At the moment my writing time is divided between two manuscripts: Despenser and Devil to Pay. Both are in need of extensive rewriting, including major changes in style and structure. If they were people, they’d be being wheeled into the emergency department right now for urgent resuscitation: ‘Jules,’ the paramedics say, ‘their lives are in your hands.’ Ok, enough with the drama already. But, like most writers’ first drafts, they are in an awful mess.
There was a time, quite recently in fact, when it would distress me greatly if I didn’t produce a near-enough perfect first draft. I’ve been (and still am!) the same with drawing too: if it doesn’t look good straight away, you may as well chuck it, and then go and wallow in front of the TV with a bowl of ice-cream. I’d like to say I’m in recovery from perfection now, but it’s a hard slog (especially for a Virgo: Virgos love to be perfect!). So I’m looking at my drafts one day at a time and gritting my teeth at working on something not yet fully formed and beautiful!
I find first chapters the worst of all: it is so hard to get the right balance in order to set the scene, introduce the character, the conflict and hook the reader. My first chapters tend to be full of unnecessary exposition or, worse, flashbacks! They have often started in the wrong place in the story or the text is totally irrelevant in the first place. With the first novel I ever wrote, I think I redrafted the first three chapters about 38 times!
Sometimes, I may also have changed my mind on the tome of the story in the time it took to write the original and when I come to redraft. Take The Devil to Pay. One of my inspirations for the story was the Kate Atkinson short story ‘Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping’ in her book Not the End of the World. In this story, just as the title says, two women go shopping in the middle of what seems to be a battle. They carry on a seemingly normal conversation about gloves while getting shot at, dodging explosions, and toting a pistol. I loved the juxtaposition of the everyday and the extraordinary, of shopping and war. I wanted to write a story with the same tone of matter-of-factness in the middle of anarchy. I also, because I was at university and I wanted to be ‘experimental’, wrote it in first person, present tense. I thought it was pretty good at the time, and so must my supervisor because he marked me only two points under a distinction.
Fast forward four years. I decided to dive into the e-book revolution and what should I start with? Why not my experimental piece, which was, at the time, incomprehensibly called ‘Homecoming’. After all, it was long enough to be a novella and had been ‘approved’ by a higher power, so to speak. So I got it out, read through it again – and hated it! The style was horribly pretentious, the tense was all wrong and the beginning was full of every writing mistake that could ever be fitted into a few paragraphs. Luckily, the rest of the story (apart from the tense change) was not so bad.
So, that’s why I’m visiting old ground, working it over, ploughing the weeds under and improving the soil to produce a stronger and healthier crop. And, although I say so myself, it’s getting there. The first chapter may be ready in about… well, 20 more drafts!