Why writing isn’t the whole story

Over November, as my NaNoWriMo project (more details in this post), I wrote the first draft of the next Dominions novel. I was confident I could manage the usual NaNo target of 50,000 words, but I wanted to get the whole thing written. I pushed myself hard, and gave dictation another try for some of it.

I finished, a few days before the end of the month. 125,000 words.

It’s too long. And it’s a mess.

The sections I dictated are extremely stilted, because I still find that words flow better through my fingers than through my mouth. But there are problems with other parts, too. In some sections, I realised my planning wasn’t working, so I had to change things. There are plot holes, and redundant character point-of-view scenes. I’m not convinced by some of the character arcs or motivations. And there’s a lot of repetition and poor writing.

Does this concern me? No. I know that the first draft is not the finished book. It’s a way of getting words on the page. It allows the story to be discovered, and for characters to grow. It’s an opportunity to understand more about themes and ideas that underpin story events and motivations.

The first draft is similar to the artist’s initial sketches, or the musician’s rough demo recording. Reaching ‘The End’ for the first time is really only the beginning.

Now comes the hard work‌—‌editing.

editing-1756958_640I used to see this as a chore. I used to believe that editing involved correcting mistakes, and that I should have foreseen many of these. I used to view writing as the fun, creative part of the process and editing as a mundane slog.

My view’s changed a great deal on this. As I’ve learnt more about the craft of writing and storytelling, I’m starting to understand just how many working parts go into creating a written work, and how it’s impossible to nail even a fraction of these on the first attempt.

There’s the ebb and flow of the story, and the various tent-pole moments that need to meet reader expectations while also being different or surprising in some way. There are the subtleties of character arcs, and the interplay between characters and their settings.

And then there’s the writing itself‌—‌not simply grammar and spelling, but the choice of words. There are things to avoid‌—‌info dumps, repetition, superfluous description. There’s tone and characterisation. There are times to become more poetic, and times to use more straightforward language. And so much more.

Editing isn’t a matter of correcting mistakes. Editing takes the raw material of the first draft then manipulates and moulds it. Editing turns those rough, messy words into something that will pull readers in, giving them the entertainment and excitement they seek.

Far from being mundane, editing is incredibly creative. A great deal of it is about problem solving, on many different levels. There’s the macro, whole-story work, where scenes are positioned just right, where the feel of the book as a whole is considered, where pacing plays such a vital role. And then there’s the micro, sentence-level work, dealing with minutiae of language. There are levels in-between‌—‌structuring each scene or chapter to have its own flow, re-writing paragraphs to ensure the important details are in the right place.

And all these changes have to work together. A sequence of brilliantly-structures scenes doesn’t necessarily tell a great story. Perfect sentences are meaningless if the reader has lost interest in the characters. An exciting story can fail if told in a bland way.

Editing, far more than writing, is what creates good stories. It’s a challenge, and it’s time-consuming‌—‌and it’s one of my favourite parts of the whole writing process.

The first draft is just the start. And now, I’m excited to begin the important work of turning those 125,000 words into something I can be proud to release.

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