In my last post, I wrote about how I smashed out a first draft of my novel, (working title The Plague) in just 4 weeks, using the freefall writing technique, which I highly recommend as a way to overcome the terror of the blank page.
Gaps, Typos & Other Manuscript Problems
By mid-February last year I had 52,000 (very) rough words and the basic elements of my plot worked out. I also had notes to myself about research that was required, Xs in place of character names and locations, nonsensical timelines, typos and punctuation errors. And just some really bad first draft writing. Oh, and I didn’t know how it was going to end.
But having the raw materials in front of me when I sat down to work each day made the job much easier. I didn’t have to sit and think about what on earth I was going to write next—all my big picture thinking was done. I simply had to work through the draft, word by word, sentence by sentence, scene by scene until I got to the end. It wasn’t easy, but at least I had a path to follow.
Research & Character Development
This time I did my research as I went along. Sometimes the research led to me writing multiple additional scenes; other times I needed only one or two details to make something feel real. I fleshed out my characters, getting to know how they spoke, how they thought, what they felt about things. I tried out names on them until I found ones that fitted; gave them jobs and apartments, friends and interests, back-stories. I checked all my dates and ages and time-frames, and made LOTS of tables and lists.
In July and September and again in November I went on 5-day writing retreats at Katherine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in the Perth hills. Away from my family and domestic demands, I could immerse myself fully in the world of the book and stay there. I would go to sleep thinking about a problem, and wake up and solve it. On my last retreat I was very close to the end of the draft and I was able to hold the whole book in my head at once and see the bigger structural issues. I made charts and spreadsheets to keep track of timelines and what critical information was revealed to the reader in what scenes, reordering and editing endlessly.
While my son is on school holidays I take a break from writing. But I couldn’t bear the thought of not writing for 7 agonising weeks when I was so close to the end. So I set myself the deadline of finishing the draft by the time school broke up in mid-December. And I did it!
When I talk to aspiring writers and students, my number 1 piece of advice is: join (or form) a writing group.
Having someone play close attention to your work is such a gift, because after a certain point, we can’t see the wood for the trees when it comes to our own writing. So, over the summer, I sent my draft to two trusted writing colleagues who had generously agreed to read my manuscript and provide feedback. It is no small thing to provide feedback on another writer’s work. It requires time and attention, and the delicate challenge of letting them know what isn’t working, without crushing their spirits! I am so grateful to Yvette Walker and Susan Midalia for being willing to do this for me.
A question I am often asked is: what is a structural edit? A structural edit (as opposed to a copy edit) is one that looks at ‘big picture’ stuff such as plot, setting, character, themes, dialogue, pacing narrative point-of-view etc (as opposed to details, dates, typos, consistency etc). Both my readers gave me detailed notes on the above (what was working as well as what wasn’t).
Their feedback was enormously insightful. It was also, one one level, a little hard to take. Because I had (foolishly) thought my manuscript was just a few tweaks from being ready to send off to my agent. INCORRECT! To make my story everything it can be, to pull my readers right into its heart, there is still much work to be done.
So here I am, venturing with excitement (and some trepidation) into my third draft. Wish me luck!