In my recent post My fast first draft three years on, I mentioned having done four subsequent drafts and an edit of the novel I’m currently calling Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home. Now, I like to count drafts, but how do you define one? When does a read-through, picking up obvious errors, become promoted to draft status, and what’s the difference between that and an edit? When I put the latter into my search engine, the nearest I got – admittedly, I was too lazy to go beyond the first page – was a tangle of speculation on the difference between drafting and revising, none of which was entirely satisfactory. Pushed to come to my own definition, here are my thoughts, along with reflections on how I motivated myself to move from scrappy first draft to an edit.
Some novels follow a tried-and-tested structure, like the identikit homes on an estate, with the individual quirks coming later. Other novels require several drafts to find their shape, like building a house without any architect input, erecting walls only to take them down again when shown not to work. Whether planners or panters, writers, like builders, need scaffolding to contain our work in progress; some sense, however vague, of the materials we’re working with, such as theme, character back story and place. While some of that scaffolding will be absorbed into the fabric of the building, most can come down. That’s when we’re ready to start plastering, painting and laying floors. That’s when we’re ready to edit.
A draft points its lens at scene, an edit towards sentence and paragraph. What needs to happen to these characters to convert an idea into a story? Where in the narrative sequence is that scene best placed to tell the story in the most effective way? Although some authors edit as they go along, a clunky sentence (paragraph, or even chapter) or gap in research doesn’t matter so much at the drafting stage because everything is provisional: there’s no point wasting time on prettifying a point which might not make the final cut. Editing occurs when the what happens and where questions have largely been answered. How can I say this more eloquently? Do I even need to say this at all? Have I repeated something that fits better in a different chapter? Have I contradicted myself? Although in practice there is often an overlap between drafting and editing, those are the author’s primary concerns at this tidying up stage.
How do we move from draft to edit? When do we decide the structure is robust enough?
Not getting swamped by research. I tend to choose topics for my fiction I already know something about, although, once I start writing, I discover I don’t know quite as much as I’d hoped. I thought I knew about hospital closure – having worked in the field and even published academic papers on the subject – but I didn’t know enough about the legalities of the planning and consultation process. In addition, I needed to know about life in the 1930s and how an adopted child goes about tracing their birth parents. Then I decided I wanted to move the location to Cumbria, where I grew up, but where there is no obvious place to put the house which is central to the story. While my ignorance, and attempts to correct it, gobbled up writing time, in more and less interesting ways, I’ve also discovered, as with my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, the emotional story doesn’t necessarily require as much factual knowledge as I’d feared. Just as some people prefer to get the house perfect before they move in while, for others, it’s a gradual process, writers can absorb themselves in research before committing to sentence or, like me, fill in the gaps as they go along. Or even wait and see what life throws up.
Ask other people. Although I like to tidy up my text before asking others to read it, so they’re not stumbling over every misspelled word or misplaced comma, feedback from beta readers is the best way of finding out whether your novel has legs. When you know the story inside out it’s difficult to conjure the mindset of a reader coming to it fresh. So thanks to Linda Bowes, Steffanie Edwards, Valerie Francis, Clare Goodwin and Charli Mills for reading Matilda Windsor and letting me know how it was for you.
Having drafted this post a few weeks ago, I’ve edited it this morning to a chorus of Cumbrian cows. I’m on a short research trip to check up on some of the settings for Matilda Windsor while meeting with family and friends. So, when Charli called for a 99-word story about bats, those cave-dwelling flying mammals were the last thing on my mind. I’ve played with a scene that had a brief existence in an early draft of the novel (I was stuck on writing a prologue for each view-point character’s first encounter with the psychiatric hospital that’s central to the story). It will be clear I know nothing about cricket; but I should note that the prejudice is Henry’s not mine.
Henry wasn’t a batsman, but he didn’t mind donning his whites when they were a man short. In fact, he was pleased to be asked. Until he discovered Saturday’s fixture was at St Luke’s.
Fortunately, they played the staff team. They let the inmates out to watch but kept them away from the pavilion. They weren’t invited for tea.
Standing before the stumps, Henry hoped he wouldn’t disgrace himself. The ball hurtling towards him, a familiar voice called his name. Tilly? Here?
He heard the willow smack, but not against his bat. Blame the batty woman. Henry was out.