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)

 

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 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)

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.

 

Reading is good for your mental health

I got into listening to podcasts a few years ago, roughly when I started writing seriously. Initially, it was a way of learning about this whole writing and indie-publishing thing‌—‌The Creative Penn (amazing to consider that Joanna Penn has been putting this podcast out for over nine years now), The Self-Publishing Podcast (now re-branded as The Story Studio), and the sadly no longer running Rocking Self-Publishing.

Over the years, I’ve expanded the list of podcasts I listen to on a regular basis (and when I find a new one, I’ll usually listen to their whole back-list too). Many focus on writing and publishing, and this is my main way of keeping up to date with what is happening, as well as continually learning. But I also listen for the enjoyment, and I’ve branched out into other podcasts.

AllusionistLogoOne of these is Helen Zaltzman’s The Allusionist. She brands it as ‘a podcast about language’, and that pretty much sums it up. She’s done episodes on the Rosetta Stone, how one area of Argentina speaks Welsh, messages on dating apps, letter-writing, the BBC shipping forecast, swearing, eponyms‌‌…‌‌the list goes on.

But I thought I’d single out the latest episode, because it deals with reading. I’ve always considered reading to be far more than simply a way of being entertained, but this episode (A Novel Remedy) looks at some of the mental health benefits of reading. Reading can help cure or alleviate psychological problems. Helen talks to a clinical psychologist who uses novel-reading with her patients. She also explores why murder mysteries written by the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers were so popular‌—‌and so helpful to the mental state of readers‌—‌in the years after the First World War.

It’s a very interesting listen, and you can find it here. And if you’re interested in language and words, I’d recommend you pop over to The Allusionist’s website and give some of the other episodes a listen.

Using short stories to try something new

 

I love reading novels, but occasionally I’ll get an anthology of short stories. I’m usually drawn to a particular title by one or two authors who I enjoy, but there are always stories by others I’m unfamiliar with. These anthologies are fantastic opportunities to try new writers without committing to hours of reading a novel would take.

I’ve submitted short stories to anthologies (and there’s one coming out in October that I’m very excited about), and a large draw is having new readers discover my work. Hopefully, a few readers will enjoy my stories enough to check out (and buy) my novels.

But there is another benefit to writing short stories, and that is the opportunity it presents to experiment. I want to improve as a writer, and that means pushing myself outside my comfort zone. That might mean trying a new genre, or it might mean trying a new style of writing. Clearly, writing complete novels for this kind of experimentation/developmental process would take too long, so I use short stories.

I’d like to highlight some of these stories here. Some have been more successful than others, but all of them have helped me improve.

And, as before, the comments below may contain spoilers, so you can always click on the title of each story to read it first.

Old Bones Burn Strong

I’ve always enjoyed fantasy. When I first read Lord Of The Rings, I’d go to my room as soon as I was home from school and spend what felt like a few hours simply reading. I remember being excited when I found Stephen R Donaldson’s Gilden Fire (the ‘lost’ chapter from one of his Thomas Covenant books) in a second-hand shop. I used to spend hours designing Dungeons And Dragons worlds, and creating new monsters.

So I wanted to try writing fantasy. I couldn’t figure out how to write a full-on epic as a short story (although I’m sure it is possible), so I came up with something smaller in scale, maybe a scene that could come from a larger story. Hopefully it stands up on its own, though.

Of course, as with science fiction, fantasy can be more of a setting than a genre, so this is also simply a story of an old man doing what he can to protect those he loves.

The Rendezvous

Another genre I read from time to time is thriller, and I wondered if I could manage an espionage story in under a thousand words. It took a lot of work, especially in editing‌—‌I needed to include the scene itself, but also hint at everything that had gone before.

Like many of my short stories, this started from an image‌—‌a man sitting outside, drinking a coffee, waiting for someone. The coffee instantly intrigued me, and I always knew there was something sinister about it. (A thought’s just come to me‌—‌maybe I should have had the man picking up the cup with his left hand, playing on the fact that the word ‘sinister’ is Latin for ‘on the left side’.)

The story, like so many others, developed as I wrote it, and required a great deal of editing. This was a fun puzzle, though‌—‌keeping enough happening in the scene itself to tell its own story, but also including enough hints and references to make the larger story understandable. Overall I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out.

Perfect

My stories tend to be dark. There’s usually death involved, or at least pain. So I challenged myself to write something ‘gentle’‌—‌a story where nobody died, with no dark undercurrents.

I wouldn’t call this romance, but it might be close. I recall wanting the dialogue to give the idea that this couple know each other well, and I think I got close to that.

Maybe I didn’t totally escape darkness‌—‌after all, the idea of the perfect moment does imply that other moments are less than perfect. But there is more happiness than pain in this story.

Never Only One Side

I’d already written a story using nothing but dialogue (Allegiance), but I wanted to see how far I could take this idea. I wanted a whole story that was only one side of a conversation.

A monologue would have been easier, but that’s usually one person talking to themselves. I wanted another character on the other side, someone who responded to the story’s main character, but who we never directly hear. The part of the conversation we ‘hear’ had to be realistic, while at the same time the story had to hold together.

On re-reading, it’s not as clear as I’d first thought. And I did cheat by having a second voice at the end (although it is through the same phone the main character used, so maybe I’m bending the rules rather than breaking them).

The Illusion Of Control

Stories are normally written in either third person (he did this, she did that) or first person (I did this). But there’s also second person (you did this, you did that).

