On Editing and First Drafts: Gremlins, Pigs and Beasties

Life sits on the writer and squashes her a bit

So I haven’t done a post about writing for quite a while. This is partly because “writing advice” posts make my brain itch slightly – what is applicable to me is not necessarily applicable to you, after all.

However, it occurred to me that my situation has changed slightly since I last wrote about, uh, writing. I have an agent and a book deal now, I’ve been through part of the process of being published – I am in the midst of learning all sorts of new stuff – and perhaps I have a new perspective that could be helpful. Or not. Either way, it’s useful for me to keep track of things, so here is a brief summary of my recent thoughts on the writing process. Take all with a pinch of salt, or a dollop of BBQ sauce if necessary.

Writing is Re-Writing I doubt anyone really thinks about this bit when they start writing. I know I didn’t. I started writing a book when I’d had a really bad day at work, and spending some time in an entirely different world was a quick way to cheer myself up. I didn’t think, “What I’m really looking forward to when I’ve finished writing this book is, you know, writing it over and over again.” At the time, I had no concept of anyone else ever even reading it, let alone editing it (and to be fair, that particular book has never been edited – just thinking about the amount of work it would require to be beaten into any sort of readable shape brings me out in a sweat).

But editing is the reality of writing. And that’s okay. I’ve lost count now of the number of edits The Copper Promise has been through – there was the edit when I thought I was self-publishing four novellas, the edit before I sent it to Juliet, my agent, the edit I did with her before it went out on submission, the edit I did after discussions with John, my editor, the edit that has just been sent off to the copy editor… *gasp* There are a lot. And with each one, the book becomes a sleeker, stronger, more kick-ass beastie. More than ever I now understand the importance of seeing your book through the lens of another pair of eyes, because as the writer it is so easy to become blind to it. Somewhere in your subconscious is the slovenly gremlin that whispers “Nah, I mean, that sorta works as it is, we can get away with that, right?” when really, we all know that isn’t good enough.

The Precious Sanctity of the First Draft Yes, all of the editing. I’ve just come out of a long period of editing (about to go back for more, very soon) so right now I’ve thrown myself back into the first draft of the second book. I am normally the Queen of First Drafts, storming through them in a devil-may-care manner, forging onwards with a fairly solid plan and lots of room for let’s-see-where-this-goes. But ye gods and little fishes, getting back to that after nearly a year of editing is hard. The editor in my head is awake and lively, and worse, has had loads of exercise recently and is being a right dick about it. Every line I write is subject to the worst kind of scrutiny, so that I keep stumbling to a halt. “But this is awful,” I think, opening another packet of Percy Pigs to distract myself. “I’ll have to cut all this out anyway. What am I doing?”

The last few weeks have been about remembering that you need to go easy on yourself with the first draft. You need that freedom to explore, to make mistakes, to follow paths that might not go anywhere, or that might lead you to a gem of story-magic that you’d never have found otherwise. I’m chucking in dialogue that I know probably won’t make it to the final cut (my favourite this week was Wydrin’s embittered cry of “I don’t care about your ironing!”) and introducing secondary characters who may or may not get killed off horribly later on. The first draft should be fun, it should be joyous, and the editor in your head needs to keep its trap shut, just for a little while.

This is why, in my opinion, the first draft should always be private. It’s often tempting to show your first few chapters to someone else, to get their opinions (and let’s face it, gibbering praise) and feel justified in what you’re doing, but it doesn’t really help you in the long run. For a start, a lot of that stuff in the first few chapters will go anyway (take it from someone who has done a lot of editing recently) or it will at least change a lot, and it’s really important that your first draft is free to be whatever it wants. You need to write like no one is watching. For now, anyway.

And that’s it for now! I trudge back to the story-mines, a pick in one hand and a short sword in the other. I’ll see you on the other side.