Saturday 9 September 2017

Revising a book

This was the second of my two pieces for Rebecca Bradley's excellent blog, which I'm reposting here. The initial one was on first drafts, aka the terror of the blank page, this one is on what to do once you've filled those pages.

Once again, make sure you check out Rebecca's blog to read about other writers' revision process; it's a cornucopia of great advice.

Your first draft has been completed, what state is it generally in?

Kind of a mess! It’s usually missing important scenes, characters have changed names halfway through, the geography and timeline is often a bit mixed-up, I’ve given places names like ‘Toytown’, characters are named after actors who I think could play them… the first revision is about going back through and fixing all of the placeholder stuff that I only put in there until I could think of something better.

What is the first thing do before you start to revise?

The most important thing to do is nothing.

As in, take some time off and don’t even look at the manuscript for a few weeks. I need to be able to come back and look at it with fresh eyes. Usually it’s not as bad as I had feared, and the things that need to be fixed are more obvious.

When I’m ready to go back over the manuscript, I print out a hard copy and go through it with a pencil and a set of highlighters, with a notebook to record anything that requires more detail.

How do you assess the damage that needs working on?

I read through the whole book. Normally I’ll have a good idea of what scenes and elements will need the most work before I start, but it’s important to see how it reads as a book, even in rough form.

I also find this process often gives me better ideas for new scenes, or ways to tweak existing ones.

Do you allow anyone to read that very first draft before revisions or can you assess it objectively yourself?

Are you kidding? No one ever sees my first drafts but me. I hate showing anyone a work in progress until I’ve been through it at least three or four times. I even get paranoid when someone walks into the room while I’m writing, and change to another window on my screen.

I email each day’s work to myself as an extra backup, and I have a recurring nightmare about accidentally sending a work in progress to my editor or agent.

What do you initially focus on, when approaching the completed first draft of the manuscript?

Getting the structure right, making sure the plot holds together and makes sense, and that the pace works. I usually end up cutting scenes and adding new ones if I feel the story is sagging at a certain point, or if I notice a key character disappears for too many chapters.

Do you have any rituals, writing or real-world, when revising a manuscript?

I like to book myself into a hotel for a couple of days to immerse myself in the book. The more remote the better. I like to go to places out in the country where I can go for a walk to give myself a break and wool-gather.

Essentially, my concept of what it is to be a writer was formed by watching James Caan in Misery at an impressionable age.

In what format do you revise, paper or computer?

As above, I print out a hard copy to read through and make notes, but after that I go back to the computer, save a new version of the file, and do my edits on the screen. I set my documents up with headers for each chapter so that it’s easy to navigate around the document and to switch the order of chapters if necessary.

How messy is the revision process – can you go in and repair areas or does the whole manuscript get decimated?

I quite like the process of pulling it apart and putting it back together again. Generally there will be some parts that don’t need too much work. Other parts will need major surgery, others will be taken out altogether. I’m an adder, so my books usually put on ten thousand extra words between the first draft and final draft. While it’s a net gain in word count, I’m still cutting stuff that doesn’t work and killing darlings as well as adding new material.

Is revision an overhaul of the story or is it minor editing?

The first run is usually more of an overhaul, but after that it settles down into a series of smaller and smaller edits until (in theory) I get it right.

What’s the biggest change you’ve made to a story during this process?

One thing I tend to do a lot of work on after the first draft is the ending. In one case, I expanded the ending and changed my mind about who the villain was! That obviously entailed going back and laying a lot of the groundwork earlier in the book so it felt natural.

When first drafting, many writers keep track of progress by counting words in a day. How do you make sure you’re progressing as you’re revising?

Good question, and with editing there isn’t as easy a way of gauging your progress as keeping track of words per day when writing a draft. I usually have a deadline on edits, so I’ll know it has to be finished by a certain date and work back from there, working out how many pages I need to cover a day.

Of course, some pages need more editing than others, so it may take a few hours to edit the first hundred pages, and then days to edit the next twenty.

Do you prefer to write the first draft or do you prefer the revision process?

Whichever I’m not doing when someone asks me! I probably prefer revision – it’s easier to fix something that already exists than create something from nothing. I always say there are hundreds of ways to fix a first draft; there’s only one way to fix a blank page.

What do you drink while you’re working?

I really want to give a more rock n roll answer, like Jim Beam black label, but usually it’s coffee, switching to tea when I’ve had too much caffeine. Occasionally I’ll have a beer.

How long does this process take and what shape is the book now in?

It usually takes a few weeks to do it right, although when I’m against a deadline, I need to cram that work into less time. When I’m getting close to finishing I’ll work way into the night fixing the last few things.

You never really get to a point when you think it’s perfect, you just get to a point where you’ve done as much as you can and it’s time to stop.

