Tag Archives: drafting

The One Piece of Writing Advice I Dare Give

I spent some time recently caught in a malaise. I hesitate to say that I was blocked, because I don’t believe in ‘block’ (at least so far as the romanticised,  anguished, cliche the term evokes) and because really I was still able to write, it was just… crap.

I wrote smaller and smaller spurts of words, a few hundred before I became distracted or drawn away. I was not immersed in what I was writing, in the way that I normally become when the words are flowing more freely and the fingers flying across the keys. Nor was I producing quality, I think. I read back over some old stuff I wrote and it didn’t seem half-bad, perhaps even read quite well if I do dare say… but then I read back over something I wrote more recently and I couldn’t stand it. Its flaws towered over the page, casting long shadows. Its cliches snapped and snarled from between the lines, or from within the lines, warty and ugly and plain for all to see. The prose limped along, workman-like. Plots stagnated. Characters gathered in bland surroundings to have inconsequential conversations that meandered around rather pointlessly, their disembodied dialogue ping-ponging back and forth, leading nowhere, signifying nothing. Idiots telling each other their idiot tales.

The difference, of course, is that the older writing was the result of a process: was drafted, revised, revised again, edited, modified, corrected and brought to a point where I was happy with it. My more recent work was only at the start of that process. It was nascent, and thus found obviously wanting when compared to its more polished predecessors.

So not block, but perhaps something worse. A pipe half clogged but still able to spill a trickle of septic sludge.

And I thought for days stretching into weeks about what might be causing it. I hadn’t settled on a project, and I flitted between several unfinished drafts of grand ambitious plans, and I’m sure that didn’t help. As a writer, I find that I need to sit in a narrative, to live with the characters talking and arguing and plotting and scheming in my head, mentally writing and re-writing their lines before I even sit down to the computer, before I even take a pen to hand. And sometimes I did but than I would leap across to one of the other worlds, to characters from another story. They are diverse enough that I could still track that leap, but would I not have been better to have written one novel than to have four drafts in the 20-30,000 word range?

And what does it say for the quality of those drafts when even their author seeks greener grass in another document?

I sought solutions…

I bought Scrivener. It helped me make some truly excellent plans. It has a virtual corkboard and virtual notes on which I planned scenes and chapters and character descriptions and setting notes… and all of these wonderful satellite resources to my writing are marshaled now. Their creation came at the expense of words on the page. The delicate restructuring and rearranging of labels at the expense of a chapter or two. I was able to convince myself I spent an hour writing and have not a single additional word on the draft to show for it. So Scrivener is good at what it is designed for, but it did not solve my problem.

I read. I finished the book I’d started last year. I went to the Kindle store. I read books for my work and for my sons. I read short stories and online zines. I read the draft work of fellow writers and friends. I read guides on writing and pitching and querying, on synopses, on the industry. I read Twitter and Facebook and learnt from professionals and publishers… this too was valuable. This too produced not one single word on any of my drafts, and so it has not solved the problem. One must beware of writing-like activities through which one might convince oneself that progress is being made when in fact it is not.

And now I blog about it, so that I can reacquaint myself with writing, with getting the words down, with the tap of the keys beneath my finger tips and the wonderful march of letters across blank space. I haven’t written here for 6 months, and perhaps that was a part of the problem, and perhaps it needs to be part of the solution. The feeling of being productive, the experimenting with words and sentences, the shaping of thoughts into physical form–or digital form at least–and sharing them with the vast and global void into which we all stare. And yet for all the good that comes from the thousand words here, not one of those words adds to any of my drafts, and so this too has not solved my problem.

There is but one solution then.

This is the only advice on writing I dare give, and I give it primarily to myself:

Write the words.

Even though they are crap. Even though they might need to be re-written, many or all, almost certainly, even almost entirely. Just write the words. Finish the draft.


Get yourself into a position from which there is no way out, but through. Break the 30,000 barrier, and the 40- and the 50- until the ending seems so much nearer and you can fall toward it. Know that ‘THE END’ is not the end, and you will always be able to come back and rewrite the few thousand you forced onto the page, even if those few stretch out to 20,000 and even if all 20,000 are irredeemable, still you’ll have a draft. You cannot have a book without a draft, and so the finishing of the book is not your goal… not yet. It is the finishing of the draft on which to set ones eye, and even before that on the finishing of the chapter, or the page, or the paragraph or the line… on finishing the word and selecting the next and so on, onward.

