In the last post I discussed the issue of quality, and the fact that I don't consider it as all that important when drafting a story for the first time. And so here I thought to highlight that point, it might be fun to take a look at the first draft of some of my work, and compare it with the final edition.
Below, you will find the first paragraphs from an early edition of Little Wishes, which at the time was called The Light From Wolf Rock. In fact, this isn't the opening chapter, because that changed in its entirety. An early draft with peppered with letters from one character to the next, and they were all but removed from the final draft. In it's place I wrote a new present day narrative, which changed things dramatically. But this once opening chapter remained as chapter two. Reading it now, I can see that the elements I wanted to get in their do exist, but there is much less finesse, the language is more roughly hewn together, and there is a depth to the internal monologue of the character that is missing. All of that comes over the course of getting to know the characters, and developing the story. I could have worked on this opening chapter for weeks, and it could have been glorious, but I still think I'd have ended up changing it once I'd written the whole book.
I hope seeing the way that my first draft has changed will be helpful to you in creating your own first draft of whatever novel you are currently writing.
first draft of the light from wolf rock
The first Elizabeth knew of the accident was when she woke to the dull thudding of her father’s boots on the stairs. She sat up in bed, her curtains still open. The sky was dark, broken by a single glimmer of light as it fussed at the edge of a break in the clouds. Summer was over and the onset of autumn had delivered with it the promise of a difficult winter, the kind where the salt spray would infiltrate everything, a permanent slick of saline on your lip. Moments later she heard a door slam, and then from the distance, travelling on the wind, the faintest ringing of a bell. It chimed, frenetic and hurried. Was that a voice she could hear, calling out? She pushed the covers aside and moved to the window, her feet cold on the wooden floor. She saw her father rushing down the street, his boots untied, his pyjamas sneaking out from underneath the tails of his coat. Where was he going at this hour, dressed in his nightclothes?
Elizabeth’s father was the village doctor and liked to keep a standard. It was important, he thought, for his patients to see him as organized and dependable, so that they might trust him with their ailments. It helped, he said, with gleaning an honest history. But his absence meant that her mother would be worried on her own. She didn’t cope well with change anymore. Only a year ago she was full of surprises; returning home with little gifts like a new set of paints, ribbon for plaiting hair, or perhaps something as simple as a particularly beautiful leaf which she had retrieved from the ground. Her mother hated the thought of beauty going unnoticed, something of worth being forgotten. That was perhaps the cruelest irony since she herself only last week had forgotten Elizabeth’s name.
Elizabeth pushed her feet into her slippers and opened her bedroom door. The landing was long, broken by steps in the middle. It ran all the way from Elizabeth’s room to a door at the other end. The door to her parents’ bedroom was ajar, the light creating a golden shard in an otherwise tenebrous house.
‘Mum,’ called Elizabeth, but there came no answer. Elizabeth picked up the pace, feeling that something wasn’t right. She arrived alongside the landing window, hearing the scuffle of more hurried feet rushing along the winding street in the direction of the sea. A light rain misted against the window, the black road silver in the moonlight where water collected in the uneven surface. Who were those men, and to where were they running? She followed their movement; light shone from the harbor, and something didn’t feel right.
FInal edition of little wishes
The first Elizabeth knew of the accident was when she woke to the dull thudding of her father’s boots on the stairs. The dark sky was broken by the glimmer of moonlight as it fussed at the edge of a break in the clouds. The clock ticked at her side, and she saw that it was a little after 1 a.m. Somewhere in the distance a door slammed, followed by the faintest ringing of a bell. Was that a voice she could hear too, calling out? Pushing the covers aside, she jumped from the bed, moved towards the window. As she peered into the street, she saw her father rushing from their home in the direction of the sea. His shoes were untied, the blue and white stripe of his pyjamas flickering underneath the tails of his coat. There had been calls for such urgent departures in the past, but even in the direst of emergencies he always got dressed. Leaving in his nightclothes was unthinkable.
