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.