So that is my advice, as much for myself as for you, dear reader. More for myself, really than for anyone else.

What ‘The End’ means (to me).

So recently I had the opportunity to write those final two words of a manuscript…

These two words

These two words

…and I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on exactly what those mean, in this context.

The first thing I did after typing those words, was to go back to the first chapter I wrote and re-read it. It sucked. It was about 1800 words long, as a chapter, and 900 of them were dead-boring info-dump exposition back-story. They read like I was writing to myself and still trying to figure out what was going on and how it all worked. Which of course they did, because that’s exactly what they were.

‘The End’ then just meant the end of the first draft, and the first draft sucked in many ways, which is fine. First drafts are meant to suck in many ways. You need–I have found and other wiser writers have said–to give yourself permission to suck in that first draft. Chuck Wendig has said that the draft is where you make the words and the editing is when you make them not shitty (or words to that effect). So having shitty words didn’t bother me so much. I accepted that was part of drafting and that I would begin soon the task of making them not shitty.

Thus, The End is the beginning

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

But it is more than that. ‘The End’ is a culmination of all the work that got you to the point where you’ve written a story. That Wendig link above gives 25 reasons why it’s important for you to ‘finish your shit’ and I can’t compete with 25 (especially when there are, contained in those 25, all of mine and more). So I won’t talk about why it’s important for you to get to ‘The End’. I’ll talk about why it was important for me.

This is the third time I’ve been able to type those words and each time I feel like I’ve put them on a draft which was better than the last draft I put them on. Not only that, this time it was the quickest draft I have written, the shortest length of time between setting down those first uncertain words and concluding the story which grew from them.

I started planning this story on 7th July 2015 and wrote the first 20,000 words or so in that month before putting it aside and going back to the revisions on my previous novel. I picked up on this one again in September 2015, with this story still only 20,000 words. I wrote ‘The End’ on 7th Feb 2016, by which time there was 91,454. That means over 70,000 in under 6 months. Given this was around a full-time job, two young kids, Christmas, birthdays, family visits, life-in-general, I think that’s a decent pace. I can improve on it, but it’s significantly quicker than my previous efforts. Partly this is because of general improvements in my process and craft. Partly this is because of NaNoWriMo.

I had been very skeptical of being involved with NaNoWriMo before. The idea of sacrificing quality for quantity and churning out words for the sake of words seemed at odds with how I wrote, but I decided in 2015 to use it as impetus to get a few more words on this Work in Progress. I never expected to get 50,000. And then I did.

My daily, weekly, and monthly totals

My daily, weekly, and monthly totals

Nano wasn’t too hard at all for the first 21 days or so. I had done significant planning beforehand, I had a really clear idea of where the story was going and who was doing what with/to whom and when and where and in what sequence and why and such.
But it wore me down. That fourth week was a chore. You can see I skipped two days in that week entirely. I basically gave up. But a big day spent sitting for several hours at a cafe yielded over 6,000 words and put me back in with a chance and my stubborn competitiveness helped get me over the line.

I started November with 25,000 words, and that had been the work of July, September and October. By the time December began I was over 75,000 and planning to finish by the end of the year.

I barely wrote at all in December. I was so fatigued by the November efforts I basically did nothing for a week and then I wrote a bit in the second and third week before Christmas etc hit and I did nothing until January was pretty well underway. I decided I’d try and finish by the end of Jan and missed that goal too, but only by 7 days.

Part of the problem was that I felt so close. I figured another 10-15 (on top of my 75) would get me there, and I was writing that basically weekly throughout November, so how hard could it be? But the push to get words down had taken a toll. Those words weren’t always according to the plan, and the plan had to change, and that’s fine, but I found I had lost my direction. I had to go back and re-write and re-shape and then plan again and draft again and cut and create. It was a tough process. I ended up cutting 10,000 words back out over January and the start of Feb. The last three chapters took forever and changed many times.

And so when I did finally get to write ‘The End’ it was deeply cathartic, to know that it was done, and all of that effort had led to a moment where I could feel, briefly, that the story was told.

Thus, The End means a time to celebrate.

Me, celebrating

Me, celebrating


So what now?

