Ready, edit, go?

Back in July I finished the first draft of my novel. I can still recall the sense of puzzled joy at typing ‘The End’. It seemed so final, but there was a part of me that knew it was just the beginning. After printing a copy, I tucked the manuscript aside, happy to let it rest. I told myself that I needed perspective, and there had been a few short story ideas buzzing about my head that I wanted to explore. Oh, the heady delight of short stories which can be written relatively quickly, edited and tweaked, and feel finished. How I’d missed them.

But now the time has come when I need to get serious again and start phase two of the novel. I had managed to complete about half the novel during NaNoWriMo last year, and as November approached I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to participate this year. Instead of creating another tract of words that could form part of a novel, I was going to focus my energy on finishing what I started. I am usually a finisher, and the incomplete novel kept tugging at my elbow.

But where to begin? An online search on editing a novel brings up a veritable avalanche of responses. These vary from vague outlines to incredibly detailed steps which if faithfully carried out over 31 days will result in a novel that is fit to make its way into the world. The best approach for me will fall between the two extremes.

My plan is to read my novel. This sounds obvious, but what I want to do is read it in its entirety, avoiding my usual impulse to edit as I go. I want to revisit the themes and broad arcs of the story. A couple of weeks after finishing the first draft I was walking my dog when it occurred to me that the person that was the main character in my mind hadn’t developed or changed quite as much as another character. What if I had the wrong main character? These are the thoughts that come to mind when I think of cracking open the manuscript, and they could be just the tip of the iceberg. Or it could be better than I think.

What I want is clear in my mind. I want to get the novel to a point where it is ‘finished’ enough to pass on to a beta reader for feedback. I want to get it to the point where I feel that I have done all that I can to make it as good as it can be. I know that this process will not be easy, and that it will take time that is increasingly difficult to find, but I also know that this is something that took months to create and it deserves the application of time and energy in order to complete it. In essence, I need to do the work.

I know that I’ll get there. Now I have moved on from being overwhelmed by the scope of it, it feels less daunting than before. I’m finally ready.

How do you approach big creative tasks?

[Photo: waratah spotted at Blackheath – they are glorious beacons this time of year]

In Draft Mode

It would be fair to say that I live a lot in my head. An active imagination will do that for you. But what I’m thinking about specifically is how I do quite a lot of my writing in my mind, editing and rephrasing and tweaking, before it gets the chance to come to life on the page. This might not be unusual, but I wanted to tease the idea out a bit.

I have become more aware of my perpetual drafting as I think about topics to blog about. There are some weeks when it is easy to tap in to a recent experience or something I’ve been researching and create a post around the contents. There are other times when it feels as though a deadline is approaching and my mind is a crisp unsullied page and I wonder what I will pull out of my ear this time. Because that’s the thing – my mind will always come up with something. I have written before about ‘don’t ask, don’t get‘ and I rely on my subconscious mind to keep toiling away whilst I’m doing other things so there are at least a couple of ideas that I can work with.

This is where the drafting process comes in. Once there is a kernel of an idea, regardless of how remote or absurd, my mind will start to play, to tease out threads of thought. Through word association or a mental mind map, the kernel starts to expand and grow, and through drafting I start to sense the shape of what is possible. Sometimes I need to get pen and paper out, or tap out some words in a document, to get things moving, but by this time there is at least a trickle of thought that can be tapped.

Letters are another format where I do a lot of mental drafting before I begin. I have mentioned the joy of writing and receiving letters before, and I will usually take a bit of time to think about the essence of what I want to communicate before putting it on paper.

This perpetual drafting, of playing with words, thoughts, ideas, concepts, helps in the expression of what I want to communicate as well as ensuring that my mind is always at work.

Do you give much thought to what your mind gets up to?

[Photo of Strahan Harbour, Tasmania]

A Novel Approach

This time last week I was in a state of something close to euphoria. The reason? I had finally completed the first draft of my novel.

I had known the moment was coming. Although I am usually a planner, I had worked through the novel with only a rough idea as to what was to happen. There were character sketches and plot points at certain stages of the process along with flexibility which worked well. But as I approached the final quarter, I could feel a bit of reluctance creep in.

My creative writing to this point has mainly been in the space of short stories. There were several times throughout the writing of the novel that I was secretly pleased that I had made it this far. But it was also a bit daunting. I know, you see, that this is only the first draft. I will need to edit, to carve out bits, to write new sections. As I wrote I had to battle the urge to edit as I wrote. But once I started to tinker with the structure, the house of cards might tumble. Instead, I channeled the advice listed under ‘Finish the damn novel‘ and finished the damn novel.

It is imperfect. Some writers are famous for writing scores of drafts before they have the final, polished gem. Others seem to be able to attain perfection with hardly an edit. As the logical conclusion to the story approached part of me was wondering if the character arc development was enough. Should I up the ante for a character by doing this, or tweaking that, or is something entirely different required?

It would be easy to spend my writing time devouring the millions of words of writing advice regarding what to do now I’ve finished my draft. Instead, I’ve paraphrased Stephen King in my head and I’m going to let it sit for a few weeks. I have a copy of the draft printed and ready to edit, but I’ve resisted the impulse to pull out a pen and start scrawling amendments. It needs to breathe a bit. As do I.

There are other writing projects that I am keen to get started on, chunkier jobs that just seemed too much to take on in addition to finishing a novel. So that is the approach that I plan to take for now.

Do you have a break of sorts between larger projects?

[Photo: a glimpse inside the pavilion at the Hydro Majestic, Medlow Bath]

Stuff and nonsense*

Lately I’ve been doing a bit of paper shuffling. Well, more like trying to sort out the reams of papers relating to my writing that I’ve managed to jam into a filing cabinet which is threatening to explode.

By nature I like to keep things, and with my writing I like to keep a hard copy to hand. When I’m editing my work, I still prefer to print it out, although I can edit online if I have to. I do try to read my writing aloud – it is staggering the things that you find after reading and editing a couple of times, regardless of how careful you think you are being throughout the process. Online spelling and grammar checks aren’t always entirely accurate, or they may not be able to cope with the context of what is being expressed.

I recently polished off a short story that started out a year or two ago with a ten minute writing prompt. In a folder I have the typed copy of the writing exercise consisting of about 300 words. Then I have a working draft or two of the story, with various markings and scribblings of the pen as I edited and tinkered with the work. There is a copy of the version I submitted to my writing group for feedback. There were pertinent points raised, and I have marked this copy with the suggestions and corrections. Then I have my polished draft of about 1500 words.

Why do I keep so many versions? Thankfully I don’t keep every version I print, but I try to keep a copy of the major edits, just in case I slice out something substantial that I want to reinstate later, or use somewhere else.

Another way to manage this electronically would be to save the various versions as they are edited. I have a vague memory of an established writer being interviewed and saying that all the sections that were cut from the novel during the editing process were put into a separate document so they could be revived or reused if required.

I may not need to go back and revisit the various drafts of a story, but there is a degree of comfort in knowing that I have it filed away. In the future if am stuck on something I can follow the broad strokes of my  working method if required.

What do you do with your working copies?

*With a nod to the song Stuff and Nonsense by Split Enz, with a beautiful version by Missy Higgins also available.

[Photo: detail of stained glass door at the Hydro Majestic showing a variety of styles]