Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Dead Darlings

Craft: Describe your editing/revision process. How do you make that mess of a first draft into a real book?  

by Catriona

Out in the UK today. Buy here!
Mess? Mess? How dare you! Just kidding. My first draft is the kind of mess that could spawn a double-length special episode on a hoarder reality show. It doesn't matter, though, because no one ever sees it. That's the first of three important bits of my process: the first draft is private. Why? because if you know it's never going to be seen and judged, you can let rip. Schmaltz, bad jokes, sex scenes, Mary-Sues, clumsy images, plodding action scenes . . . who cares. My first draft is the equivalent of singing in the shower in an empty house. 

For instance, the first draft first sentence of STRANGERS AT THE GATE is : 

"I could hear footsteps behind me. But the fog that had come so thick it dripped from the trees swallow my torch beam a metre in front of me."

which isn't even grammatical. The first sentence of draft 4 (the one that leaves my house) is :

"It all began that first Monday night in Simmerton, walking up the dark drive to the big house. The fog was so thick it swallowed my torch beam a step ahead of me."

which is better in that it's English but worse in that it's got that foreshadowing. The opening of the finished book is:

"We were walking up the dark drive to the big house. The fog was so thick it swallowed my torch beam a step ahead of me, so thick it dripped from the trees pressing in on both sides, so thick it turned my breath loud in my ears and cold in my mouth." 

And I'm happy with this (just as well!) because the atmosphere comes from the scene and not from writing of it. That's the second important bit of my revision process: write myself out of the book. Early drafts will have numerous bits where the prose shows signs of me sitting in my study at my laptop, thinking up images, moving characters around, planning and plotting ... and it makes for some clunky stuff.

I've picked opening sentences here but it's the end of the book that gives me most trouble. I've learned, painfully slowly, that I'm bad at finishing the story. Or rather I'm great at finishing the story - I slam it shut with a loud bang and scarper. By the time I get to the end, I'm so jaded and it's all so familiar and picked over, like gobbets of gristle I've chewed and chewed until they're down to string, that I think there's no way I need to say any more. BANG! The End. I'm offsky. So the third important bit of my revision process is: it ain't over. 

I don't feel this to be true but I know to ignore my feelings. It's like steering into a skid - feels wrong but works out right. At the end of the book, I expand and expand and expand. One chapter becomes two, a paragraph becomes a page, a line becomes a scene. And still, when I hand it over, my editor usually tells me to add yet more. 

That was the case with THE TURNING TIDE (out today in the UK - yay!). I expanded the big action scene. Then I expanded the final, following scene. Added another scene. Then an extra chapter. And an epilogue.

On the other hand, the opening to THE TURNING TIDE has been exactly the same through five drafts I did on my own, three with my editor, one with the copy editor and one with the proof-reader :

‘I don’t know, Alec,’ I said. ‘It’s hardly the riviera.’
We were standing at the top of a small beach on a sunny afternoon in July and it was undoubtedly pleasant, but I felt no particular tug towards shedding my cardigan jersey, nor even my hat, for a fresh breeze was whipping at the wavelets and sending little scraps of dry seaweed scudding over the sand. Or was it shingle? It was either the coarsest variety of the one or the finest variety of the other. 

That hardly ever happens, but I'll take it when it does.