Tuesday, 17 December 2013

A QUESTION OF DISTANCE

Hello, my lovelies - happy Tuesday to all.

On Sunday I finished my copyedits of Darkness Hidden (Book #2 of The Name of the Blade) and so I spent yesterday wandering around in a strange daze where I felt guiltily as if I had far too much time and ought to be doing something important with it instead of lounging about like a lazy layabout. This resulted in the following list of activities:

  • writing a short story, 
  • replacing the catflap (with my sister's help) which was destroyed by some kind of unidentified charging creature in the middle of the night, 
  • walking to local Post Office to post letters, 
  • making grocery lists for last-minute Christmas shopping, 
  • making recipe lists for Christmas baking, 
  • getting my self-employed accounts book up to date.

And then realising that actually I hadn't stopped the whole day. So I napped. For an hour. And then watched 'Escape to the Country'. It was all rather surreal, really. I was saying on Twitter that after a burst of really feverish activity, where you're cramming as much work as possible into each day and jamming all the other necessary things in around the edges (like cooking and housework and feeding the dog), your time goes all stretchy, like a jumper that you've tugged and pulled at and carried potatoes and maybe the odd puppy in. When you take the potatoes and puppy out of there, it doesn't fit right anymore. It takes a while, and maybe a spin-cycle or two, for the fabric to shrink back to its correct size.

Also on Twitter, long-time Dear Reader Alex asked me: 
What is your advice (if you don't mind) for setting out to edit a NaNo novel aka a mess of a first draft? (or any first draft)
Which is one of those questions where there's so much advice, just a huge volume of advice, that could possibly helpful, but I can only give you *my* take on it, which is highly individual. So you should take this with the proverbial pinch of salt and just adapt it to what seems best for you.

The first advice I would hand to anyone who took part in NaNo, and has therefore produced a huge volume of words in a very short period of time is - get some distance. Really, this is universal advice for anyone who's just finished any draft, but it especially applies to NaNo. At the point where you finish a first draft you have been practically living in your story world for days or weeks, completely immersed in the characters and emotions and images that exist beyond the words.

That means the words themselves - ie., what readers will be responding to when they pick up your book - have ceased to have much meaning to you. You're in the headstory. You know what you felt and thought and what you meant to express, but don't know what is actually on the page. And it's no good trying to read it and find out because the second you put yourself in that position, there you are, back in the headstory, inundated by feelings and not actually seeing the words. At this stage you're pretty much the last person in the world who has the ability to judge what you've actually written down.

The only cure for this is distance.

You need to put the manuscript aside for as long as you can possibly accomodate in your schedule. When I've been working on a book for a year, I put it aside for two or three weeks. If you've been working on a NaNo story you probably want to put the draft aside for even longer than that, because you've been working much more intensely.

During this period, you need to detach yourself from your headstory as much as possible. If you have any brilliant revision ideas, quickly jot them down, but resist the desire to spend all this time thinking dreamily about your manuscript and wanting to get back to it. Do other stuff. You can work on other stories if you want, but I recommend recharging by taking a break and enjoying other people's creativity - take the chance to catch up on all the books you've been ignoring, see some new films, re-watch some favourite DVDs or DVD boxsets, and, while you're at it, spend some time with friends, family, your dog... whatever makes you happy and present in the now.

Some writers recommend sending the book to critique partners or beta-readers at this point. I've never had a critique partner or beta-reader, and so my methods are geared toward working to improve a book solo. But even if you *do* have people that you like to read your work and give you feedback, I do think probably now is not the time to send your work to them. Because it's a mess. They're going to be reacting to those words on the page, remember, which are nothing like what is in your head at this point. You need to get the pagestory a bit closer to the headstory first, so that your CPs or BRs can focus on helping you to make the book as good as it can be, rather than spending all their time attempting to figure out what the heck any of this is about and forcing you to explain 'what you really meant'.

What I do at the end of my period of trying to get distance is to get the mauscript (which I normally print out, in a different font and format than the one I've been looking at in my Word doc., right after I've typed 'The End', ) and re-read it as quickly as possible. Quickness is essential because you don't want to give yourself the chance to get sucked back into your headstory again. No. What you're reading here is the WORDS. The actual words on the page. Try to forget what you intended and felt and what you imagined as you were writing all this. And prepare yourself for it to be a thoroughly depressing experience.

I mark up every problem I see on the pages with a red pen. That's everything, from spelling and typos to 'WHO IS THIS CHARACTER?!' and 'Scene sucks. Chuck and re-write from scratch' and 'Need much greater sense of menace through chapters 1-12'. Sometimes I fill the blank backs of the pages with new versions of the areas that need work, or notes.

Once I've gone through the whole thing, and have battled and overcome my profound sense that the book is the worst thing anyone has ever written in the English language, I go back to my computer and rip that manuscript to shreds, imputting all the changes from my red notes on the printed ms and any others that I think of while I'm at it.

Now - at this point I am generally on my third or forth draft of the ms, because I write in longhand, then revise when I type up, and normally revise the previous day's work again before starting each day's longhand writing. So I'm confident enough to send the book off to my editor and agent. But if you don't go in for all that mallarkey, then you're now most probably on your SECOND draft, which means it's way too early to be submitting to editors or sending to agents.

But this is the time when those beta-readers and critique partners are handy. Hopefully the story you were actually wanting to tell readers (not the one you told yourself in your head) is a bit more evident at this point and so your helpers will be able to see what you were trying to attempt and can offer you advice that will allow you to pinpoint where you failed and allow you fix it. But if you, like me, work alone? There's nothing for it at second draft stage than to put the book aside again for a few more weeks to get that precious distance back in place. And then you need to go through the whole 'ripping the manuscript to shreds' thing again.

For me, the minimum amount of drafts any book ought to go through before I share it with publishing professionals is four. The first draft is the crappy messy incoherent pile of words that basically just gives you an idea what you *don't* want to do (this is what ends up scribbled in my notebook). The second draft is where you try to see what actually you *wrote* and pull it to pieces to get at what you *meant* (this is where I type up my scribbles and often radically change them in the process). The third draft is where, having gotten closer to putting what you actually meant on the page, you can focus on the craft of writing itself and polish the book to bring everything into focus (this is where I revise my typed up manuscript each morning). The fourth draft is where you get your distance again, then go over the whole thing looking for any issues, big or small (this is where I print my ms, leave it alone for several weeks, and then cover it with red ink).

Some writers work differently, and send their very first drafts to their editors or agents. Other writers do ten drafts before risking professional feedback. In either case, if there are still places in the ms that make you squirm a bit and think 'Oh, that'll do'? They won't do. You need to revise again.

And that's my advice! I hope it's marginally helpful.

See you (most probably) next week, my lovelies.

2 comments:

Alex Mullarky said...

Thank you for writing this Zoe! I needed to be told just to leave it alone. The further I get from my manuscript, though, the worse I build it up to be in my head. But I guess it's about being professional and working through the feelings of terribleness. I didn't realise you had no CPs or BRs! Much respect for going it alone.

Zoë Marriott said...

Alex: I think you have to accept that feeling like your book is absolute rubbish is an inevitable stage of writing a book. And it's nothing to do with the quality of what you've written, at all. It's just one of those stages. So you treat it like it's worth something, even when you're convinced it's not... and suddenly, somehow, at the end, it turns out to be OK after all :)

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