Three Wise Drafts.

drafts of a novel Mar 17, 2019

In the Beginning.

Once upon a time, you told yourself you couldn't write a novel. "I’m too old, too young, too stupid, too clever, too reclusive, too sociable, too lazy, too busy... I’m nervous.”

That's the first thing a writer says to me when they take the plunge and commit to writing a novel. But a whole raft of other unkind self-doubts above lurk right behind that word 'nervous'. 

When you open the door and come into The Novelry, it's all rather jolly, warm, unpretentious and friendly and so very do-able. The work you have to do is bite-sized daily. 

 Welcome home.

"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." (Emma Lazarus.)

The recipe for confidence at The Novelry is fast-acting. We salute you from the moment you arrive. You are welcomed with warmth by our members, because they know full well it's a big step, and that you're nervous on arrival, but we all know you've come home too. 

Once you understand you're not expected to write a work of genius at first draft, you can get on with writing a work of genius (over several drafts). Let me explain.

Writing a novel to a high standard starts as PLAY, becomes CRAFT and then ART.

Brilliance is a word which means shining, by polishing and polishing, and that is what we do with your work. I do not accept that writers are born writers with an inherent genius. I will never accept that;  it’s not the case for me. My own first draft is superficial, messy and quite unfit for consumption. I don’t mind. I'm just glad I've got the material to work with. Knowing it's not right is most liberating. 

This is not brilliant ... but it will be better.

I explain to my readers that the first part of that phrase - this is not brilliant - is forged in the fire of your judgement and ambition. Hoorah. If you think it's right at first draft, you're in trouble. You won't get published. The second part of that statement is the joy of becoming a craftsman which we not only teach but support through the good days and the difficult days.

First Draft: PLAY

My writers are surprised by the gaiety of the welcome they receive at The Novelry. Gifs fly at our closed group on Facebook when you turn up. Yes, these are professional people, published and aspiring writers, at play. This is our playground.

We celebrate what we know to be true, something other writers are perhaps a little confused about. Writing is not miserable, it's wonderful. This is why I conclude my messages to each of my writers with the words 'Happy Writing.' I don't wish my writers luck, they don't need it. 

The focus at first draft is on joy. God knows you need it to help manage the self-doubt. Those who have gone before cheer and applaud your progress. Before you start to write, you're held back from writing while we establish some principles of joy - finding the place and time for that precious one hour for you, ensuring you've got an idea with energy packed into it, and that you know how and where to get support when you need it.

We do a lot of initial work on the idea itself so you can proceed with confidence. If you're short of an idea for your novel, you will find some tips here. You come to me for a good old chat before you write and invariably there is a lot of laughter as we explore possibilities for your idea. When you start to write your under starters orders NOT to write too much. I ask you to write very little in the early days when you're putting the vital organs of the novel in place. I will say - just the opening line or 250 words today, please. You'll hit every target and within a couple of weeks - with the joy still firmly in place - you'll be on target to complete the first draft in 90 days. Daily you're in contact, working to the plan.

At this stage, it's about vision and passion; the idea, your emotional attachment to it, and being supported by our handrails until you're flying. An engrossment happens within a couple of weeks of joining us. Most of our writers describe the process as life-changing, like falling in love. In fact, you are just honouring your life's value, at long last, in just one hour a day for you. Surely that's not too much to ask? And about time too! Ah, but imagine if you'd worked this way since your twenties and had a body of work behind you, and paid the bills...come on, there's no time to lose!

With hundreds of writers now through the course, I have a good handle on what can set a writer back and we check these settings before take off:

  1. The character is you or too close to you therefore a distaste emerges. (We pre-plan to ensure there is a good 'figurative' distance built in from the outset.)
  2. The character's flaw is clear from the outset
  3. You're not going to write hell for leather and burn yourself out but learn peace and plenty pacing of your progress, a writing habit for life
  4. You understand the ups and downs of writing are to be accepted, and eventually welcomed - they are driven by growing ambition moderated by increasingly better judgement. You need both the exuberance and the reserve to produce fine work.
  5. You won't share your precious but vulnerable first draft work with anyone but your coach - who knows how a first draft looks!

The completion of your first draft is celebrated at The Novelry. You've done it. You have material! Now take some time off and catch up on all those things you elbowed aside for the last 90 days of your life.

A first draft is typically over-written and thin character-wise.

But just as a new mother believes her baby to be beautiful, you'll be blind to this for a while. This is one reason we leave the first draft in a drawer for at least a month before proceeding to the second draft. You'll want to read some great books now to give your judgement another boost before moving on to craft a story readers will find satisfying.

Second Draft: CRAFT

Start with the effective tonic which is the Editing Course. This will get you on track for the most exciting phase of all - crafting your story. You've got the material, now you discover how to structure it virtuously. You get to roll your sleeves up and throw the material about. Many new ideas will emerge but now you're getting a much clearer handle on the hidden theme of your book and this may surprise and delight you. So that's what I think, that's how I feel... so that's who I am, what my life means.

Theme now becomes the hidden engine and driving force of the work. (Hidden, I repeat.)

What's the story here really about? You'll be asking yourself.

Now, this is the end of embellishment! Enough! Stop. Choose your finest gems, and use them sparingly. Choose a maximum of three points, phrases or short and meaningful sentences to describe the setting, atmosphere, feelings. Short and meaningful, and unique. The reader has the point. Thank you, and goodnight. 

A strange thing happens, you start to eye your manuscript suspiciously and think - Gosh what if someone found this? QUICK! Hurry! Work. You are starting to see it as a reader would. You need to go through all the important elements in turn starting with the title, but before you do that - ask yourself again and again - what's this story about?

