a relief, because that’s often the hardest thing to fix without virtually a complete re-write. There’s lots to put right though. And one of my main conclusions is that I think there are too many characters (a common problem in my first drafts as it happens) and I could lose one of them. And swap the genders of two more! Well sometime you need to be radical …

Now I feel ready to dive into the second draft proper. I aim to take about 2-3 weeks for that.

And then? That’s when I feel ready to show it to someone else. Someone who will give that vital, fresh perspective and tell me what’s really wrong with it – everything I’ve missed. All good fun!

Wish me luck …

Are you a first draft bodger?

thumbs up

I am a very happy writer, having a few days ago finished the first draft of my third novel. I will be sharing more about my new project next month. It’s a middle-grade children’s story – a departure for me, since BASIC Boy and Falling Girl are both teen/YA. This means that it’s somewhat shorter than what I’ve written before, the first draft coming in at 27,000 words. And of course there’s still a lot of work ahead. Both BASIC Boy and Falling Girl went to five or more drafts, and I don’t expect this one to be much different.

It also feels especially good because, as I shared not long ago, I’d been finding it quite difficult this year to really get going with anything, let alone finish it. The first draft is always a milestone and I’m relieved to have stumbled past it once more. Maybe I am still a writer after all!

Mind you, I’ve realised that I’m something of a first-draft bodger. In case you’re not familiar with the term ‘bodge’ (it might be peculiarly British, I don’t know), it basically means to do something quickly and without too much care. I don’t want to ‘bodge’ my books – but the way I see it, a first draft is always going to be a highly imperfect work-in-progress which remains in need of a lot of TLC. It’s a start, basically, not anything close to the finish.

So, I try to whack out my first drafts pretty quickly, once I’ve got a good idea of plot, structure and the characters involved. I don’t spend much time going back and fixing things – I’d rather do that in the second draft, when I can view it all as a whole. At that point I’m in a far better position to assess the novel, its structure, strengths and weaknesses etc. That said, if I see any obvious errors or something that clearly isn’t working as I’m writing the first draft, I will change it right away; but I just don’t look too hard for those things.

I imagine some people approach this a little differently, and spend a lot longer crafting their initial draft, so that perhaps less radical work is needed further down the line. Everyone’s different and I’m not saying that’s wrong. If that works for other writers, then great.

There’s another thing I’m quite happy about, which is that recently this blog passed the one hundred followers mark. I’m amazed that that many people deem my random ramblings as worth following, so if you’re one of them then thank you.

Finally – I’m going on holiday tomorrow with my family to France, so taking a rest from WordPress for a couple of weeks, though I may dip in occasionally when I find wifi. Hope you all enjoy the rest of the summer. I think I will – though of course part of my brain is still mulling over the first draft and thinking of possible improvements, even while I’m trying to shove it to the back of my mind, ready to approach it again next month with fresh eyes.

Au revoir!