I’ve just returned from a weekend in the Midlands with a writing friend. We both clocked up impressive word counts, and I surprised myself by doing 11 000 words in three days and finishing the draft, which hadn’t been my intention. At least not yet.
How do we know when we’re finished? The writing itself usually tells us. I thought I had another few chapters to write – including my standard aftermath chapter with happy ending and obligatory sunset – but the text told me that it wasn’t needed. This may change in subsequent drafts, but for now I’ll go along with it.
Stephen King says in his excellent book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that a first draft shouldn’t take more than three months to do, so I’m on track according to him. My drafts usually take eight months to a year, so this is a new record for me, having done the actual writing in two, plus I spent a month prior to that working on the outline.
Unfortunately, King also says that if your second draft isn’t 10% shorter than your first, then you’re not editing it down properly. For years this worried me, but I now realise that I write differently from King. He writes bulk and pares it down, while I construct a skeleton and build it up.
I sell differently from King too, but let’s not go into that here...
Currently only 66 000 words, my text will probably expand by ten or fifteen thousand over the next few drafts, and then drop back to a more comfortable length around 72 000 before I’m finished with it. About 10% longer than it is now. Sorry, Mr King.
Like many other writers, I believe in getting a basic text onto the page first; something concrete on which to expand later. To use a Karen Wiesner analogy: if the outline is the foundation, then this rough draft is my raw brickwork. Roof, windows, plastering and decor will all follow later. Or, as John van de Ruit so graphically told us at a writing seminar some years ago: “Vomit it out first, and then sort out the peas from the carrots.” I’ve spent the last two months spewing it, and now I have some peas and carrots to play with.
Since the intention of this blog is to provide insights into my writing life, process and works in progress, I’ll admit here that I’m more surprised than anyone to have finished this draft so quickly. Either I’m getting used to this, or my outline for this novel was in better shape before I started than my outlines for previous novels have been. This one needed more intricate plotting, since it takes place in two time frames, and each story strand had to not only be complete in itself, but had to relate to the other the whole way through the text.
I also spent longer than usual on my character sketches, and did them in more depth than I had done before. There are four main characters – two in each time frame – and I needed four people who were as distinct from each other as it was possible to be, while still having characteristics in the early two that were recognisably inherited in their later two descendants.
I had to be absolutely sure of those characters before starting the main text, or I might have ended up with a mish-mash that needed to be totally re-thought. No writer wants to get a quarter of the way into writing a novel before realising that the characters aren’t right. I’ve done that before, and the amount of time wasted in a situation like that could be the single biggest reason why my previous first drafts used to take nearly a year.
I don’t want to rush this novel. I want to write it at exactly the rate it needs to be written, and to give it all the attention that my previous novels have been given in their time. I enjoy the second, third, fourth and subsequent drafts, creating layers in my text and working in ideas that follow through. I love to insert nuances and bury hints that some readers may pick up on and others may not. That’s what the joy of writing is for me – wrapping a gift for the reader. Thank you, Sol Stein.
For more on the books of Stephen King, Karen Wiesner and Sol Stein, click on my reading list on the menu above.
I’ll keep you posted on the progress of my second draft, but right now it’s time to go and dust off those peas and carrots...