I’m in the final stages of checking over my upcoming book, NIMBUS, before sending it back to my editor with all the editorial changes she asked for.
A few weeks ago I posted on my overall publication process. Pretty early on in that process there’s a short point that simply says: I send the first draft to my editor.
It sounds easy if you say it fast, but there’s probably nine to twelve months of writerly perspiration, imagination, self-doubt, writer’s block, galloping progress, whinging calls to writer friends, and groans as I discard 8,000 words from a segment after I’ve made a wrong turn in the plot.
So when I send off my first draft to my editor it isn’t actually a raw first draft. By that I mean, I haven’t written it in a linear fashion from start to finish with no alterations, additions or subtractions. Oh no. It’s been written and revised—several times. In fact, I’m not even sure if I ever end up with a true first draft because by the time I get to the end I’ve changed things in the earlier pages many times.
Everyone works in their own way.
One hefty chunk of writerly advice is to begin at the beginning, write until you get to the end and stop. Don’t go back, revise or re-read, or otherwise make alterations, until you have a whole story. Well, that would indeed be a true first draft, but I can’t work like that.
I’m messier than that. (And so is my office.) I do rolling revisions. Firstly I have to have a beginning I’m happy with. It’s the platform that provides a leaping off point for the rest of the story. If I’m not happy with the beginning (say the first chapter) then it shows in what I write next. So even if it takes multiple tries, I have to get the opening right. It might not be the opening that ends up in the book, but it’s an opening I can work with.
In the case of Nimbus I wrote about five different openings, starting at slightly different points in the story, before I settled on the one that I felt carried most promise. I knew where the story was going, and where the whole thing was going to end, though possibly not quite how I was going to achieve that desired end. I had several plot incidents that I wanted to include along the way, and arcs for my main characters, some of which had begun back in the first Psi-Tech book, Empire of Dust, and had been simmering gently throughout the second book, Crossways.
With rolling revisions, my first draft often looks like: two steps forward and one step back, or if I’m really lucky, eleven steps forward and two steps back. I’ve talked about rolling revisions before, here. Eventually I get to the end, but even though It’s gone through the rolling revision process, there’s still a lot to do. Very few writers produce a first draft they are truly happy with. Most of us get to the first draft stage and loathe every single word we’ve written. The rest of us don’t hate it all, but we know it could be better.
You might almost think that it’s the job of a first draft to suck, and you wouldn’t be far off. When I got to the end of Nimbus I knew that it was a hot mess. There were a lot of things in there that I liked, but they weren’t all in the right order. And I knew there were things that I hadn’t explained properly, or had maybe over-explained (I know that’s a failing of mine, so it’s something I’m always checking for.)
Luckily I have a few writer friends who have kindly agreed to beta-read said hot mess, and while they were reading it also gave me the chance to sit back and take a break, so that next time I looked at it, I had some perspective. I love my beta readers and am eternally grateful that they don’t pull their punches. (Please note that I reciprocate when they have a manuscript in need of reading.)
I work in Scrivener, which I love with a deep passion. I used to work in Lotus Word Pro and then in Word, but Scrivener allows me to drag and drop scenes in a different order if I need to, and it gives me three columns which… Look I could go on about Scrivener all day, but why don’t you go and look for yourselves. It’s $40 and if you’ve completed NaNoWriMo you can often get it at a discount. Okay, I admit it may take you a few days to get to grips with Scrivener, but it’s well worth the effort. And when You’ve finished, you can export it all in Word, ready formatted for delivery to your editor, or to send off on spec.
So once my friends have delivered their critiques, I look hard at the actual structure, because revision is not about polishing the prose (that comes later) it’s making sure you have all the right elements in the right order, and that they flow as a story. It’s making sure your worldbuilding works without glitches.
Sometimes things happen in fiction that would seem unrealistic in life. It’s unlikely that one person’s story would come to a satisfactory conclusion at more-or-less the same time as another. And, of course, until we die, our real life stories never end. In fiction we have to help those story arcs along. Our characters’ lives have to reach a point where we can leave them. Maybe they do die (in a fictionally acceptable way, of course), or maybe we leave them at a happy-ever-after point. Real life rarely has a happy-ever-after because there’s always a what-happens-next element. Most of us are grateful to get mostly-happy, or happy-more-often-than-not, but that’s not what fiction is all about. We need to know that our characters have overcome their problems, and that at least they have the potential for happy-ever-after.
So, having reached the end, I send my not-quite-first-draft to my editor, Sheila Gilbert at DAW. After a few weeks I get an email to arrange THE PHONE CALL. Sheila doesn’t send me written edits, she phones me and talks while I scribble notes as fast as I can. This time I’m delighted to have no more than four pages of closely written notes on NIMBUS, which range from: You’ve left Olivia dangling—we need some resolution, to: who is the person firing from behind the dead body in the Red One fight? The first needs a whole new scene, the second can be corrected with half a dozen words in the right place. Sometimes something she says, or a question she asks, sparks off an idea that’s so perfect, I’m surprised this is the first time it’s crossed my mind. It’s last minute, but suddenly it makes sense of a character who has been present throughout the whole trilogy.
So now it’s late May. I’ve dealt with Sheila’s edits and I’m reading NIMBUS out loud to myself to see if it all fits together properly. It’s obvious why I’m reading it again. As for the reading out loud thing, my mouth stumbles over glitches that my brain might miss.
If Sheila likes what I’ve done with the edits then the next time I see the text will be after it’s gone through the hands of a copy editor, but that’s another blog post.
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