A successful first draft (Reworking a novel part 5)

I’ve reached my first milestone. About a week ago, I finished the new first draft of Dark Glass (a combination of writing new scenes and editing old ones).

After completing a first draft, I put it aside for at least a few days, just so I can get some distance from it. Then, I pull up the Scrivener file (that’s the software I use for writing), and compile a mobi file, which I then transfer to my Kindle.

I want to know if this draft works as a story, so I need to approach it as a reader. Creating an e-book of this first draft means I can read it just as I read any other book‌—‌on my Kindle, relaxing on the sofa or in bed, coffee at hand. As I read, I try to ignore grammar and spelling, and instead focus on the story itself. Does it flow well, with changes of pace that don’t jar? Does the plot make sense? Do the characters act and react in believable ways?

Whenever I start a read-through like this, I’m both excited and nervous‌—‌excited because I can still remember the good things from writing it, and nervous because I’m never sure how much will work, and how much will need major changes.

With Dark Glass I have more pressure, because I need this to be better than the original version.

And this new version’s not perfect. There are many things that need altering. Of course there are‌—‌this is a new first draft. But, overall, I’m very pleased with what I have now.

I’ve added more scenes than I’ve taken out, but I’ve tightened those old scenes, and this new version is about 10% shorter than the original. This means that it moves faster, addressing the complaint that the original was slow (it was). I’m pleased, also, with how Rodin (the main character) is more proactive the whole way through. Rather than waiting for an opportunity to kill Leopold, he’s working toward that goal from the moment he steps into the Dome.

But something else has grown in this version‌—‌Rodin’s inner change. Now, he’s more aware of how the Dome is altering his perception, and how he’s side-tracking himself from his job. It’s also opening up more possible questions about his past.

There’s more to be done, of course. I have a list of things to address now, notes on individual chapters and thoughts on the book overall. But I’m excited. I can’t wait to pull up the Scrivener file and dive back into Dark Glass.


Previous ‘Reworking a novel’ posts:

Editing or rewriting? (part 4)

The first draft is always a mess (part 3)

Broken Promises (part 2)

Reworking a novel (part 1)

 

New short story – ‘Stowaway’

I’ve got a new sci-fi short for you, called Stowaway. It stands on its own, but it also ties in to the Shadows series. The main character in Stowaway, Deva, is the protagonist in the novella Shadowlair (A Shadows Prequel), and she also features in the latest book in the series, Shadowstrike (Shadows Book Three).

It’s fun revisiting characters. Often, when I’m writing, I’ll add snippets of information that hint at a character’s backstory, and short stories are a great way to expand on these snippets. So in Stowaway, we learn a bit more about how Deva made her way down to Haven.

Shadowlair is only available for readers who sign up to my newsletter, but Shadowstrike is now available on Kindle, currently at the bargain price of 99p/99c (there’s also a few chapters available as a free preview‌—‌click here). And you can read Stowaway for free by clicking here.

The shadows are growing!

Bit of news about my Shadows series:

Shadowstrike_smallShadowstrike (Shadows Book Three) is now available, through Amazon. I had the pre-order up for 99p/99c, and I’m keeping the book at that price for a while longer. The book’s also in Kindle Unlimited, so if you subscribe to this you can borrow and read for free.

Shadowfall_smallAnd to celebrate the release of this book, I’ve put the first Shadows book, Shadowfall, to free for a few days (until the end of the month). So if you haven’t read any of these sci-fi/horror books, and want something a bit different for Hallowe’en, click here to get this book for free.

 

Editing or rewriting? (Reworking a novel part 4)

It’s an interesting process, reworking a novel that already exists. Some parts of the original need to go, and new sections need adding. But there are many scenes where the story works, but the writing doesn’t, or where they feel okay but could be better.

For a while, I saw two ways of dealing with these sections, each with their own pros and cons.

First, I could edit what I already had. This made a lot of sense‌—‌why re-invent the wheel, right? If the story was okay, I’d only be changing language. But there was an awful lot I wanted to change. In many scenes, I doubted there would be many sentences left untouched. With that much work, maybe my second choice would be better.

Second, I could start from scratch and totally re-write the scene. I wouldn’t be hampered by what I already had. I wouldn’t have to wade through sentences and paragraphs that I didn’t think much of. But in the long term I knew this process would take longer. Yes, I’d have a tighter first draft of each scene, but I’d still need to edit.

But then I came up with a third way. Not a compromise, but a way of combining the best bits of the other two methods. I’d start from fresh, but reuse wherever I could.

I write in a piece of software called Scrivener. In some ways it’s like a normal word processor (like Word), but uses multiple files stored all in one place. I use a separate file for each scene, and then store these scenes in chapters. I also have pages for notes of all kinds‌—‌story arcs, characters, settings, general notes, and so on.

