first draft

Garden path with steps and flowers

Bogged down at the beginning?

In books, as in essays, the beginning is sometimes the last thing you write – or at least the last thing you work on before finishing.

It’s not just that the beginning is, in some ways, the most important bit – if people don’t read on, it doesn’t matter how good the rest is; it’s also that you can’t write a good beginning until you know exactly what it’s the starting point for. No matter how carefully you plan, you never know exactly what will end up on the page and what, therefore, your beginning needs to offer your readers.

It’s easy to write a functional beginning. Surely, it’s just about the story starting in roughly the right place with the right people present, some interesting questions and Things Happening? Nope. Sorry. It’s not that simple.

The first thing to do is acknowledge that faint sense of unease about your beginning. It’s going to need work: a lot of work. Most beginnings do. But it’s equally important to acknowledge that until almost everything else is done, there’s only so far you’ll get with it, no matter how hard you try. And you should try: beginnings get better inch by inch, rarely all at once. That said, the main thing is to know that you will have to come back to it at the end. That’s when, if the rest of the book is ready, you’ll be able to fix the start.

New Book sold on the basis of a synopsis and give-or-take 50 pages. They weren’t terribly good pages. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was some good writing and it was all very functional, but it wasn’t right. This weekend is when I need to fix it. The rest of the book feels happy. I am content and relaxed about it (to the extent I am ever relaxed about anything to do with writing). But the beginning is still bugging me. As it should, because it is just not right.

Though last night I started to really make inroads into fixing it. I worked on the first 3824 words. There are now 3304 words. In other words, 12 pages have become 10. Hopefully, I’ll get down to 8 or 9 but we’ll see.

The main thing I knew was wrong about the beginning was that it was slow. It wasn’t obviously slow – plenty of interesting, fairly important things happen to the main character internally and externally, and lots of questions are raised. But still it dragged. Even I wasn’t in a rush to read on when editing. This is a Very Bad Sign: writers ignore it at their peril.

I was also worried about the fact that one of the three characters we meet at the start will disappear and never reappear. There’s an important reason for his presence at the beginning of the book, but how much time do we want to spend with him? Isn’t it better to do what we need to but efficiently? Yes! Fewer pages with The Nobody!

What else? The writing. I knew it was clunky and had to grit my teeth to submit it: knowing your writing is clunky isn’t the same as fixing it and I know my own writing process enough to understand that no amount of time or effort (there had been a LOT of both) was going to get it further… until the rest of the book was done and heavily edited. I know why it’s clunky now, or at least I’m getting there with this understanding.

Point #1: At the beginning, when there is no book, clarity means spelling things out. There are no ‘next pages’ where little hints and questions get explained: there is no development so that the implicit may become explicit. There was far, far too much I’d said on the page that I didn’t need to with an entire book to come to do just that. Don’t be obviou: you only need to be reasonably clear about some things at the beginning. Other things can become obvious over time and do not need to be spelt out on page one event if they are very important.

Point #2: Don’t say things twice. At the beginning of the book, things are happening for the first time. It’s easy to worry that readers won’t see that they’re important unless you repeat yourself. There is a whole book to do that in – gradually and over time. As you edit, cut the repetition in the beginning. It is slowing you down and making your writing clunky and it is just Entirely Unnecessary.

Point #3: Don’t draw attention to things that don’t matter, unless they’re purposefully there as red herrings (or, as I prefer to call them, wanton fish – a lovely post-anaesthetic semantic leap into the absurd). My Nobody character is there to be a nobody. My beginning must make this clear then not dwell on it or him, otherwise I’m muddying the waters in ways that are unhelpful and boring.

Point #4: Is this absolutely necessary? Beginnings should contain only that which falls firmly into the ‘Yes’ category. Sometimes beauty and interest can make things necessary, but they must be very beautiful and/or interesting indeed for this to be the case.

Point #5: Beginnings are like an orchestra warming up. Every element must tune up to come into harmony with all the others. It’s a necessay part of the process of finding the voice not just of the characters but of the book: its particularly rhythmns, sounds, the little threads of language that will make it tight at the level of song. Once the rest of the book is singing, you can go back to the beginning and tune it all up properly so that it does too. Books shouldn’t start softly, with little mumbles of nervousness: they should belt from page one. Not belt in every sense, but in the lanuage sense – absolutely. You can only accomplish this when you have a whole book behind you to work with. That is the ‘score’ for your song: all the ornaments, the developments, the themes. How can you write a stonking beginning unless it references those things, perhaps slyly and shyly, but references them all the same?

