On completing a first draft

ticker tape

licensed under Creative Commons 2.0: source http://www.flickr.com/photos/iluvgadgets/

If you are passing Suffolk at any point today, you may hear the odd scream of joy or bought of hysterical laughter. After what seems like years (but has only been three months), the first draft of Genesis Redux – The Transcendence Trilogy Part 3, is complete.

I don’t know about you, but for me, writing a first draft us a little like taking exams or buying a house – it’s only once you’ve finished that you realise just how much stress you’ve been under. This has been especially true of Genesis Redux.

With Second Chance I went into the process blind. The challenge was to write a book. The first draft was fun because I placed absolutely no expectations on myself. It was only after a number of people read it and told me it was good, that the pressure mounted to get it into a good enough shape to publish.

Absent Souls was different again. This time I had some pressure because Second Chance had been so well received, but at the same time I felt comfortable with my writing process. Whereas Second Chance was a journey into the unknown, Absent Souls was a trip with old friends, the sort where you get to know each other at a far deeper level than before. By this point I had an idea where the series was going, but not necessarily how it got there, so I had the freedom to play around a little and see what happened. The good news is that so far fans of the series have loved the journey too.

With Genesis Redux, however, there has been pressure from the start. It’s the final part in the series, and although each book can be read (and enjoyed) as a standalone novel, it was important that I brought all the major plot lines to a satisfactory conclusion. This has proven to be difficult. It has taken a while for me to find a way to reach an ending that stays true to the characters without feeling contrived. I’ve probably discarded more scenes in this first draft than I ever have before, because I knew I was putting plot before characterisation, forcing my characters to do things that didn’t come naturally.

At the same time, I needed to have the draft finished by the end of this month for personal reasons, and only a few weeks back this looked unachievable. However, I’ve ended up with a completed first draft with which I’m mostly happy (which with first drafts, is a good space to be in).

Of course, any of you who have written a book know that ‘completed’ as far as first drafts is concerned is a misnomer. There are so many things left to do. I have locations I need to change and expand upon, I have plot threads I need to backtrack into earlier parts of the novel and I have themes that emerged towards the end of the novel that need to be tweaked and highlighted in earlier scenes. I also have to follow character timelines to ensure they haven’t miraculously recovered from injuries which happened only moments – but a few chapters – earlier, or manic mood swings with no apparent cause. There are motivations to assess and monitor, behaviours too. And of course there is the all important pacing to consider. And after all that there’s polishing, lots and lots of polishing.

Yet despite all this, editing is the process I love the best. While I enjoy the freedom of the first draft, I’m not the most creative person when faced with a blank page. I’m much better adapting something that already exists. I find I generate more ideas during the edit than I do while writing the first draft. The biggest challenge is to know which ones to include and which to ignore.

I can’t wait to start the editing process, but for it to be effective waiting is what I’ll be doing. I’ve learnt through experience I need to leave my draft at least a month, preferably six weeks, so when I read it back it feels like reading another’s writing, and that’s when I edit the best. So in the mean time I get to work on something new. For the first time in nearly three years I get to think of something other than the Transcendence Trilogy universe. I’m quite looking forward to it. But before that, I’m going to celebrate.

What about you? What’s your favourite part of the writing process? Are you like me and love the edit, or do you enjoy the freeform creativity of the first draft? Are you happy to leave a draft knowing there is work still left to be done, or do you have to correct all plot points before you’re ready to move on? I’d love to hear from you.

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My writing process in a picture

Ice sculpture

Image used under creative commons license. Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lynsey_wells83/

I recently read a great post on the The Diaries of James Purcell blog, where he’d put up a picture of his bookshelves and mentioned how representative they were of his thinking process, saying “the haphazard way the shelfs are stacked with bits shoved into any odd gap is a perfect example of how I think, plan and access my thoughts when writing.”

This got me thinking, because I often use visual metaphors to explain my writing process. When I first started writing I saw myself as a sculptor, with the block of stone (or ice in the case above) representing the initial blank page. My first draft would be where I’d make the first cuts, to uncover the rough approximation of the shape of the story, but in a way that still needed plenty of work. Then, with ever more intricate tools I’d edit my manuscript down, smoothing the edges, teasing out the details, until I ended up with a polished piece of work.

Clay Sculpture

Image source: thisisruben.com

However, my writing process has changed since I first started. Whereas the first draft of Second Chance fitted this analogy well, starting at 120,000 words before being edited down to 84,000, the word count on Absent Souls (and I expect Genesis Redux) started lower, went higher, before being refined back down again.