Sunday 3 September 2017

Writing a first draft

A while ago, I was asked by fellow crime writer Rebecca Bradley to contribute to her blog series on writing a first draft. You should definitely check the series out if you want to hear about lots of different ways to write the first draft of a book. Head over to her blog to read the others. There are tons of them, and it's a treasure trove of useful advice and tips for any writer.

How many ways are there? As many as there are authors. More, in fact. Big thanks to Rebecca for letting me repost my contribution here.

When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?

The first thing I do is to start noting down all of the ideas I have about the new project and start trying to get a very basic plot outline scribbled down. It’s always interesting looking back once I’ve finished a book to how radically different the finished product is from the first few ideas, but there are always some good scenes or characters or even lines of dialogue that make it through from inception to completion.

Do you have a set routine approaching it?

I’m still fairly new to this, so I’m experimenting with different ways to approach a new book. Having now written four novels, I’m beginning to work out the things to do to make my life easier. The most important thing is to write a rough but reasonably detailed synopsis that gives me the main characters and the key scenes. From experience, that synopsis changes a lot as I write, but it’s important to fool myself into thinking I know what I’m doing.

Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?

Depends where I am. If I’m out and about when I have an idea, I’ll usually write in a notebook or type some bullet points into the notes app on my phone. As soon as I get near a computer though, I like to transcribe my notes and start to arrange them into a coherent order. There’s one very important reason to do this as soon as possible, and that’s the fact that I have real trouble reading my own handwriting. I think I missed my calling as a doctor.

How important is research to you?

Quite important, because I like to ground my novels in reality as far as possible to balance out the more outlandish thriller-y elements. I don’t overdo research before I start writing, though – a) because it’s a great excuse for procrastination, and b) because the temptation to dump all the research you’ve done into the book is strong. I try to write as much of the book as possible and then research the gaps in my knowledge… which are numerous! The good thing about research is it will often give you a great idea for a new plot twist, or a solution to a story problem you’d been struggling with.

How do you go about researching?

Like most writers these days, I do a lot of Googling. The internet is an incredible resource for lots of things, from the minutiae of firearms to flight schedules to street views from all over planet Earth. I also read factual books and newspaper or magazine articles about topics that are relevant to whatever I’m writing. It’s always good to have visited the place you’re writing about (assuming it exists), but even when you’ve been to a place you can always learn more by reading about it. How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye? I always have a few notebooks on the go and try to record ideas and promising-looking research avenues as I find them. Quite often a newspaper article or website will have really useful information, so I email the pages to myself and store them in a (now gigantic) folder called ‘INTERESTING STUFF FOR BOOKS’

Tell us how that first draft takes shape?

I just try to plough ahead, knowing that it isn’t going to be perfect or pretty, but that it’s important to get a first draft to work on. It’s like working on any big project – you have good days and bad days. Sometimes you’ll make a breakthrough and get a lot of words down and they seem to be reasonably good words, other days you’ll be spinning your wheels, wondering if you should just give up on the whole thing. On those days, it’s important just to get some words down, no matter how clumsy, and trust that you’ll be able to fix them later on.

Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?

No – I just need space and time to write. That’s the challenging part. The main ritual is making sure I get time to write every day, whether it’s last thing at night or during lunch.

Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?

Unfortunately I don’t have the luxury of withdrawing from the world as I have a day job and young children, so I have to make the most of the available time. I think being forced to engage with the real world helps, though. You need to know about real life and real people to do the job.

What does your work space look like?

At the moment, I’m a writer without a workspace. The office is going to be redecorated, and so I have to make to with the kitchen table, the couch, or sitting on the floor with my back to the wall. Luckily I’ve never been the sort of writer who needs a perfect environment in which to write. [edit: I have an office again now. Still do a lot of writing on the couch and at coffee shops]

Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?

Mostly just keep getting the words down. Occasionally, if I have a really bright idea of how to fix an earlier scene I might go back and tweak a little, but mostly it’s about gritting my teeth and focusing on the finish line. I see many writers counting words in a day.

Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?

Definitely a word counter. I always aim to do at least 500 words a day. Most days I do more than that, but it’s important to have a realistic target that’s not too intimidating. So, that first draft is down.

Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in? 

My last couple of books have been written to deadline, so much faster than before I had a book deal. It takes me about 4-5 months to get a rough draft down, but that’s very rough indeed. After that it’s usually another month or two to get it in a good enough shape to send to my publisher. The most recent book is my most ambitious and sprawling to date, and it took a lot more time to whip into shape.

In what format do you like to read it through, e-reader, paper or the computer screen?

The first time I read through I have to print out. For some reason you miss the mistakes more easily on a screen. Later on, I send the document to my Kindle to read over a more polished draft.

What happens now that first draft is done?

Ideally, I take a break for a few weeks and come back to it fresh, but the available time doesn’t always allow that. When I come back to the draft the first thing I do is print it out and go through with a pencil and a notebook and lots of different coloured highlighters working out everything that needs to be fixed. There’s always a lot that needs fixed.

Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you Mason.

It’s been a pleasure for me too!