Now I have sent the finished draft off to beta-readers. I won’t look at it now for a month. Then I’ll print it out, chapter by chapter, make my own notes and consider the feedback from my readers and start the process again. Because ‘The End’ is the beginning. And one day in a April or May I’ll be able to come back to ‘The End’ having revised the draft and ‘The End’ will again mean that it is a time to celebrate and reflect.

In the mean-time…

I started something new today. It’s just a series of thoughts and ideas, a totally different story in a totally different world to the last two I’ve written, but I think it has some legs and somewhere to go.  I have 6,000 words down, of which about half are genuine words and the other half notes and planning and reminders and suggestions.

It’s a near-future sci-fi with cyberpunk influences and it opens with a Hemi-powered Charger, some old lovers, a night drive, a quiet bar, a secretive job offer, a computer chip, an ambush, a knife fight and plenty of gunfire.

So the process begins again. Hopefully in six months I’ll get to ‘The End’ of this one.

… and continue…

So I’ve got more than 50,000 words which have survived these revisions (in fact 53,300-ish).

That’s the good news. It represents 18 chapters of the novel and I’m hitting the point where the narratives are becoming quite divergent so there will be (I’m hoping) some chapters upcoming from POVs or in locations which are only minimally affected by the necessary changes.

I’m on page 177 of the word document (out of 633) and the total is still hovering on 195,000 words (so I’m more than 25% of the way there – kind of). I’m thinking I’m going to have to cut a whole scene, or perhaps whole characters / sub-plots to really get this thing down the the lean piece of writing I think it needs to be.

Big job, but I accepted the challenge, and if I’m going to go around calling myself a writer I’d better be doing some writing to justify the tag.

If deep cuts helped Cormac McCarthy produce Blood Meridian then who am I to puff out the chest and insist all my words are worthy of being spared?

The revisions

I almost entitled this post ‘the re-write’. It almost feels that complete, but in truth it’s not. This is a normal stage of the writer’s craft, the revising.

I likened it in a previous post to sculpting and if I could extend the metaphor a little (indulge me I pray) I’ll refer to pottery (try not to picture me as Patrick Swayze to your Demi Moore)

The 300,000 or so words I had once were a massive block of clay. Too massive. I got that down to 241,000 and sat back and thought ‘that’s a lot of clay I hacked off that sucker. I don’t think any more clay could come off that.’

It took me a while to realise I was wrong. Even when people looked a bit sceptically at my ‘finished piece’ and said ‘gee, it’s pretty big’ (keep your mind out of the gutter!) I thought to myself: ‘yes, yes it is. It is a great big fantasy novel that I have written and I’m fine with that.’ (when really I wasn’t)

I was asking the wrong question, and all those nagging little anomalies I knew were there I ignored because I wasn’t really ready to ask the right question and expose them. So when I did. When I said to myself ‘it’s a big Fantasy novel, but is it really a good one?’ I found that it wasn’t really finished. I had finished drafting. I had started revising. But then I had stopped.

So in the last month or so I’ve been hacking clay away. I’m hovering around 200,000 words now and more must go. That said word count is a secondary concern. Some will be lost, because that is the nature of these revisions. Only the worthiest scenes and sentences may remain. The herd will get stronger because I will kill the weak (to jump from clay to buffalo for a moment. It was a brief visit though, back to clay).

As an update I am currently on page 62 of my revised draft. That’s 18,500 words which have survived my scrutiny. The manuscript is 201,000 words on 649 pages in its current state. (These are MS Word pages based on double-spaced, size 12, TNR font). So in one sense I’m just under 10% of the way through.

That accounting is a bit misleading though because the plot-point I am currently revising took place on page 180 of my 241,000 word manuscript. That manuscript was 766 pages long (MS Word, double-spaced, size 12 TNR). So on that measure I’m about 15% of the way through on page count. I’ve cut out 117 pages and 40,000 words so far. Of the nearly 60,000 words I’ve revised less than a third have survived.

Now it’s worth pointing out that there are reasons for this that mean extrapolating that rate of word-loss is unrealistic. I am not planning to (or going to) end up with a manuscript of 80,000 words. Sure that’s in the range of recommended novel length for a first time author, but I don’t see it happening here. I will end up under 200,000 though, of that I’m quite certain.


The goal is to have this thing pitch-ready by Genrecon in November. It’s a daunting goal to be honest, but the exercise is cathartic and I am very confident it is improving my novel, and my writing craft. It is making me a better writer, and that is, after all, my stated goal.