Elizabeth pushed her feet into her slippers and opened her bedroom door. With her father gone, the responsibility for her mother was left to her. Even at the age of seventeen she knew it wasn’t good for her to wake alone. Ahead, a thin slither of light shone from the door of her parents’ bedroom, left ajar in an otherwise tenebrous house.
‘Mum,’ called Elizabeth as she moved along the landing. They tried to keep her accompanied since the cruelty of the confusion had set in about a year ago, yet still there were unpredictable moments like this when she ended up alone. Early onset Alzheimer’s, her father called it. The name didn’t mean much to Elizabeth, but she hated the disease all the same. Only last month they had found her mother trying to take a boat out, with seemingly little idea about where she was and devastatingly unprepared for what might have lay ahead. Her condition was getting steadily worse, just a little bit every day; her presence in their family like a rock ground down by the constant weight of the tides.
Last week on the blog, I was thinking about my writing routines, and the kind of practices I used to have in terms of writing my earliest books. Also, what routines I have now, and in what way they differ to how I started out. And now that it is November, officially the month of NaNoWriMo, it seems sensible to linger a while longer on this. Because while it's okay to talk about writing practices, and how they are changed, an important question goes unanswered; what is required to formulate a writing practice in the first place?
For many people this November will be the first time they embark on a novel writing experience. In the past I have also participated in NaNoWriMo, and it was an excellent way for me to focus my time and efforts on a predefined goal. My third self-published book was written that way. But managing to write 50,000 words within one month does, I think, seem a somewhat daunting process. Even now, the truth is, that if I was asked to write that many words in one month, my first reaction would not be positive. I'd be considering the complexities of navigating a plot, of how to make the relationships between the characters blend effortlessly, and how I might make characters I had not yet met for any length of time feel real. But while all of these concerns go against writing that many words in such a short space of time, the argument against taking that challenge ignores one of the most fundamental tents of what it takes to write a novel.
If you are reading this, I'm guessing there is a chance you are considering writing a novel. Perhaps it's not your first, or maybe perhaps it is. It doesn't matter when it comes to this point. Because I suspect that at no matter what stage you are at, whether it be your first book, or your tenth, you share a concern that all writers feel to varying degrees. Even now, as I plan my next book, I am aware of it; will it be any good? But if this is your first novel, I feel there is something important to point out, because there is something you learn after having written a few novels already; the first draft doesn't have to be.
Only in the practice of writing do you begin to learn that early drafts have no requirement to be good. Some writers might spend months on writing a first draft, only to delete it and start again once that rough attempt gave them what they needed. Others might keep the early draft and cherry pick the best bits. Of course, there are a few who are able to write an almost clean draft from the outset, but I know for a fact there are also many, many sentences and paragraphs that will be scrapped for the majority of writers working today. Even a novel that has been through several edits by the writer herself, and perhaps the agent too, will go on to receive further scrutiny at the level of the publishing house. My first traditionally published novel My Sister was changed dramatically after getting to the publishers.
So if you are setting out to write your first novel, whether it be a 50,000 word bonanza during NaNoWriMo, or a more gentle fifteen to twenty minutes per day while the kids are in the bath and you have the laptop propped on your knees, I offer you this one moment of solidarity from somebody who knows; worry less about what you are writing, and focus only on the fact you are doing it. The quality of the writing matters little at this stage. Just get the story down, and you can work on things like voice, structure, and even plot at a later date. The best bits always show up during the edit anyway.
