I’ve been quiet of late, mostly because I’ve been working fairly steadily to get a draft done. Trying to stay ‘in’ the novel by touching base with it every day as I work through the first draft (not the zero draft). I’ve needed to do this for a lot of reasons, but one is that I was really concerned about getting the voice right. In my experience, you can tinker with scenes, plotlines, timelines, settings, a character’s job, their hair colour, the clothes they wear and so on, but if you lose the character’s voice (and this novel is in first person) in any number of scenes, those scenes have to be written again from scratch. No amount of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic will fix a broken rhythm. You need a clean sweep of dance floor, new shoes, a new suit. You need to find the swoop and sweep of that character’s voice, and you can’t do that by just changing a few words here and there. I can’t, anyway. So, I’ve been holed up with Samuel, writing his story, trying to maintain a feel for his long, studied, broken-hearted sentences.
The other reason is one that I often find myself trying to communicate to other writers, especially those bemoaning the lack of time they have to write. That is, a writer writes. Anyone can dream about writing a book, talk about it, enrol in courses, sketch out an outline. Writing a book – a novel – is a deeper, long-haul process. And it requires many things, asks many things of you as the author, one of which is time. In my experience, it takes sustained, steady, fairly continuous attention to complete a novel. If I let it drop for any length of time – if I get caught up with other things and forget all about that world I’m building – it all starts to unravel and go feral. Threads come loose. The core starts to rot. A set of characters, ideas and images that seemed substantial and rich, can seem fragile and worthless after a week’s separation. As Annie Dillard wrote in The Writing Life:
A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. . . . it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.
You have to keep faith with a work. While you’re writing it, you’re the only one who really understands it – what it is, what it can be. In some sense, the way a writer feels about a novel they’re working on is similar to the way a woman feels about a child she’s carrying. To everyone else it’s real, but abstract. To the writer/mother it’s a kicking, breathing, monstrous, beloved thing. You love it, and feel its reality, even when it’s smaller than the span of your hand.
The good news is that yesterday I finished the first draft. The other good news is that now it’s time to do a structural edit.
I knew I’d finished because I have a list of ‘Things To Write’ on my desk and yesterday, after I finished the scene I was working on, I looked over and realised I’d ticked all the ‘New Scenes’ and ‘New Bits of Scenes’ listings. In the early stages of a first draft I start a list of ‘Things To Write’, which gets constantly revised as I get deeper into the book. It’s comforting for me to know that every morning, when I lump on up to the desk, there’ll be a list of things I can work on. Sometimes the ‘Things To Write’ have numbers beside them – those are pages in my notebook where I’ve made notes on the scene, or even started a hand-written rough version. Bits of dialogue, snippets of imagery. Something to start with. Often, as the list becomes more expansive and developed, the far right column will include lists of characters in the scene, or images that need to be used. Often, I write the first line-and-a-half and leave it there. Waiting. If I want to get a sense of the flow of the novel (the kind of ‘sense’ that only makes sense to me), I’ll print out a list of those opening lines, in sequence, and see what they look like all strung up together like fairy lights.
Because I print out what I write each day after the morning writing session, I have a printout of the whole draft on my desk to work with as I move forward into the structural edit. I also have a series of cards that map the scenes of the novel (one card for each scene), and an excel spreadsheet with a structural map of the novel as-it-is so I can see at a glance what’s in this beastie.
Now all I need is a long desk, a long weekend, and a long long martini to pull it apart and put it back together before moving on to that middle-ground editing I love soooo much.