Scrivener screenshot

It’s easy to have more than one file open on the screen at any one time. When I’m normally writing, I’ll often have the scene I’m working on in the largest window, and notes to one side. But for this re-working of Dark Glass, I’ve changed things a little.

For each scene, I’ll start a new file‌—‌a blank page‌—‌but I’ll have the old scene up too. I’ll first-draft my new version while keeping an eye on the original. There are some good passages in this, and when I reach a point where I can use one of these sections I simply copy and paste it across. Of course, I still need to do some editing on it, but changing a paragraph or two is far easier than changing a whole section.

So far, this way of working seems to be going well. I’m feeling pretty good about the whole re-write at the moment‌—‌I’m reducing the word count while also adding more to the story, which should mean it reads faster. If nothing else, this addresses the comments on the slow pace of the novel.

And I can see myself using this process when I’m editing other stories‌—‌I’m not only improving Dark Glass, but I’m refining the way I work. Win-win!


Previous ‘Reworking a novel’ posts:

The first draft is always a mess (part 3)

Broken Promises (part 2)

Reworking a novel (part 1)

The Importance of Reading Part 4: Living Other Lives

 

There’s a quote I’ve seen a lot recently:

I’m a reader, not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to have many.

It’s a great antidote to all those broad-brush stereotypes of readers being boring, but what does it actually mean? When we read, we’re transported into new worlds, and experience new characters. But it’s just entertainment, isn’t I? It’s fun while it lasts, but we have to return to the real world at some point. That written world has no bearing on our own lives, right?

Wrong.

Think for a moment how we learn about the world. As babies and toddlers we learn through exploring‌—‌sticking things in our mouths, reaching out and touching things, and so on. But we also learn from those around us. The way we view the world is initially very much influenced by those close to us, and for a baby that generally means family.

But as we grow, we meet others, especially at school. We pick up on their world-views, and our understanding develops. Most parents, though, send their children to schools that reflect their own world-view in some way. This can happen as a deliberate choice (as with faith schools) or by accident (as most people live in areas where others are similar to themselves.)

human-1602493_1280When a child is older, they might move away to university or college. They’re independent(ish) now, free to mix with a far wider variety of people. This means an explosion of new experiences, and the opportunity to see the world from so many different viewpoints. But, in that stage between childhood and true adulthood, our brains are still developing. We’re still discovering who we are and how we fit in, and we’re especially open to all these new stimuli.

It’s no wonder that people are more likely to become involved in political and social activism during these years, or that people travel to far-off places, way outside their comfort zones, to ‘find themselves’.

Eventually, we (kind of) figure out what we want in life, and we settle down somewhere we feel comfortable‌—‌which usually means being surrounded by those whose ideas and ideals chime with our own. Maybe we have a family of our own, and our world-views are passed on to a new generation.

But the world never stops changing, and unless we want to risk being left behind, we need to change with it. We need to be constantly adapting our world-view.

Think of the way some older people say things that make us cringe-worthy. Of course, they see nothing wrong with what they’re saying, because that is how they see the world, and how they have done for decades.

So how do we keep developing? The best way is to experience more of the world. Some people do this through travel, although that takes time and money. But another way of experiencing this is in reading. Through books, we are thrust into the lives of others, in situations we’ve never encountered before. So many diverse authors bring us storied and characters that reflect their experiences, and of course these are different to our own.

If the book is well-written, we start to grow in our understanding‌—‌of what it means to live in a different society, of what it feels like to belong to a minority (or a majority), of how people cope with issues we’ve never had to face. And we can use that understanding in our own lives.

A staunch pacifist reads a book about soldiers and, although they may still believe their stance is morally correct, they gain an insight into a different point of view. Then, the next time they find themselves in an argument on the rights and wrongs of violence, they are able to show more empathy for those who believe that violence can be an answer. And maybe that’s enough to turn a potential shouting match into an intelligent debate.

These different world-views don’t have to be overtly expressed in books, though. In fact, I often find books that tackle ‘issues’ head-on come across as preachy, but a great story that has characters who are not all like me allows me to broaden my experiences I might not be able to relate to, for example, a transexual Asian youngster struggling with their identity, but I can relate to a character having problems at work, even if they also happen to be a transexual Asian youngster struggling with their identity.