In this case, while I still see myself as a story sculptor, I now believe my process is more like creating a wire-frame clay sculpture. The frame is my outline – a series of  small paragraphs, or even just a couple of lines of description, to convey what happens in every scene of the book. I then write my first draft, fleshing out this brief description, providing the bulk of the words but still being quite sparse in places (yes, even for me), with minimal description and scene setting. Once complete, I work on my second draft, adding in further detail where required and developing the areas where more detail is needed. This process allows me to play with the pacing of the book and fully explore and accentuate the themes that have arisen in the first draft. Further edits then trim and smooth prose until I reach the finished version.

So, what about you? What’s the image that best represents your writing process? I’m a great believer that we all have our own idiosyncrasies when it comes to how we write, so I’d love to understand what image best sums up yours.


Do you like intelligent thrillers? If so, join my mailing list and get one of my 5-star rated near-future dystopian thrillers absolutely free. The mailing list is guaranteed spam free and I will only contact you if I have a new book launch or an exclusive short story to share. To sign up, please click here. 

Remembering why I write

How did this all start? (image source: www.hipstercrite.com)

How did this all start? (image source: http://www.hipstercrite.com)

Anyone who has gone through a low period will know that part of the problem stems from the feeling of helplessness, how events take over, leaving you bereft of direction and purpose. Sometimes this is caused by a single event that knocks your world out of kilter, but often it’s a combination of smaller things that on their own are handleable but combined seem insurmountable. Then there is a third way, where the incremental events go unnoticed, leaving you to believe that everything is OK when it is anything but. I’ve realised this has recently been the case for me.

When I started my novel, I did so as a challenge to myself. It was my own George Mallory moment; I did it both because I had the opportunity and because it was there. Each day was a revelation. My first goal was to write a page, but not only was I able to write a page, I was able to write multiple pages. At first some of my writing was terrible, some not, but occasionally I surprised myself with what I had created. I also found the writing process therapeutic, it allowed me to explore ideas that had been reverberating around my brain for a while and at the same time rekindled a love of storytelling that I’d forgotten I’d had.

About halfway through writing my first draft I realised that this would be a great way to make a living. What isn’t there to like about making something up, writing it down and selling it? I didn’t change my approach to writing, I had always taken that seriously as I believe that if you are going to commit to do something, you should do it properly or not at all, but my goal changed. I was no longer satisfied with conquering Everest, now I needed to make a living from it. It seemed a natural extension at the time but through this change of goal I lost something. It wasn’t just that the goal had become larger, but I had lost control.

I continued to work on the book, finishing the first draft and then honing my story and prose through the editing process. And during the months editing – and it was many months – I gained confidence in my writing and my goals hardened. I was no longer satisfied with earning money from my book, I needed recognition. I had become convinced that only through gaining representation and eventually a publishing deal would I validate my choice to write a book. Because many of us who create – whether it is the written word, music, art, film or design – crave recognition, and what greater recognition is there than by those within the industry, the dream-makers, the arbiters of taste. With this final step the metamorphosis of my goal was complete. The problem was, not only was it infinitely more difficult to achieve than my original goal, more importantly it was completely out of my control.

Towards the end of last year I sent submissions to a number of agents. And waited. And waited. And the longer I waited the more this enormous goal started to eat away at me. Eventually some of them kindly wrote back to inform me that my book was not for them, the rest remained silent. And despite knowing that agents receive thousands of submissions each year and take on one, maybe two new writers; and despite knowing that of those manuscripts taken on very few will be first-time novels (don’t be fooled by debut novel on a book sleeve – it doesn’t mean first book the author has written, it means the first published), my self-confidence took a hit and I started to wonder whether I had wasted my time.

And it was all my fault.

Because I’d lost sight of why I had started writing in the first place. My goal had changed from something difficult but achievable to something incredibly difficult and out of my control. Worse, I had allowed this goal to become a validation of who I was as a person. It was as if I’d decided to buy a lottery ticket and if when my numbers didn’t come up judged myself a failure as a human being. It was a ridiculous thing to think but I had allowed it to happen.

So I’m taking back control.

I’ve decided to self-publish my novel, not as a means to make a living (though it would be nice), not to achieve another form of self-validation through whether people buy it or like it; but for myself, to show that I conquered my Everest. I plan to make it available as an eBook initially, hopefully in the next week or so depending on book covers etc., but at some point I will make it available as a physical book, if only so that I can put it on my bookshelf as proof of what I’ve achieved. Does this mean that I’ve given up on my dream? No, not at all, it’s just that I am not going to allow my dream to define who I am. And do you know what? I feel great. And I’m writing again. And I’m enjoying it. And that is why I started in the first place.