As I entered into the fourth draft of my current novel, set in Brooklyn where I lived happily for a few years at the turn of the century, I turned back to console myself that the redrafting process was ever the same, even in the glory days and checked my process for my first novel.
I decided to look at first draft vs. final draft to see 'what gives', and to examine some other authors' first and last drafts too.
It was 19 years ago this month, July, that I set about writing my 'proper' first novel. I had two in the drawer and I meant business. I was heavily pregnant (due November) and had two boys under 5 at home in Brooklyn. I had a premise which started out as pretty hokey in February 2001 but by July I'd been turning it around in my mind for a few months.
This was what I set down in July when I began:
The working title for what was to become 'Becoming Strangers' was 'The Last Resort'. I must have felt at some point the latter was a bit too on the nose. Jonathon Myerson, who reviewed the book for The Independent, hated the published title, but he and his wife Julie who reviewed it for The Guardian, loved the opening line. The line that became the opening sentence emerged through a process of 'cut and paste' - to find what the hell this book was about, and where to drop in hard and fast.
I set myself a routine and a process, which won't come as a surprise to writers of The Novelry. What has come as a big surprise to me, reviewing the evidence, as for some reason I had assumed all my re-drafts were contractions, is that I always intended to expand it. The novel ended up 70k+. Here I set out to write 40k. Funnily enough, this new fifth novel of mine came in at 48k at first draft and will be about 70k when I submit. The time frame for writing took into account the November due date. But as you'll see as the birth neared, I got busier.
I can't recall reading Amis at all, though I enjoyed his memoir, and I think I may have added that to try to bring some modern 'grit' to the storytelling. I extended the reading list to Graham Greene's 'The Heart of the Matter' and relied on that book heavily later, comparing page by page, noting how and where and why I fell short. I love the heavy cadence of the verses of The Bible and have read the New Testament a number of times with pleasure. Yes, I am a nerd. No, I am not a good Christian. I did pitch to Miriam Goderich, but I don't think I heard back or else it must have been one of what I'd come to dub 'my pretty rejections'. I pitched to agents in the UK in February 2002.
The opening page in July read like this (see left-hand side). The Twin Towers came down in September, visible from our home, and that was a time of great worry and distress both locally and of course internationally. By November I had completed the first draft and the opening page read like this (right-hand side) and was pretty much the same with the obvious change to British English wording:
I gave birth to my daughter at the end of November, and we had Christmas with the three kids, and I pressed on and completed the next draft to send to agents. Somewhere in between, I found the way into the book which had been lurking in another guise at the first draft down in Chapter 5:
When I moved that sentence (and surrounding material) to the opening, I felt confident I'd somehow pinned into position the theme or gambit of the novel, and I felt ready to submit, and did so in February 2002 as follows left-hand side. The published version of the book is here right-hand side:
You can see the original opening line has been pushed down.
In retrospect, the longest part of my process then was getting the idea right, the premise, which took me 5 months from February to July, a process we fast track with the Classic course at The Novelry. The writing of the first draft took 3 months, the revision 3 months. (My second historical novel took 9 months planning and 9 months writing, I believe. My mother claims I wrote 9 drafts.) It's interesting to look back and see how one almost physically manoeuvres sentences to locate the life or liveliness of the idea. All I can say is you know, with a sagging heart, when it's flat, and you know when it's got a spring in its step. When you get that bounce, you're good to go because the bounce gives you the energy to move on with the book in a sprightly fashion.
For your comfort and delectation, here are some 'Before and After' shots of first drafts and finished novels.
Our tutor, Katie, explains:
The first paragraph of the first draft of The Thousand Lights Hotel starts with the description of a photograph. There were a number of these italicised sections running throughout the book, the idea being that they’d form a way into the main character’s memories. My agent, who was reading the manuscript before my editor on this occasion, said that she didn’t think they added anything and I had to agree that they were a largely decorative addition. With each book, I’ve become better at ‘killing my darlings’. I was also conscious that I’d employed a similar device in my first novel, so even to me, it felt a little tired. After making the cut, I simply turned what was Chapter 2 into Chapter 1. And, as you’ll see below, that opening to Chapter 1 doesn’t end up being dramatically different in the final draft. It’s tighter, there’s a tense change, and I’ve taken out extraneous detail. For instance the idea of Kit running with her eyes closed – an image I liked, and one I enjoyed writing – is now distilled to the line ‘it was possible to believe in the safety of infinity’; I realised that any more than that would have been unnecessary and distracting at this point in the novel.
