Tuesday, 22 April 2014
I'm writing a novel. You know this already, especially if you follow me on Twitter. I never let a WIP crisis go untweeted. It's coming up to a year since I started (properly) working on the book, so it seemed like a good time to look back at what I've learned. There were two big lessons for me, one at the beginning of the process of writing the first draft, and one at the end.
1. Writing a Novel is a Very Much Like Eating an Elephant.
Which is to say, one bite at a time. As a dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool short story and flash fiction writer, the idea of writing a book seemed not so much daunting as unsurmountable. I struggled with anything over 2,000 words. How could I write something at least forty times longer?
The answer was not to look the whole thing in the eye, just at what was on my plate at any given moment (I'm not sure how much longer I can sustain this eating metaphor. For one thing, it's making me hungry). My eureka moment came when I decided for the umpteenth time to get to grips with Scrivener. I'd had it on my laptop for years. I had various first chapters written in Word. I didn't see how the two things worked together.
So I set the false-start chapters to one side and started over, this time using Scrivener. And the thing about Scrivener is that each scene is a separate document. Each scene. Each. Scene. Light bulb moment. I needed to write this book one scene at a time. I didn't need to think about whole chapters, let alone the whole book. Just one scene at a time.
This is perfect for me, because I'm a pantser, not a plotter. I had the vaguest idea of what I wanted my book to be about, but I knew the story and the characters would evolve in the writing. I had a clear idea what my opening scene would be, so I just sat down and wrote it. Then I asked myself what the next scene needed to do. Did it need to advance the story? Introduce more characters? Backstory? Flashback? Develop existing characters? Set up upcoming key scenes that I already had in mind?
In this way, the novel grew, in bites of between 1,000 and 2,000 words. Sometimes I'd be in the middle of writing a scene and realise it wouldn't work unless I added another scene earlier in the novel. The beauty of Scrivener is that you can skip back and slide in the bits you are missing. Or move scenes around when you realise they are in the wrong place. The key for me was knowing exactly what each scene was for before I wrote it. All those years of short story writing taught me that every word has to earn its keep. That's true whether there are 2,000 words or 80,000 words.
However, the more words there are, the harder it is to know which ones are really pulling their weight, which brings me on to:
2. What Do You Mean It's Crap?
The oft repeated advice about writing a first draft is to just get it done. And to get it done, you have to allow it to be crap.
Now, at first this made no sense to me. Why would I want to write something crap? When I write short stories, they don't differ much from first to final draft. Everything that is good about them is there in the first draft. Everything after that is polishing and perfecting.
Pfft, I thought. The first draft of my novel is not going to be crap. It's going to be refined, exquisitely written, needing but the lightest of editing touches.
Ladies and gentlemen, it's crap. Or rather, it's the kernel of a good book wrapped in crap (I'm liking this metaphor even less than the elephant one. Moving on…)
My characters are underdeveloped. Many scenes are underwritten, while in other places the prose is overwrought. Exposition has snuck in while my back was turned. At least 10 per cent of the words are superfluous.
Am I downcast? Not a bit (well, okay, maybe a little bit). The analogy I like best is this: when you're writing a first draft, you're just pouring sand into a box, to shape into castles later.
There are good things about editing, like stumbling across bits of writing that are really quite good. Like finding out how clever my subconscious is, making connections, echoing themes throughout the book without me even realising it. Like allowing myself to spend an hour or more on one small passage, staring out the window, writing, deleting, writing again, not worrying about clocking up the word count but making every word the right one.
Because that's the key difference between writing and editing. When you're writing, you can always come back and fix it up later. When you're editing, later is now.