This isn’t used much, except in ‘choose your own adventure’ books. It’s hard to write a story and convince the reader that they are the main character. Normally, books don’t address the reader at all (’breaking the fourth wall’), and second-person can feel like this the whole time.

But just because something’s hard, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted, and I’ve wanted to write a second-person story for a while now.

I still haven’t managed it, but The Illusion Of Control is close. It seems to be second person at the start, but I cheat. About half-way through, it should become clear that the reader is not the main character, but that the story’s main character (or, at least, narrator) is talking to the reader. The character (and I suppose I can use that word for an AI) is monologuing, so this story is actually in first person.

The content of this story was influenced by Surviving AI: The Promise And Peril Of Artificial Intelligence by Calum Chace (well worth a read), and while I’m intrigued by the ideas I brought into The Illusion Of Control, I’m not convinced it works as a story. I’ll probably return to these ideas, though (I already have something in mind).

And I still want to write a second-person story.


Five short stories where I pushed myself to try something different, some more successful than others. I hope you found them entertaining. If you have any comments, on these or other stories I’ve written, I’d love to hear from you‌—‌simply add a comment below.

Why I enjoy writing horror shorts

I’ve enjoyed reading horror for as long as I can remember. As a teenager, along with sci-fi and fantasy, I would devour anything by James Herbert and Stephen King. So when I started writing, it was obvious that I’d try my hand at horror.

My Shadows series combines horror and sci-fi, but most of the horror I’ve written has been as short stories. There’s something about that size of story that works well in the genre. Think of Lovecraft, or Poe—‌loads of creepy shorts. And even though I read mainly novels as a teenager, I have fond memories of reading King’s short-story collections, like Skeleton Crew. I can’t recall the names of the stories, but there are tales that I still remember clearly, decades later.

I think it’s because horror is more effective if it is not explained. A good horror tale will drop hints, and let our imagination fill in the gaps—‌and our own minds know what scares us far better than a writer does. That’s why films like Jaws and Alien, where the monster is not seen until some way into the film, and even then only in part, are far more effective horrors than their sequels (although to be fair, the rest of the Alien films don’t pretend to be horrors so much as action/sci-fi stories).

I’d like to point you to a few of my own horror stories now, with a few words of introduction. There may be spoilers, though, so follow the links (click the titles) to read the stories first.

Escape

This was the first short to appear on the website that was written in first-person, and I think that point of view works well for horror. It draws us in to the main character, and helps us experience what they are going through.

Escape was influenced by Terry Pratchett. In one of his books (I can’t recall which), a wizard tries to build a death-proof box. He sets up various spells or whatever to ward of the presence of Death, and then he climbs in, only to hear a dark voice saying DARK IN HERE, ISN’T IT? Only then does he realise that a death-proof box isn’t going to work without air-holes.

Pratchett tells that story far better, and it’s played for laughs. Escape takes a darker turn.

Invitation To Dinner

Horror works well when the scary other-world aspects are at odds to an otherwise normal setting. Going back to Alien, although it is set on a space-ship, the characters are miners, and it is easy for us to relate to them as they sit around moaning about the company—‌they’re just regular workers, like us. Yes, they’re on a space-ship, but it’s a run-down workplace and home. It’s not that much different to places we know.

Then into this every-day setting comes something totally unexpected.

With Invitation To Dinner, I wanted things to appear very normal at the start, almost to the point of being boring. But, hopefully, various phrases stick out, indicating that all is not as it seems, until the horror presents itself at the end.

It’s Not Murder If They’re No Longer Human

This story came about from a bit of free-writing, where I started with a single idea and wrote whatever came to mind. That idea was an image of someone stepping into a room, exhausted, with blood dripping from their fingers.

The story developed as I wrote, and grew tighter as I rewrote and edited (and this took a while, as the original draft was well over twice the length of the finished story). I purposely left things vague—‌is the main character deluded? Are those he’s killed aliens or zombies?—‌mainly to let the reader use their imaginations. But I also like the idea of someone doing what they know (or believe) to be the right thing, but knowing that others will recoil in horror at their actions and see them as a monster.

The Offering

This is another story, like Invitation To Dinner, where the horror only appears at the end, and even then it’s subtle. But in this story, I didn’t want the main characters to realise they were facing horrors—‌to them, what happens is normal. And maybe (I purposely don’t give their ages, but hopefully they come across as fairly young) it is normal, which only makes what happens more horrific.

Crossing

This is my first attempt at a ghost story, but I include it in this post about horror because the two genres are related (or maybe ghost stories are a sub-genre or horror). But I wanted to present this story not from the point of view of someone seeing a ghost, but from the ghost himself.

I remember a story I read (or maybe it was read to us at school), where a group of children in the time of the second world war (I think) found themselves in a strange house, full of futuristic marvels. Three other children appeared, and looked at them with fascination and also fear.

I can’t recall much about the plot, but I do know that the original three children had somehow gone into the future, and the children they saw were reacting as if they were seeing ghosts‌—‌three children from the past who suddenly appeared in their own house.

I like this idea of someone realising they are a ghost, and this is what I set out to do in crossing. It was tough to write (or, more accurately, tough to edit)—‌a long period of time has to pass in the story, and the main character has to realise what is happening slowly. I needed to give clues without necessarily giving everything away. But I’m pleased with how it turned out.

It might not be as horrific as the other shorts I’ve mentioned above, but hopefully it gives the reader a small shudder when they realise what’s going on.


I’m sure I’ll write more horror shorts in the future (I think I have a couple in early drafts already), and I hope you enjoyed these ones.