Three years ago this week, I completed my first ever fast first draft of a novel. Four further drafts and a significant edit later, it’s ready for beta readers’ scrutiny. So it’s an ideal time to reflect on the overall process, and ask myself whether that’s a good way to go about creating a publishable book.
Hitherto suspicious of NaNoWriMo, I thought I’d make use of its slipstream to knuckle down to my project, albeit with a less ambitious target of an average of 1000 words a day… Now, after 73 days (from 1 November to 16 January), I’ve taken my three main characters from their tentative beginnings to the catastrophic climax in 79351 words, while still writing book reviews and responding to my publisher’s initial edits of Sugar and Snails. But I’ve got a plot with more holes than a colander, characters that keep changing their biographies and settings as blank as a naked canvas… The real test of the method, however, has to be what happens next.
So what did happen next?
It took me another year to come back to it. I had hoped to write a second draft during 2015, but it never happened. I can’t say how much this was due to my excitement – and a significant amount of work – in relation to the publication of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, and how much I felt daunted by the task of knocking it into shape.
I continually failed to produce an outline in advance of a draft. While I’m happy coming to a first draft without a plan, I tried to discipline myself into using the latest draft of this novel to outline the next. It didn’t happen. I do now have an outline, but I wrote it concurrently with my fifth draft.
The quality (both good and bad) of my fast first draft surprised me. After a gap of a year, there was an awful lot in that first draft I’d forgotten. Coming back to it, I was shocked at how bad some of it was while being pleasantly surprised by the quality of other bits. If it wasn’t too obsessional, I wish I’d monitored which parts I wrote in my head before reporting to my laptop and which I dragged kicking and screaming from my mind as I stood at the screen. I know that the discipline of writing at a rate of 1000 words a day did generate some interesting insights, but I suspect the quality was better when I approached my desk ready armed with words and phrases.
The fast first draft of a different novel inspired me to return to this one. Writing a novel is hard. Even when you’ve already published one you can’t be sure you can write another. Two years after beginning this novel, I found myself fast first drafting another novel (amazingly, this time with an outline, as it was an extension of a short story). It reminded me that producing something readable is a very gradual process, which pushed me to begin the third draft of the one from autumn 2014.
New ideas sending me back to the start. Although I knew the direction of this novel from the beginning, I didn’t know how to get there. So I welcomed inspiration along the way. But some ideas arriving late in a draft impacted on what I’d written already, sending me back to the start. In the process, some of the fast first draft plot holes got filled, new ones created and others avoided by diverting the path.
The character most like me was the most difficult to find. Seventy-year-old Matilda has lived in a psychiatric hospital since the age of twenty. Approaching retirement, Henry is still hoping for the return of his sister who left home when he was six. Janice is a psychiatric social worker in her early twenties who is passionate about community care, doing a similar(ish) job to the one I did around the same time. Although the youngest of my point of view characters, and most like me, her back story was the most difficult to find.
It had to grow to settle to the size it needed to be. At around 80,000 words, my first draft was a reasonable length for a novel. But this one grew and, unlike an actor putting on a fat suit, it wasn’t padding. Over the course of four subsequent drafts, I committed two of writing’s cardinal sins: starting the novel earlier in the characters’ timeline; and adding a couple of characters (although virtuously slashing another) and even an extra point of view strand. As its fattest, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home was slightly over 130,000 words by the fifth draft! A ruthless edit has brought it down to a respectable 104,000 but, like the serial dieter whose body balloons and shrinks repeatedly, I’m not yet completely confident about its shape.
The title kept changing. Not a big problem, as titles don’t need to be confirmed until publication, but the issue was much more straightforward for my other two books. Originally entitled Closure (because it features a longstay hospital closure, and as a nod to the pseudo-psychological concept of coming to terms with traumatic events), then changed to Secrets and Lies (because of Hilaire Belloc’s poem “Matilda”), later High Hopes (because the characters genuinely do have high hopes) and, very briefly, The Misconnections, which possibly speaks for itself. I think Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home better signals its tragicomic genre but, hey, it could easily change again.
So, apart from a little tidying of the text, I’ve gone as far as I can with this novel for the moment. I’ve no idea how far it is from being publishable, but if you fancy providing feedback on a 100,000ish word novel about a brother and sister separated for fifty years, let me know. Also, I’m curious to discover similarities and differences with your own novel writing process. Comments are open!
This gorgeous artwork accompanies Charli’s call for another 99-word story, fittingly on the topic of wet ink. Set in the 1930s and 1989 to 90, there’s a fair bit of ink in my novel for both letter writing and record-keeping. I thought of Matty arriving at the hospital as a young woman, but then I went a bit sillier:
Five minutes to prepare for my next patient, a haughty fellow who loved goading me. Did reluctance make my hand slip, knock over the bottle of ink? Before I could grab the blotter, a black splodge obliterated last session’s notes. I folded the page, was still trying to dry it when the patient took his seat. “It’s beautiful! Randomness and symmetry.” He looked awestruck, but he might have been taking the piss. “What do you see in it?” I ventured, still expecting him to scoff. “My mother!” He bent his head, began to weep.