Falling in love with the process of writing all over again, and how that's the key to producing my best workRead Now
Some time has passed since I last updated this blog. In fact, it’s over two years since there was something I wanted to add. And yet, while you might think the implication is that I haven’t been all that busy, there has in fact been a lot of things going on. Looking back, the last post I wrote was just prior to the publication of Little Wishes, and since then Hidden Treasures has also been released. Does that mean I wasn’t taking things seriously, or care about the publication? Of course not. But it’s fair to say that we’ve all had a few other things on our mind since March 2020, and both of my books were released in or around lockdown conditions. Priorities took up what available time I had, and all those little things I used to shoehorn into my days got cast aside. I suspect I need not go into detail, dear reader. You probably spent the last couple of years doing the same. Then again, perhaps you were one of the people who learnt a new language or taught yourself to code in all those new, flexible hours. I, on the other hand, was not.
But if coming back to this blog is part of re-establishing old routines, might it not be a good idea to try to first work out what those routines were? In the last two years, even with two more books published, I don’t feel like I have made any significant leaps forward, either personally, or professionally. I’ve talked before on this blog about how I’m not keen on writing new year’s resolutions, but I find myself with that kind of mentality of late. A willingness to complete a stock take of where I’m at, what I’m doing, and where it is I want to go. But it’s been so long, I’m not sure I can remember what my old routines looked like in order to make the assessment. And even if I could skip back two years, pre-pandemic and pick up where I left off before, were the ministrations of my daily life so well refined that I would even want to slip straight back into them?
When I first started writing, I used to dream about the option of staying home to write all day, alone, like it was some magical thing. It seemed a little impossible. At the time, unpublished me was writing from the reception desk at our medical practice, where I worked as a scientist/receptionist/untrained therapist/and cleaner. But I had a few hours a day for writing, and while they were usually interrupted by telephone calls and supplier visits, I didn’t have children to care for every day, and my day was spent, for the most part, at my leisure. I wrote and worked as and when I liked, which was to say, almost non-stop. Those office days were so enjoyable, creating worlds and stories, all with the hope of getting published, and absolutely no pressure to achieve it other than that I placed on myself. And after a few years of working as a self-published author, I found an agent, followed by a publisher, and a nice two book deal in eighteen territories. Not long after that I went to writing full time from home, the mythical dream fulfilled. But right around the same time I also became a full-time mum. And two full time positions tend to be a little rough on the person trying to fulfil them both.
And so, while I complained about my routines being turned upside down by the turmoil of quickfire political policy and pandemic worthy disease, I have come out the other side of it wondering if I ever really defined what it was that I wanted from my fulltime writing life. I never got to do it alone, because as soon as it began, I was also a mother. Then, with the pandemic, the whole family arrived, and I started to wonder whether I should give up writing altogether and get a job. With an office where I could be alone. I thought maybe I’d become a psychotherapist, so I signed up for a master’s degree, and justified the decision by saying it was just about protecting my future employment opportunities. What if the writing thing ended? What if I never got another publishing deal? A wise friend reminded me if I continued dedicating 50 hours a week to studying for a career I wasn’t sure I wanted, then surely there was no doubt I wouldn’t.
And so this September, after putting aside distractions like ill-advised degrees and weird household side projects - of which I think the less said about those the better - and after a good break in the summer, I return to my writing desk, perhaps for the first time in quite a while, feeling like the writer I used to be. The person I used to be when I had no time to write, but I carved it out anyway. The person who didn’t worry about deals and sales, but instead thought for the most part, only about the story in my head. And as a result of that, I’m arriving at my desk with excitement every day. I look at the world of publishing with awe again, only this time, wiser, more cautious, and with a team on my side from the offset. I find myself remembering the me of six years ago, who had a spreadsheet, and a list of agent names, alongside columns for important facts like sent, received, rejected, full manuscript request. Plus one, final column, far right, entitled offer of representation, which remained empty for about 98% of the time. I had achieved nothing to speak of in many ways, no agent, no publisher, no standing as such in the world of publishing. And yet I was in love with the process. None of the rest mattered.