A good example of this (not a book, admittedly, but it’s still story) is the TV series Brooklyn Nine-Nine. As a comedy, it’s primary aim is to make us laugh. As stories, each episode is designed to give a satisfying viewing experience. But by including diverse characters it can nudge a viewer into changing their world-view. This is perhaps best highlighted in Captain Holt, a black, gay man in an interracial relationship, but he’s a person first. I can’t directly relate to him having a same-sex partner, or of being a police captain, but I can relate to him getting frustrated with his co-workers. I can relate to him having disagreements with others, or of feeling tired, or happy, or many of the other things people do. And because I can relate to a part of him, it is easier to accept those parts that are different.

man-1461448_1280Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books show another way this vicarious experience can broaden our perceptions of others. Many of the characters in these books are morally ambiguous. One example it Sand dan Glokta, a torturer who obtains information through any means necessary. He appears to have no remorse for his actions, even when he knows he is drawing a confession from someone who is innocent.

And yet, Glokta is himself a victim of torture, and his body is a wreck. Every step is a struggle, he’s in constant pain, and he can no longer take solid food. So did he become a torturer because of his past or in spite of it? What drives him?

As the reader is drawn into Glokta’s mind, these questions naturally arise, and our minds seek answers. It doesn’t matter if we like him or despise him‌—‌as we read we start to understand him a bit more.

Tyrion Lannister, from George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire books, functions in a similar way, although he is maybe more sympathetic than Glokta. Tyrion is looked down on (figuratively and metaphorically) by many in the books‌—‌and who hasn’t experienced something like this before? We have a point of reference, so when he does things that we see as morally wrong, we try to understand his reasoning. Like many characters in well-written books, Tyrion’s character is not one-dimensional, and this is true of every one of us. Through becoming immersed in the fictional world of Glokta or Tyrion (or Captain Holt), we develop the ability to better see more facets of characters in our own, non-fictional world. Through experiencing many lives through reading, we are better able to make sense of a world that, all too often, seems random and violent.

So reading is important because it enables us to experience far more of life than we can otherwise, and that teaches us about our own lives. As Albert Camus said,

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.


Previous posts in this series are:

Part 3 : Imagination

Part 2: Concentrate!

Part 1: Slow Down

The first draft is always a mess (Reworking a novel part 3)

I’ve started writing some of the new scenes for Dark Glass now. The first of these I did was Rodin’s first attempt to assassinate Leopold.

I was excited to write this. I had it all planned out, knew what was going to happen. And it ties in with certain themes that return in later books, too. We get a chance to see Rodin working without his usual weapons. We see him planning and executing a removal‌—‌even if (spoiler alert) it goes wrong.

But as I wrote this scene, something felt off. I’d write a sentence, then wonder if it was good enough. I pushed through, onto the next sentence, the next paragraph‌—‌but I had the nagging doubt that this writing wasn’t as good as I expected. Worse, the writing itself didn’t feel like an improvement on the original Dark Glass.

And then I remembered something‌—‌because this was a new scene, this was a new first draft. And first drafts are always messy.

The first draft, even of a single scene, exists to get the words down, one after the other. It exists to tell the story. A first draft shouldn’t be about clean writing, and it’s allowed to have errors‌—‌spelling mistakes, poorly formed sentences, unrealistic dialogue, weak descriptions.

If a scene (or a book) is a sculpture, the first draft is the point when the big chunks of rock have been hacked away. There’s a basic shape, but the edges are rough. There’s no detail‌—‌the head is a round blob, the hand has no fingers. But this doesn’t matter, because the next round of work (the edits) will add details and smooth edges. Slowly, those harsh edges will become smooth contours, and ugly sentences will become flowing prose.

This is the process I went through with the original Dark Glass‌—‌first draft, then rounds of edits to refine both story and writing. So there’s no way I should be directly comparing that finished product with these messy first drafts. It’s like comparing a plain sponge to a decorated cake, or a single-track home recording of guitar and voice to a professionally recorded full-band version of the same song. It’s like comparing a first screenplay to a completed movie.

So yes, these new scenes are messy. But that doesn’t matter, because at this stage they are improving the story. And the writing? A few rounds of edits, and I’m confident I can pull that past the standard of the original novel.

It’s good to know I’m on the right track.


Previous posts in ‘Reworking a novel’ are:

Broken Promises (part 2)

Reworking a novel (part 1)

‘Prepared’ – new short story

Back in the summer, we had a family holiday in Portugal, in an area we’d stayed in a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, not much had changed, but I started imagining what the place might look like in the future‌—‌especially a future where we were leaving the planet. Who would visit a place like this when tourists were all going elsewhere? And as the cafes and bars and shops all closed, what would it be like for the last place standing?

This short story, Prepared, arose from those thoughts. I’m still not sure if I admire the main character for their perseverance, or am saddened by the futility of their existance.

You can read the story here, and others can be found here. And, as always, I’d love to know what you think of it.