I finished the first draft of a book yesterday. A first draft is never the end, but for me it has always been something of an emotional moment. There is still a lot of work to do, but all of the possibilities have reduced to a single, real narrative. Ideas I had months, or even years ago have been crystallised into words. Characters whose paths I have shaped have reached the end of their journey and been changed. The closest thing to it is finishing reading a book which has totally absorbed your imagination: like that, but from the other side of the page.
As you might gather, it’s a little strange as far as experiences go.
One thing that also happens is that I find myself comparing the journey with the other books I have written. Was it more difficult? Was it more fun? Would I write a book the same way again? On reflection, while there are always differences, there are consistent patterns too.
And this is usually how it goes:
The road is long…
I tend to start with a single event, character or circumstance. I stew that first concept in my head, and let it accrete other ideas.
Semi-legible notes end up all over notebooks and loose sheets of paper. I will never look at most of them again.
I talk to people about the story (editors, friends, other writers). I watch to see if their eyes glaze over. If I get a bad response then I start again. I am lucky in that I have very inspiring friends and colleagues, who are not short on opinions.
I write the idea down in as few words as possible. Can the idea be expressed simply and directly? Yes – good. No – start again.
I plan. Key story beats are hammered into shape.
I realise that I need an extra subplot because otherwise the whole thing is going to be like head butting through breeze block walls.
I change the plan.
I start writing, and try to hit key milestones by set times.
I realise, yet again, that the plan is just a map to save me if I get lost, and will have to be changed.
Characters appear, disappear, change appearance, change names, change their role in the plot, and generally cause trouble on the page.
Eventually – after all the ups and downs of thinking it’s going well, knowing it’s not, believing it’s great, and being convinced it’s terrible – a rough draft turns up. Elation, sadness, surprise, and a few other contradictory emotions flood through me.
My long suffering alpha reader gets to batter through my mistakes.
I redraft, moving big chunks of text around, scrapping scenes, burning word count down, adding stuff in and chopping it out.
I put together a reading draft that looks close to the finished deal. The reading draft goes out to my beta readers (thanks, guys). I wait in a state of nervous tension for them to tell me it’s dull, or makes no sense, or that the bit that I really like is, in fact, pointless.
The comments come back. I read them, alternating between joy and despair.
I redraft again.
It goes to the editors, and the nervous tension starts again.
More comments come back.
More drafts appear.
It goes to the copy editors and proof readers.
Print galleys appear – ‘last chance to change that hideous typo you spotted on page 76…’
And then – at long last, like a dust covered traveller riding through a city’s gate – it is printed, and becomes real.