It’s actually strange to think that in the last two years I only felt that way when reminded by other people of my achievements, like a kind email or news of a new territory from my agent, or my editor with page proofs and a big thumbs up. Maybe a kind letter from a reader. But now, I’m working with a love for the simple craft of writing, one word after the next, and it is magic. Every page has given me reason to smile, and feel pleasure with the thing I am creating. The project I’m working on hasn’t even been signed off by my agent yet, and the truth is it might very well not be. It’s a little bit of a departure from what I’ve written before. The 70k words I’ve written to date don’t even quite work yet, and yet they have felt like the nicest, most simple of daily joys. They have felt like they are for me. On a practical note, my once minimalist office has become something I don’t recognise, can barely believe I’m responsible for it. Until now, if there was anything more than a keyboard on the desk, it was too full. I was all about the aesthetics, not the function. Now I have a wall planner, flow charts, sticky notes and photographs like one of those boards that track murders on the TV. Plot beats pasted at random heights to show intensity and pace. And in the bottom corner, nothing to do with the book, a few words as a gentle reminder to myself of just a year ago. A poem by Cavafy.
As you set out for Ithaka, hope your road is a long one.
For the first time, in a long time, I really do.
In just a few short months it will be a decade since I moved to Cyprus. In some ways it doesn’t feel like that long, and in other ways it’s as if the whole word has changed since the day I stepped onto a plane with a one way ticket. In that time, I know I have changed a lot as a person. When somebody asked me before I left what I was going to miss when I left the UK, I didn’t have an answer for them. Not because there weren’t going to be things that I’d miss, but rather because I wasn’t looking at it like that. I was looking forward to a new life, and was happy to try and start again. I didn’t want to try and recreate the life I lived in the UK, in a new country that I knew very little about.
Yet starting again in a new country is always going to be harder than you think or hope it will be. I felt sure that within six months I’d have the language sussed, had no idea that ten years down the line I’d still be asking people what certain words mean. I knew my career would be different, but I never imagined, or would have even dared to dream, by quite how much it would change. This week I have been thinking a lot about fresh starts after deciding to quit on a 75,000 words manuscript. It’s not the first time I’ve done something like this, having previously abandoned another book in the past, and also needing to rewrite Between The Lies, my second thriller, at least four times. Second book hell. But it is the first time I’ve abandoned a work in progress with such certainty.
I knew, all along, that something wasn’t quite right with the book that I had been writing. Six or seven years ago, I would have taken that rather differently. I would have either persevered, and with an 85,000 word manuscript would have declared it ready and defiantly hit the self-publish button, or I would have scrapped it in the belief I was a crappy writer and ploughed head first into another book in yet another genre. Something with aliens, or London in a toxic post-apocalyptic fog. Now though, I recognise a crappy draft as what it is; the road to the book I’m supposed to be writing.
I’ve been writing this particular book for about six to eight months now. When I began, I felt sure I was working along the right lines. I had an idea, something that I thought functioned as a hook, and yet when I started writing it, I couldn’t get it quite right. So, I stopped for a while, took a break for some more planning, and then came back to it. Another 20,000 words later I hit another roadblock, and I started to wonder if it was a sign that something was wrong with my idea. I shelved the project for some thinking time, and went on to write 25.000 words for another idea that I had in mind. I wasn’t sure where I was going with that, but sometimes when I need a break it’s helpful to focus on something else entirely. But ultimately, by starting another book, the only conclusion I could reach was that I wanted to return to the book that I couldn’t make work, even though I still had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.
I started it again, reaching a lofty 75,000 words, which is not all far from the end of a first draft, in theory at least, although I still wasn’t sure as to what end I was writing. Then, by chance, I received my edits for Little Wishes, and from somewhere, no idea where, the idea for the other book came to me. All it took was a new location, one change of plot, and the whole story changed. The beginning felt improved, with greater believability, and the end left me with a lump in my throat. I wrote a synopsis quickly, which for me is always a good sign, and showed it to my harshest critic. That’s my husband, who had disliked everything about the previous book. As I read it aloud, he went quiet. I got a thumbs up, and I knew I should take that as an indication that I was onto the right idea. Finally.
