Wednesday, January 17, 2018

First drafts, notes, brick walls

I wrote around 2000 words on the new book yesterday, but twenty-four hours later think that some of that writing will have to be scrapped. 

That’s how it goes on the first draft.

I work best, it seems, writing something down – anything – rather than trying to think ahead without having already done that investigative writing, the writing that 'finds' the story, in a sense. The Disenchanted Wizard was done this way. It was written and rewritten; whole chunks and chapters were scrapped. While it often seemed a hard way to work, the book was eventually all the better for it. 

Not everything in the finished book appeared in the 'first draft.' Some things appeared in exploratory notes where I mulling over what might happen. Early in the process I wrote two chapters about the night the Dog (later to be the Wizard) was sent into the map. These never got into the book in any form. One of the characters present in those chapters vanished entirely from the story in due course, even though in the very first draft he’d been the catalyst for what happened to the heroine. However, the events from those two chapters, in a modified form, were scattered about in bits of exposition in the final book. The sense that they’d been ‘real’ at some point in the writing process helped to make the exposition clear and concise.

I recently read Andy Martin's book, Reacher Said Nothing, in which Martin sat in on Lee Child's writing process during the course of the writing of the book, Make Me. 

Child, to my surprise, writes with a real 'seat of the pants' approach. He starts writing with an idea in his head, and stops when he doesn't know what to do next. He never writes a second draft. The first draft is it. With Make Me he wrote 500 words and stopped for several days. But the thing was, within those first 500 words were the seeds of the rest of the book, only he didn't know at the beginning how all those seeds would come to fruition. He didn't even understand what his characters were actually doing, or who the person was that had just been killed.

There are plenty of seat of the pants writers around; most of them write a quick first draft and then go back and revise and revise, often producing several more drafts, usually with substantial changes in them. I've never heard of any other writers who work to Child's method - unless of course you count 19th writers like Dickens and Trollope, who seemed to start at the beginning and write until they were finished. (Trollope supposedly could write 'The End' to one book, and then go straight on into chapter one of the next.) But Child's refusal to rewrite anything is more unusual for modern writers, I suspect. 

The other difference in his approach is his refusal to hurry. If he doesn't know what happens next, he waits, waits until he can see how things will develop. So in a sense a lot of his writing obviously goes on inside his head while he's doing other things - and this book gives the impression that he does quite a lot of other things.

Unlike Child, I'm not good at 'writing' in my head. 
I need to put things down in order to be able to think. What I put down may seem dislocated and shapeless, especially when it's in note form. I don't regard these notes as planning the novel structurally, by the way, and anyway, they often arise after I've started to write the first draft, especially when I've got stuck. But those notes usually spark off the next stage of writing. 

Sometimes I just have to stop completely, because things are flabby, and the first attempt at writing a scene means I've come up with something less than interesting - to others. Or I've used the same escape technique one time too many - as I suspect I have in what I wrote yesterday. At that point it takes an outside eye to tell me I can do better. I don't enjoy being told I can do better, but the books are always better for it...!

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