I always had a clear idea of how The Thousand Lights Hotel would begin, however reading it again now I’m not sure about the line ‘The question charged along with her’ - three years on, that feels a little heavy-handed to me!
Here's the first draft (left) alongside the revised submitted version (right):
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.
1984 by George Orwell.
1984: draft version
It was a cold day in early April, and a million radios were striking thirteen. Winston Smith pushed open the glass door of Victory Mansions, turned to the right down the passage-way and pressed the button of the lift. Nothing happened. He had just pressed a second time when a door at the end of the passage opened, letting out a smell of boiled greens and old rag mats, and the aged prole who acted as porter and caretaker thrust out a grey, seamed face and stood for a moment sucking his teeth and watching Winston malignantly.
“Lift ain’t working,” he announced at last.
“Why isn’t it working?”
“No lifts ain’t working. The currents is out at the main. The ‘eat ain’t workin’ neither. All currents to be cut orf during daylight hours. Orders!” he barked in military style, and slammed the door again, leaving it uncertain wheter the greivance he evidently felt was against Winston, or against the authorities who had cut off the current.
Winston remembered now. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, conscious of his thirty-nine years and of he varicose ulcer above his right ankle, rested at each landing to avoid putting himself out of breath. On every landing the same poster was gummed to the wall – a huge coloured poster, too large for indoor display. It depicted simply and enormous face, the face of a man of about forty-five, with ruggedly handsome features, thick black hair, a heavy moustache and an expression at once benevolent and menacing. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption ran.
1984: published version
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. the flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.
The first line: 'a million radios' becomes simply 'the clocks'.
The slightly hammy exposition and info dump of 'Oh, yes, I remember…' of the power cuts and Hate Week is dropped in favour of another dull, frustrating fact in another dull, frustrating day. Orwell rules in favour of understatement.
Then there’s the porter, neatly excised from the final version, leaving Winston Smith alone with the images of Big Brother.
The Budha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi.
Wise Children by Angela Carter.
These are my core precepts:
1. Get the idea right and tight. Spend time turning it to the light. Invest a lot of time in the few sentences of the premise. Know the agony of the dilemma and twist it until it pops its pips. Look for the dramatic irony.
2. Write the first draft with glee, mischief, wit and on fire. Get on with it. Try to keep it lively and stay open to possibilities as you discover the story.
3. Revise and streamline the story in the next draft or drafts, head back to the premise. If it's changed, change the brief, and rework the material again, but when in doubt remind yourself what it was that got you excited in the first place. (Chances are if you spent aeons on the first draft whatever moved you originally may be missing.)
If that original insight or movement is still meaningful to you, carve hard and find the place or phrase that cuts to the heart of it. It might not be in your first chapter, it might be later on. In my current novel, as in my first, by coincidence, I located it after my third draft in chapter 5. I'd felt a little dissatisfied and asked myself in the wee hours one morning - which part of this story do you love most? So I went, got it, and raised it to the opening.
A bold move like that will cause upheaval upon upheaval, and you'll be grinning from ear to ear because you've set your standard higher. Whatever happens with that novel, it's the novel you wanted to set down.
I think I have to start with a bugle call that summons the story and the reader to the hilltop. I need that rallying call too; the reveille! When you return and meet the original premise, face to face, after months of work in all sorts of directions, you'll reunite as old friends, shake hands and find the joy of the thing again.
If you’re just starting out, you’d be wise to start with The Classic Course which will help you nail the big idea here. If you would like guidance all the way from an idea through to completing a book to publishing standard then our Book in a Year plan is best for you here. If you’d like to get stuck in and start writing an idea you have, then our Ninety Day Novel course would be the jumpstart for you here. You’ll be able to choose your own tutor from our award-winning and bestselling authors, and as a member you’ll have access to our regular writing classes. You’ll enjoy the worldwide community of writers like you in every time zone. It’s a happy place and you’ll find a warm welcome whether you're an old hand or a complete beginner. Discover why so many writers describe The Novelry as 'life-changing' (it's the phrase we hear most!) Happy writing starts here.