novel · second draft · writing

That difficult second draft

Toward the end of last year I finished the first draft of the novel I had been working on for quite a long time. I had started writing it in early 2008, took a forced break from it due to illness at the beginning of 2009 and finally reached the end in December 2010. It was the third novel I had attempted and the only one to get as far as a finished draft. I didn’t really have much of a clue what I was doing when I started it, I had a general plot and several ideas for things that would happen along the way, but other than that I didn’t know what I was doing. I think when I started it I expected I would write five chapters, maybe six, before realising I had run out of ideas entirely. But that never happened. Instead I managed thirty chapters spread over 92,000 words with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Now of course, as a thousand writing websites insist, the real work begins.

I can remember during the writing process getting mired in difficult metaphor, clumsy dialogue tripping over itself, description that made literally no sense outside of whatever weird mind-set I was in at the time I wrote it. There were particular words repeated dozens of times per page that would need to be pruned, turns of phrase that turned themselves a little too often, non-sequiturs, entire passages of indulgent rubbish, characters that seemed to transform from one person into another half way through. I was vaguely aware of all this as I wrote it down but blithely continued, safe in the knowledge that it would all be corrected in the second draft.

Over Christmas I sat and read through the whole thing with a red pen. I didn’t try to solve all the problems that I encountered, I just highlighted that there was a problem and moved on. Now I am in the process of going back through it and actually making those corrections. The most disheartening realisation was the discovery that the entire first chapter didn’t make any sense. Those first words I had written at my old flat, on my old computer nearly three years ago were all entirely, utterly, unfailingly wrong. The direction I had thought it would go in turned out not to be the direction it went in at all.

This shouldn’t really have been surprising. A lot of time passed between writing the first chapter and the last. It was hard to admit though. My task of spell-checking and continuity editing suddenly became a lot larger. I had to re-write the first chapter, and then makes sure that all references to it were changed to suitable new references throughout the rest of the book. The new first chapter is written now, but it was possibly the hardest part of the whole process so far.

Compared to editing, writing was a breeze. It was an absolute joy. As per all the advice I had dug up on the subject the best thing to do is just write, get that first draft sorted and then sort it out later. It is easier to repair than create, the adage goes, so whenever I was unsure about what I was doing I just ploughed on regardless. It is hard for me to tell whether or not any of it is any good, but I think it might be. I have no idea if the story of a man coming to terms with his own death is interesting or just old-hat and cliché, but I hope that the way I have tackled it is at least fresh and different. I guess I will find out soon enough, because once the second draft, or third, or fourth is finished, and I am satisfied it is ready, I will send it out into the world to fend for itself, waiting at home anxiously like a parent who has sent a child off to camp knowing full well that the other kids at the camp are a bunch of right little bastards.

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