So, this week I’ve been writing the first draft of this new version, lifting material from the earlier draft where I could, and writing new material where needed. New chapters, where I am absolutely in love with what is happening. And it feels as if perhaps now, in what must be draft four or five, I am exactly where I’m supposed to be with it. Another fresh start, with all the baggage from the earlier versions, characters whose lives had never been on the right course, now doing exactly what they are supposed to be, exactly where they were supposed to be doing it. Which, now I come to think of it, feels more than a little bit like me moving to Cyprus.
The stages of writing a novel are many and varied, and some of them are easier than others. Take the final copy edit as an example. It doesn’t take much effort on my part to read my own book and look for typos, as long as I can find the will to tolerate reading my own material for the hundredth time and accept that I won’t find any mistakes, even though they are there. But I consider the easiest stage of writing a novel to be the very first. I have just reached the end of writing the first draft, and at no point during the revision process will it ever be this easy again.
Now that’s not to say that coming up with a worthy idea or manoeuvring my characters around for the duration of 90,000 is a doddle. On top of that, coming up with a decent hook is no mean feat. How many books have I written only to realise after writing the first draft that the hook needs work before it goes to a publisher or agent? Hint; every book I’ve ever written. But there is a certain freedom to be found in the mentality of writing a first draft, for me at least, which I think most writers who do this on a full time basis appreciate. That freedom comes from the knowledge that the first draft is allowed to be really, really shit.
Many writers have talked about writing a first draft, and one of my favourite quotes about this process comes from John Dufresne; The purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but get it written. There should be no hesitations or concerns about language or poetic phrasing. Just get the damn thing written. You can edit it pretty later. And so if upon a first reading I find that the first draft is any good, even a little bit good, then I think that is a huge stroke of luck in my favour.
I often think of writing a book as a bit like crossing a torrential, raging river. Writing a first draft is the same as throwing in great big boulders to create stepping stones so that you can just about get from one side to the next without falling in the water and getting swept downstream. There’s nothing glamourous or elegant about it, and the point is simply to get from one side to the other by any means possible while your agent and publisher wait on the bank for a safe crossing to be created. Of course, they are carrying their own tools to help you, much more sophisticated tools that can be used later in the process, but they are still waiting on the other bank while you make that first exploratory journey. They don’t want to get on that crossing or get involved in its engineering until it already looks like a stable path.
So right now the stage I am at is that I’m back on the bank with the whole crew behind me, waiting to test the route I have laid. I’m standing there, looking at what I’ve done, and wondering whether the path is going to hold. This first edit is the hardest, but also the most rewarding period in writing a book. It’s the point when all the major players arrive at their stations, when you move your characters not only from A to B, but give them a purpose and motive behind it. There’s thought, not just from the writer, but from the characters. In real life we all have friends whose behaviour we can predict, whose responses we can anticipate, and creating a book full of characters with the purpose of telling a story is like getting to know new friends. If characters don’t start to think for themselves, ergo, directing the way of the narrative, the chances are they are not yet developed sufficiently to do so; you just don’t know them well enough yet.
I edited my first chapter yesterday and it was a bit of a pleasant surprise. My first draft comes in at just under 90,000, and it wasn’t until I hit 75,000 words that I really had the first lightbulb moment, that thought when I suddenly realised how to link the beginning to the end, and the relevance of all the major events mid-way through. And what is great to realise now is that those early stepping stones I tentatively laid just over a month ago right at the start of my journey serve a very nice purpose. Sometimes it’s necessary for a complete do-over, but this time it would seem that my early chapters, although they need work, serve as a great foundation for what I really want to say.
Although I might have reached the end of what I consider the easiest stage of writing a novel, I am about to commence the hardest. I’ve got my feet back in the water, and I’m praying that the stones I have set in place hold up as I expect them to. So far they look as if they just might.