So that’s where I am. New Book is almost done, though there is still work to come. But I have a good feeling about that. If only I can sort out this slow, clunky, out-of-tune beginning…

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tulip

Song for a new manuscript: Little Shop of Horrors meets the author’s life

Grow For Me: the author’s version

(set to the music from Little Shop of Horrors: original film version below)

I’ve given you chocolate.

I’ve given you tea.

You’ve given me nothing,

But pure agony.

I’m begging you sweetly;

I’m down on my knees.

 

Oh, please, grow for me!

I’ve given you daydreams,

And Baileys to sip.

I’ve given you playlists:

You’ve given me zip.

Oh Muse, how I need you.

Oh book, how you tease.

Oh, please, grow for me!

 

I’ve given you endless Twitter-time to get you to thrive.

I’ve wandered for miles, like I’m supposed to, you’re barely alive.

I’ve sought out more feedback and workshops and fancy methods.

I’ve given you scene-cards and moleskines and book-fest trips,

What do you want from me, blood?

 

I’ve given you memories; I’ve given you pain.

Looks like you’re not happy ‘less I open a vein.

I’ll give you a few pints, if that’ll appease.

Now please… Oh-oh-oh, please,

Grow for me!

purple and blue columbine flower

Keep it simple, Stupid!

Before you get incensed, this comment is directed mostly at myself. It sums up a lot of my plot-related problems.

You know how sometimes you’re working on a book – maybe in your head still, and not even on paper – and you know there’s something magical there but the plot as a whole just won’t hang together? What do you do about it? How do you make this ‘not-quite-magical-but-could-be, I-just-know-it-could-be’ thing and make that leap?

For me, the answer is either (a) have the right idea, or (b) stop trying to make things so complicated. Basically, (b) translates into common English as ‘Keep it simple, Stupid.’

Quite often I’m sitting there trying to figure out Something Exciting That Can Happen Next when what I really need to do is ask myself ‘What makes this idea magical and how can I push that as far along the storyline as it can go?’

This is where (a) and (b) start to meld. Sometimes the right idea just won’t come. And it’s there: somewhere, there really is an amazing answer to your plot dilemna that’s as close to being The Right Answer as anything ever is in fiction… Quite often The Right Answer just refuses to present itself to me for months, if not years. This is why some ideas languish for years and years in my imagination, periodically resurfacing but then sinking again, before I start shaping them into anything that could be a book.

Usually, the main reason The Right Answer doesn’t stroll over and wave at me is because I’m looking in the wrong direction: I’m trying to make things complicated then fretting over how to make them believeable. Often The Right Answer is so simple you smack yourself in the face once you find it. But part of the reason it is The Right Answer is that it seems obvious (once you’ve captured it): it seems inevitable. Anything that seems both obvious and inevitable is probably right. Especially if we’re talking about your ending: the climax of your story.

So if you’re going in circles wondering how A can believeably lead to B and how on earth that could logically connect to C, maybe the problem is that you’re creating a long chain of unbelieveableness because you’re working on the wrong idea to begin with. The right idea is generally surprisingly simple.

Even if you’re writing a complicated mystery or thriller, often you’ll find that each element is simple within itself. The more complicated it gets, the harder it is to deliver it to the reader in a form anyone will enjoy. If it’s too complicated, not only will it be really hard to reveal it in a step-by-step way so that the reader eventually goes ‘Oh, of course! Why didn’t I see that all along?’ rather than ‘Urgh. So obvious!’ or ‘How could anyone possibly guess that?’ but the reader may have such a headache by that point that there’ll be little emotional satisfaction. Simplicity offers a more effective route to emotional satisfaction in about 90% of cases. And while some stories are fun just for the pure intellectual puzzle, a book that doesn’t also make me feel something falls short as fiction in my books (horrible pun thoroughly intended).

Just because something is simple doesn’t mean it has to be basic or boring. What makes a simple idea clever is the ways you find of revealing the idea (i.e. the truth of the story) to the reader without telling them outright. That’s not always simple at all. But it will probably consist of a chain of individually simple steps. The minute any one step gets convoluted, you’re probably heading in the wrong direction.

Just keep asking yourself ‘What is the truth of the story?’ – or, in other words, ‘What is this book really about?’ Then ask yourself ‘If the book is really about X, what would be the strongest expression of X I can offer the reader?’ That will give you the big ideas. For the little ones, just ask yourself ‘What is the truth about what’s happen here? What am I trying to get at with this element?’