The Editing Course will have help you nail the story in a sentence so you can pin it the wall and keep it in sight to judge the purpose of every chapter and verse from here on out. Does this serve the story or detract from it? You will be slashing prose and curing your work of its overwriting. You'll be looking at the logic flow of the entire piece then working down to the paragraph level - evidence, evidence, conclusion.

Are you telling it the right way? Now is the time to change tense and perspective if you need to. Once you know what the story's about and whether it's being told fondly, retrospectively or with immediacy you can make the big decisions.

Oh, the wretched beginning! Read and re-read the opening of Catcher in the Rye to try to keep it warm and calm, but it must, of course, be right. I will spend 3 months at second draft trying to settle this. Philip Roth described spending six months from first putting pen to paper to find the right way to start the novel. It's very hard, which is why we race you over it at first draft. No point in dawdling there, you've got to create a book and you'll revise it many times after you know how the story ends and what it's about.

But now you've got to crack the opening. I got mine sorted only after six months from time of starting the novel. A couple of months into my second draft. Once you have it, and the ending, you can use our FIVE F's story structure to revise your chaptered outline to get you from Once Upon a Time to The End. The new chaptered outline becomes the clock of your second draft. You can now reasonably judge how long it takes you to revise a chapter and set yourself a new deadline. You'll find yourself in good company at The Novelry and can throw questions, your new 'hook' for the book, and opening sentences and work out there for a point of view at our members working forum 'The Novelry Lodge'.

You'll be finding true feeling for your characters now. They'll become much more sympathetic as you run your pen around them a few more times and see the complexity of their lives. They will become real to you. Kindness as a writer enters into it now. Cheap jokes and easy characterisations can go. Compassion comes into it now.

The end game of the book - its purpose - becomes more and more gravitational.

You'll be checking that the story is gripping, that you're using cliffhangers and that there has been a development in every chapter and that the chapter ends either overtly or covertly with something that makes it harder for the main character or protagonist to go backwards. You'll be checking that the prose which delivers this is lucid and luminous, that you are saying what he or she sees, and not over-egging what they feel. Check that it's precise and exacting and there are elements of curious dissonance which make the reader pay attention.

Wow, this really is the craft of writing! You'll be referring back to lessons from our novel writing course - the lesson in ornamentation for instance - bringing to your work the things you love in life to increase your passion for it, using the 'leitmotif' and repetition or recurrence to develop the reader's attachment to the book. The book is layered and compact and becoming something hard and shiny.

You'll get a surge of joy and confidence with every decision you make, you'll laugh at the overwritten prose of the first draft, and delete it with pleasure at your progress as a writer.

You will have made your manuscript presentable using the tools we share at the Editing Course. It must look formal for your own sense of pride and to get ready for presentation to others in a way that does not distract from their enjoyment. No typos, grammar issues etc.

Now you can start to show your work to your fellow writers at The Novelry and even book a call with a tutor to assess how it's going at the level of the writing itself. 

But you know now, that this is a book, and a good book in the making. You just know it. All you need now is the third draft.

Third Draft: Art.

A cool-eyed read through with your notebook open at your side.

You'll be checking these now to deliver your reader an experience which rings true. My first editor, the wonderful Ben Ball, told me - it doesn't have to be true, but it has to ring true.

  • continuity - dates, times, events places, does it all add up?
  • consistency of voice - for all characters, does what they say ring true to their voice? A little more realism and dissonance perhaps?
  • comparison - you'll play my favourite game now which is to pick any given page of your work and compare it to any randomly picked page of your hero book (chosen at first draft) and the writers you admire to see how it stacks up
  • colour - you'll be looking at the DNA of your verbal coding to ensure your writing shines bright - light and shade, colour, the items and objects
  • subtlety - you'll make sure the theme is underground, not exposed too openly aggressively or repeatedly, that it's not too 'on the nose'
  • space - you'll want to leave space for your reader's thoughts in the way Raymond Carver or Elizabeth Strout does. This means some mystery in the interaction between people not being entirely tidy especially in the first half of the novel; things left unsaid and so on.

Reading out loud - you'll read your opening lines out loud to check the opening is warm and honest.

How will you know when you're done? 

"You've exhausted all the possibilities for this book." Philip Roth.

“I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.” Oscar Wilde.

As I approach the end of the third draft, I'll have a sense that it's not bad. I mean this straight up. There's nothing bad here. I'll have reined in the hammy parts, cheap or mean laughs, silly jokes, excesses and exaggerations in favour of verisimilitude. I'll be able to say to myself, no one's going to think this is bad.

Whether it's good or not, I can't say since the magic has been achieved with so many layers and I see the mechanics, not the effect. I will feel or intuit the parts that move me and honestly in second draft there will be many places I've intuited what the reader wants to read next rather than stick to the letter of my chaptered outline. I'll have said - what would I love as a reader to happen now. I'll have felt the need for changes of tempo. That's how I have a degree of confidence at the end that the work has movement and music and life.

Once, I wept to quit my characters - when I finished This Human Season at six one morning in Italy - I knew I had to let them go. You will know that there is no more you can do. That's all.

Next? When you've run the first three chapters past our members' eyes, you come to your  editor at The Novelry and make a plan to share your wonderful work with literary agents and publishers. We are able to sing your praises when I pitch on your behalf, and have a fair idea of which agent will love your work. You keep your phone close at hand...

Happy days.

After that, you can look forward to all those lovely drafts you'll be doing alongside your agent and publishing editor!


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