“When it comes to your first draft, just get the story down. Never mind the mess. And whatever you do don’t waste time editing. That comes later.”
That’s what most writers say. I’ve said it myself on this blog. It’s good advice. Sometimes I even stick to it. What’s life about, however, if you don’t sometimes ignore all the recommendations and go your own sweet way? Your car’s sat-nav might be yakking at you to go straight ahead, but why stick to the highway when your gut’s telling you to hang a right and poke around strange neighbourhoods for a while?
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, during my last few writing sessions, I’ve spent as much time going backwards as I have going forwards. But in a good way.
Going back to the Lego building analogy I used last time I reported on Black Dog, it’s all about building solid foundations. In writing this novel’s opening scenes, I’m addressing a number of key questions. Who are these people I’m writing about? How have they come to be here? What difficulties are they now facing? And so on. The rest of the story will depend heavily on the answers I come up with.
The trouble is, I don’t always get those answers first time.
That’s where the ‘poking around’ comes in. By revisiting these early scenes several times over, I’m gradually homing in on what I really want to say. Sometimes things change just a little between rewrites. Sometimes they change a lot. Mostly they just get concentrated. It’s a process of distillation – with each new cycle the liquor gets more potent.
Here’s an example. I started out with one of my main characters – Ruth Dance – facing a one-week shut-down of the movie she’s trying to get made. This temporary setback satisfied a particular plot point I needed to make but, as a got deeper into the story it just didn’t seem enough. So I went back and added hints to a sub-plot in which her business partner has his own nefarious agenda for arranging the shut-down. An improvement. But still not enough. The solution? Forgetting any idea of ‘temporary’ – I decided to pull the plug on the movie completely.
In hindsight, it’s obvious this was always the way to go. Instead of just facing inconvenience, poor Ruth now has to deal with the implosion of her dreams. If I’d ploughed on with the first draft regardless, I’d never have seen it. Only through a series of rewrites and edits did it become clear that this was the foundation stone I really needed to lay, that this was the motivation behind everything Ruth would do through the rest of the novel.
Now, I’m not naïve enough to think the issue will need no further attention. Editing early doesn’t give you a free pass later on. But you can’t keep circling forever. Having mapped that particular neighbourhood to my satisfaction, it’s time to head for the on-ramp again. The highway beckons and there’s a lot of road ahead. Like they say, first draft means pedal to the metal all the way.
Well, most of the way.