Writing the first draft

Usually when I write, I have a habit of editing on the go. That means on a good day I might get out seven hundred words, which I'll go over and check, re-write and re-type, adjust and mull over, and so forth. At the same time I'll jump back into the body of a manuscript and fix whatever apparent errors or mis-phrasings I happen to come across, as well as checking things like continuity errors. All this can stretch the time needed to write a manuscript of about a hundred and thirty thousand words to several months at the very least.

I've been trying a different approach with Dakota book number three, a method other writers apparently swear by, of writing an almost entirely unedited first draft at a rate of no less than two thousand words a day, every day. That can produce a hundred and thirty thousand words in about sixty-five days, or just a little over two months. I haven't managed to hit two thousand words every single day; just most days. Nonetheless I've gone from just under ten thousand words at the end of October to just under sixty thousand about a month later.

For someone like me, this approach can't really work without having a very, very good idea of how the story is going to progress, as well as what's going to happen to whom, when, where and the reason why. I have an eleven thousand word synopsis sitting on my hard drive, which I don't often need to refer to since by now it's all pretty much tattooed onto the inside of my skull.

Now that I've tried it I find this approach quite refreshing, actually, since it's really nice to end a month with the knowledge you've produced almost half a novel in about thirty days. That it's 'National Novel Writing Month' in the USA (and everywhere else,I guess) is purely coincidental.

Another reason it's nice to produce that many words so quickly is it makes up for the niggling conviction over the previous several months that when you were working out the details of the plot you were really just sitting around and doing nothing. But it's been a hard genesis for this book, which will be my fifth published book when it comes out in - good grief - 2010 (the expected hardback publication date for Nova War, the second book, is September 2009).

The original plot featured a brand new central character, with Dakota a little more on the periphery of things. The plot centred around this new character's life and how they'd got to be where they were, and indeed there are one or two places and events in Nova War and even as far back as Stealing Light which were intended to foreshadow this character's appearance. I worked up an intricate arc for this character, and three months ago I had about twenty thousand words of fiction down, a little over half of which introduced this one person.

And then I chucked almost all of it out. Once I got to twenty k, I realised it just wasn't going to work and I was going to have to effectively start again. But if you're serious about your writing, you don't cry about it or gnash your teeth. You just knuckle down and figure out what it is you have to do to come up with a story that feels 'right'. And by 'right' I mean sufficiently dramatic and engaging as well as having whatever it is that propels a narrative towards a satisfying conclusion.

So out he went. Sayonara. I heavily restructured the plot and replaced him with another character with a different background and different motives, and at the same time I brought Dakota far more into the centre of things.

But I hate to completely waste old stuff. Before I wrote Stealing Light, I submitted several prospective novel outlines to Pan Macmillan after completing Against Gravity. One of them looked hopeful so, rather than just sit around until they made their decision about whether to take it on or not, I wrote nearly forty thousand words of a novel. Then Pan decided they wanted something else (which turned out to be Stealing Light) and I abandoned those forty thousand words. Several thousand words of it, however, eventually ended up in Stealing Light; I lifted the Freehold out of the abandoned work and inserted them into SL. Various other bits and pieces of prose from the abandoned story were also lifted effectively wholesale and dropped into the new, contracted book (such as the conversation between the pilot and Dakota on the way down to Redstone on her first visit there in Stealing Light). That pilot was the central character of the abandoned book, but he gets a few brief appearances in Stealing Light.

I'm not at all sure right now what I'm going to do after the third Merrick book. I could write more books set in that universe, or I might come up with something different. That depends on a lot of factors, not least whether Pan are interested in them. But at some point I might resurrect that abandoned plot outline or rip bits out of it to put into other, future projects.

Anyway, I was talking about taking a different approach to writing books. It's working for me, basically, which is nice, the payoff of course being that you have to spend a lot more time editing that rapidly written first draft once it's completed. I'm also trying to make the most of the opportunity I have to write full-time here in Taipei before going back to Scotland next spring, and I especially want to get this book finished before then.

Now if I could only think of a damn title for it ...


Anonymous said...

It's very interesting to hear the different approaches and how you're finding the change, but I'll be even more interested to hear about it when it comes to editing - I can't imagine having to effectively re-write what is already down to wrestle it into the novel that we end up reading. I always thought it would be best and easiest to edit as you write, but I guess it's however suits the individual.

Neal Asher said...

Much the same approach as me. I try to hit 10,000 words a week but that always slows up when just one new plot element requires restructuring everything previously written. I too have a file (called sfbits) which is now about half a book in length and filled with stuff I've turfed out of previous books (and short stories that didn't get off the ground).