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)

Broken Promises (Reworking a novel part 2)

Warning: There will potentially be spoilers in this post, both for the original version of Dark Glass and the new version I am currently working on.

So, first things first. If I’m going to rework Dark Glass, I need to figure out what the major problems are in the current version.

A couple of reviews have said it’s slow, and on re-reading I can see what they mean. There’s a lot of superfluous language, especially when things move into the Dome. I think I did some of this on purpose, trying to show how those in the Dome were more verbose, but it comes across as poor writing.

I can tidy this up. When characters in the Dome talk, I should add in the odd long word, and the occasional flourish to their language, but not so much that it detracts. It’s like dealing with accents‌—‌use the occasional dialect word, but don’t overdo it.

But poor writing’s not the only thing contributing to the slowness. There’s also pacing issues.

I intended this book to be a thriller, so it needs to move faster. I need to increase the tension and the action (external and/or internal).

Connected to this, I also need to deal with broken (or unfulfilled) promises. These are things I wrote, or hinted at, in the first few chapters didn’t bear fruit later. I set up expectations in the reader, but failed to deliver on them.

The big one is Rodin. I set him up as a cold, calculating mercenary He’s paid to kill people, and he’s good at his job. We see this, when he escapes his booby-trapped room and then kills the assassin sent after him.

But we don’t see anything else like this (apart from a few flash-back scenes) until the very end. For most of the book, Rodin does pretty much nothing. He bumbles along in the Dome, he talks to Leopold, he misses opportunities to kill the man‌—‌but he’s not proactive until the end.

So I need to change this. From the moment Rodin enters the Dome, he needs to be working toward assassinating his target‌—‌this is what he has been hired to do, and he’s a professional. Obviously he has to suffer set-backs, but he needs to be trying.

And those who are protecting Leopold need to be more active too. I can’t use the excuse that ‘things move slower in the Dome’, because both sides in this struggle are ruthless. If those wanting Leopold removed are willing to hire help from outside the Dome, then surely those protecting him would also seek help wherever they could?

Rodin needs to be targeted. It might not be the kind of fight situation he’s used to (in fact, it would be better if it wasn’t, because then he is more out of his depth, and has to work harder to succeed), but the story needs some kind of villain, even if that is a faceless group of people bent on stopping Rodin assassinating Leopold.

The whole book needs a major re-write in the middle.

But there are other promises I need to address. I state that Rodin’s weapon of choice is a lance (a toughened syringe that can inject a choice of drugs into a victim)‌—‌but he never uses his own lance. This I can easily rectify‌—‌when he returns to the Dome at the end, and finally has Leopold where he wants him, Rodin can subdue the man with his lance.

Another broken promise is the glass blade. In the original, Rodin manages to sneak this blade into his meeting with Genna and Cat, and uses it to threaten Cat. But it isn’t used again.

I don’t like Rodin’s actions here anyway. He’s not one for rash behaviour, and so it’s out of character for him to pull a blade in a meeting like that unless he seriously intends to kill someone. So I can remove this part of the scene, and in doing so remove that promise.

So I’ve been restructuring the whole story, taking some parts out and adding a lot more. Rodin tries to complete his job sooner, and the inevitable failure of that first attempt causes more difficulties for him to overcome. And the roof garden mentioned in the scene when Rodin first meets Daventree‌—‌that now plays a bigger part. I’ve cut back on a lot of the background/history/explanation of the Dome‌—‌it’s still there, but in small doses, hopefully as part of the story rather than as info-dumps (and there were an awful lot of them in the original).

I know I’m going to find more story issues as I work through Dark Glass, but I’m pleased with the changes I’ve made so far. Already, the book feels more solid.

Still a long way to go, though.

To read  Reworking a novel part 1, click here.

Reworking a novel (part 1)

I think I knew this was coming, but I can’t ignore it any longer.

I wrote the first Dominions book, Dark Glass, back in 2015. It wasn’t the first novel I wrote, but it was the first I put through the whole editing process. It was the best I could do at the time, and I was pleased with how it turned out.

But since then, I’ve worked hard on my writing. I now have a better understanding of the craft of writing, as well as story-structure. I feel (know?) that the books I’m producing now are a marked improvement on that first novel.

After finishing the third book in my Shadows series (due to be released late October), I planned on starting the next Dominions book. To get myself back into that world, I re-read Dark Glass.

Oh dear.

I’ve received some great comments about this book. On both Goodreads and Kobo some readers have given me 4 and 5 stars. But I also have some lower ratings, along with comments that the book is a bit slow. And on re-reading, I’d have to agree with them. Slow, too wordy, and the writing itself isn’t up to much.

At the back of my mind, I always suspected this. I ran a promotion through Freebooksy at the start of this year, and although I had a few thousand free downloads, I saw hardly any sell-through to the rest of the series. I know that many people who download a free book won’t read it for ages (if at all), but it should still have been a warning sign.

See, the whole reason for having a free first-in-series is to hook readers and encourage them to buy subsequent books. In many ways it doesn’t matter how good later books in the series are, if that first book doesn’t draw readers in.

Which leaves me with a big question‌—‌what do I do?

I have three options:

  • I could leave Dark Glass as it is and concentrate on writing the rest of the series. But is this a good use of my time if readers are not encouraged to read through to later books?
  • I could simply abandon the whole Dominions series and start something new. But while I have ideas for other series (far too many ideas!), there are some readers who have read subsequent books. I don’t want to let them down. Also, I’ve put a lot into this series. I don’t want to waste that time and money if there is another way to sort this out.
  • Or I could make Dark Glass better.

I’m going for the third option.

After re-reading Dark Glass, I can see sections that work well as they are, but need an edit to tighten up the language. I can also see things that need to be changed. The plot is too flimsy to sustain a whole novel. I’ve set too much up, and made too many promises at the start of the book that I don’t fulfil.

But I also have a better idea what the later Dominions books will contain, and I can use this re-working as an opportunity to seed some of that.

It’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to. I think I’ll learn a great deal. And so, I’m going to post updates on my progress. I’ll post excerpts, and I’ll talk about all the ups and downs. And if you want to join me on this journey, I’d love to hear your thoughts as we go.