So, in The Bone Dragon the early drafts had Phee and Lynne turning up intermittantly and not doing very much. I wasn’t worried about this because they worked as characters: each had a strong, individual voice and was believeable and interesting… But only while they were on the page. In between, I forgot about them. Eventually, I asked myself if readers would want to read about them on that basis. And the answer was ‘No’. So I started to ask myself why they were there. Not just ‘What are they doing in each scene to make the scene work because people are needed?’ but ‘What is the purpose of each of these people in the book? What does Phee DO in this story? What does her part in it SAY?’

I didn’t have an answer. So I thought about the book as a whole and what the main themes are. And then I thought about my main character and how her life reveals those themes. And all of a sudden it was obvious what Lynne and Phee, individually and together, COULD add to the book as whole. All of a sudden it was obvious what the book offered each of them as a reason for being. Ultimately, the answers were fairly simple – as was how to deliver new scenes to reveal those answers to the reader. But more about that once the book is published. I don’t want to go giving things away.

At the end of the day, it’s a delicate balance between leaving things foggy and vague and too simple, and making sure you don’t make them unnecessarily complicated. In other words, be focused, but keep it simple, and chances are no one will accuse you of being stupid at all.

pond in a snowy wood

Of course something is wrong with your first draft

… I keep telling myself this, but it’s not entirely helping.

The new book is going well. Really it is. But I’ve got that itchy-all-over-in-my-brain feeling that writing the first draft of a new book gives me. It’s partly because it’s a weird business, splitting your time between two entirely different worlds – especially when one intrudes with a phonecall about your breakdown cover renewal just as someone’s telling you their deepest, darkest secret in the other. Very disconcerting.

So there’s that. And the urge to finish, finish, finish, finish, FINISH before I lose my marbles completely and start believing I am my main character (ah, the perils of the first person perspective).

But then there’s the fact that there are Major Things Wrong with what I’m writing. Of course there are. It’s a first draft. That’s what first drafts are for. Actually, as first drafts go this one’s pretty good (for me, at any rate). But a good first draft is never going to be a good book. Well, not unless there’s really something very, very wrong with you (and I say that with no trace of jealousy at the very *idea* that someone could write a stunning first draft – if you can, please don’t tell me). On the plus side, even if there are people who can, most of us can’t and don’t. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that the best writing is re-writing (as EB White apparently did) but rewriting is what makes a first draft into a good book (unless you’re weird and creepy, in which case go away or at least pretend you write problematic first drafts too).

I’m at that difficult point in a draft where I don’t know if the itchy feelings are so intense because I’ve made a mistake that I’d be better off going back and fixing now or if it’s just that I’m feeling resistant about something. I am a bit struck at the moment, so it could just be the ‘I don’t wanna! It’s too hard! I hate writing and I want chocolate and cake and probably alcohol’ thing.

It seems to me that being a writer means that you sometimes hate everything you love most about writing. It’s just how it is. The fact that you can’t help writing, even when you hate it, is what tells you that you love it more.  I think that’s one of the big differences between people who like to write and people who do it for a living: if you do it for a living, you have to admit that you love it and hate it simultaneously but there’s more love than hate so you’d better get on with your next page before you get miserable because you’re not writing and writing is the most wonderful (awful) thing ever <pause for breath>.

And that’s the other thing that itchy feeling is: that ‘love/hate, why do I do this to myself? I could have been a stockbroker, for Gawdsake!’ thing. (No, I couldn’t but all writers have delirious moments when they think anything must be better than writing… which is not to knock stockbrokers, or not entirely, but some of us can and some of us can’t be strockbrokers. I’m not sure any of us have to though, unlike with writing.)

If you make the hideously stupid career choice to write as at least part of how you make your living, it’s generally because you don’t feel like you can be happy otherwise. And, frankly, you won’t be happy quite a lot anyway. For most of us, there’s a huge amount of rejection even apart from the frustration and fury of writing itself. But there you go. In the midst of the awfulness of the first draft, as I gnash my teeth and consider wailing, I can’t wait to write the next bit. I’m just afraid that the itchy feeling is telling me it’s going to be rubbish… But I’m going to go and write it anyway.

Is anyone else in the same first-draft boat? Any recommendations (for chocolate and biscuits to try, if not for getting past it?)