A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
This week we’ll be talking about First Drafts of Doom and Woe™ (FDoDaW™ for short) and I’m the lucky bean who gets to talk to you guys about it first.
I wondered how to approach this blogpost as I’m currently working on a new project and it is indeed my FDoDaW™, or that’s what it feels like.
I’m a decent amount in, more than halfway through and already, at this stage I know how much I need to go back and change and add but, I’m stopping myself from doing that because it means this draft will completely grind to a halt and will never get written.
I think that this is now my sixth book I’m writing and each time it’s a learning curve and a bit of a new process. Let me tell you a little story:
Before the Blackhart trilogy, I had written a MG action and adventure romp. I had a lot of fun writing it but it was a mess. It was my learning book, the place I tested what worked for me and what didn’t. It was basically my first draft at becoming a writer. I love that book so much and still pull it out now and again to look it over and I now know how to fix it, but when time allows, maybe I will. The thing is this, this book taught me a lot. It taught me about perseverance and how much you can fall in love with the story and the character and to just write for the hell of it.
I wrote Banished in a flush of excitement and it got lots of positive things said of it at SCBWI but in the end, I realised the voice wasn’t right. It read differently to what I wanted it to be. So I rewrote it. From scratch. Everything changed. My approach to the character of Kit changed, how I wanted her to come across and suddenly it worked. In this new draft it felt like the real thing. I was lucky enough that my agent liked it loads, gave me a handful of notes and a deadline and sent me off to do my thing. I rewrote it again, because a character from the book (soon to appear in my husband Mark’s epic fantasy Infernal) was far too strong and big and loud to be a mere secondary character. It was trying but fun to reimagine the whole story and plot, and the book, this new draft, worked so much better. We sent it off and got lots of interest, thank the gods. And then I gave birth to a trilogy and boy, that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, back to writing this new fantasy I’m currently working on. I’ve plotted it out. I know who my characters are and what they’re up to. I know the handful of beats I need to hit for my story to hang together, but even so, as the story progresses I’ve come to realise how I can make the world better, the characters more in line with who I’d like them to be and how the politics influence the world and the decisions they make when the time comes. We’re back to how first drafts work: that they are exploratory and weird and amoeba-like because they change in a blink of an eye. The shape, the nature and the overall theme sometimes redevelops massively too and you need this first draft, or zero draft, as some people call it, in order for your story to grow and develop and become it’s own pretty thing.
I’ve had quite a break between finishing Judged and starting my first draft of writing The Nine and honestly, I can say I was burned out and couldn’t settle on anything whatsoever. Nothing I started stuck it out for more than say 10,000 words. I tried writing synopses of various things but meh. The idea of The Nine started off as something very different – I wanted it to be a sweet MG story but the second my main character stepped up she was mouthy and a little bit more rebellious than a 12 year old ought to be. I mean, I was a 12 year old mouthy rebel but this girl was talking treason from the get-go so maybe I had to revise my idea of the story I’d like to tell.
I sat down with my notebook (my Ideas 2016 notebook) and I worked out what could conceivably happen in the world of The Nine. Once I was satisfied I had a handle on The Nine, I transferred the story across to its own notebook, above. I teased out who the characters were, there are a lot of them (nine in fact) and how I’d go about introducing them to the reader. I wanted to know about the world, the religion, what would make up my society and I thought about the ‘age’ I wanted to set the story in. I tried to steer clear of the traditional medieval Western setting so I looked at other eras readers would recognise but perhaps not be so inured to. I bought more books on Rome and Egypt and Byzantium and read up about the Greeks. I wanted a sense of scale to The Nine and so the main cities are huge claustrophobic places and the palaces are full of intrigue, assassins and schemers. Towns would be friendlier perhaps whilst villages and farmers would be the people who really matter as they are the ones working the land and offering up their lives to fight in the Emperor’s army. I wrote a blogpost about world-building over on my blog and this is the link if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
How the story developed really, was by me constantly asking what now and what if and I was conscious that the whole thing really live or fell by the believability of my characters. It’s a scary prospect but also one we have to live with as writers. Writing that first draft means taking that all important Assassin’s Creed leap of faith from the tallest building you can find.
So, I mentioned I had a bad time getting back into writing after the completion of Judged and seeing it published earlier this year. I didn’t think I would ever write again. This fear is nothing new to any writer I know. We live with it constantly. But really, I didn’t see myself getting flushed and excited about a new project ever again. I thought I was losing it completely and it was so scary and I wanted to shut myself away in a room and never come out again.
But I did start writing again, slowly and painfully. Because, all I could think of, is how annoyed my mum would be with me if I quit something I loved doing so much. She would be annoyed and disappointed in me. And there is nothing scarier than having your mum angry with you, even if she’s passed away!
I got myself out of my no-writing funk by reading everything I could get my hands on and by watching loads of movies and tv-shows. I also re-read a lot of my how-to write books and started looking at maps and plotting how I would write this new fantasy and what the stakes would be for the various characters I’ll be involving. And the world grew and grew.
First drafts are hard work, but they are so satisfying when you finish them. It means you’ve done this thing, created this story. There is nothing quite like the relief of typing THE END at the bottom of a first draft and looking at it and going: I made this with my brain.
I’ll see you guys at the end of this first draft.