The Vomit Draft (1/11/11)

This is a brief post about how books get written. My books, at least.

Most of the advice I’ve seen about writing a book, at least about the initial writing of a book, goes along the lines of keep writing. When I was writing my first stories (long before The Adamantine Palace), I think I used to agonise over every sentence before moving on to the next one. Now I’m working in collaboration someone else and I’m watching them do the same, it’s bringing all that back. Every. Single. Word.
Think about it.
Maybe change it.
And then rewrite the sentence five minutes later.
And the whole paragraph the next day.
And again the next.

It’s very hard, I think, when you haven’t gone through the whole process a half a dozen times, to just keep going even when you know what you’re writing isn’t your best. I’ve seen it written in probably half a dozen different places (and that’s without actually looking for such advice) that this is what a writer should do, but I’ve never seen anyone say why. So here are some whys:

Blockage: “Frank clenched his fists.” Used clenched two sentences ago? Just plain don’t like it? Feel the need for a different word but can’t think of it? Well you can either just stick with “clenched” and change it in the rewrites later or you can sit around banging your head against a Thesaurus until the right word comes along. I think I spent two days entirely stuck over one word once. Two wasted days. And with hindsight, nine times out of ten, what changes in the rewrite isn’t just the word, it’s the whole sentence. Best to keep going.

Acceptance of the rewrite: I used to think that the first draft was basically it, and so it had to be almost perfect. Rewrites are for sorting out the odd clunky sentence that somehow got away, grammatical errors, typos and the like, right? No. The first draft of Dragon Queen (in work at the moment) came in at 145k words. The second draft is going to be around 200k. One point of view has been removed completely, three have been added and two have been greatly expanded. The whole tone of the story has changed. Elements of plot have been removed, elements of character added and the setting has gone from pencil sketches to a full-colour draft. That’s what a rewrite is – or what it can be. True enough, not all of them are like that. Some first drafts come out better than others, but that’s what they can be like. Personally, I expect to do three or four rewrites before I submit to my editor. The odd clunky sentence, the typos? That’s the last of them. Now it might be that you can get a first draft almost exactly right if your painstaking about every sentence, but for me, putting that effort in to the first draft would make it almost impossible to bring myself to make massive revisions such as those I’m making at the moment. I recommend against giving yourself such an impediment. Accept the rewrite as inevitable, and then be pleased if it turns out to be easy.

And last but definitely not least…

The Plot-With-A-Will-Of-Its-Own: So here’s a situation, one I’m in right now with Volume one of Codename Sodium Hydride: you get to the last act, and you realise that there is a much, much better  denouement than the one you originally had in mind when you gave your editor your synopsis. Trouble is that to do it, you need to go back and make some changes. Maybe not big things, but lots of little things. Changing the focus a little. Bringing a couple of background characters out of the shadows a little, pushing someone you thought was going to be a major character out of focus. In essence, the realisation that there is a much better book than the one you set out to write, and it’s really not the different either. Now you can get there by painstakingly writing five hundred perfect words every day or you can get there by slamming down five thousand and using “clenched” in every other sentence, it really doesn’t matter. Both drafts give you the basic shape of your story, and both will let you know at about the same time that there’s a better one just a rewrite away. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out which way round is the more frustrating.

The vomit draft: Get it out as fast as you can, and it usually stinks. Embrace the joy of rewrites.

One Response to “The Vomit Draft (1/11/11)”

  1. Wilf Jones says:

    Totally agree – so much good stuff comes out if you just splurge – so what if you have to bin heaps of it later. Never straitjacket yourself by looking for impossible to attain perfection first time round. Now, if only I could figure out how to achieve perfection in some future draft. I seem to go from vomit, to dyspepsia, to acid reflux – maybe some sort of literary gaviscon is the answer.

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