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Rolling through the first draft, by Donald Hounam

I recently read Reacher Said Nothing, in which a journalist, Andy Martin, persuaded Lee Child to allow him to peer over his shoulder while he wrote his 20th Jack Reacher novel. Martin’s account of the first day’s work came as a bit of an eye-opener… to me, anyway.
According to Martin, Child sat down at his computer with just a title, Make Me; then, after a couple of cigarettes, he opened a blank Word document and started typing what, he insisted, would be the only draft, with no preconceptions about the story and no idea of where he was going.

 

 

This is, of course, a probable over-simplification and an exercise in mythologisation. But it’s a tempting idea: that one can just sit down and pluck out of the air a plausible first draft, from beginning to end.
If Child (allegedly) does it by the seat of his pants, there’s an alternative system, much propounded by various manuals on How To Write A Novel (in six weeks, in 21 days, or in less time than it takes to iron a king-sized duvet… take your pick).
Here, it’s all in the planning. You select a narrative structure from a list, complete with acts, plot-points and reversals, and populate it with characters to whom a series of check-points has prompted you to assign back-story, dreams, fears, hair-colour, shoe-size…
In either case, the first draft becomes an unproblematic, linear process. You charge in through the front door, break through a series of rooms, and hurtle out the back into the sunlit garden of a completed novel. OK, so you may have to check the punctuation before you land a six-figure advance. But basically it’s in the bag.

If only.

My current project, a ghost story, started with little more than a feeling. I didn’t know what would happen and I had only a very vague idea of who it would happen to. But I wanted things to feel a certain way.
In my first notes – two paragraphs on a scrap of paper – the protagonist was an eight-year-old boy, discovered by the police in a flat in London beside the body of his mother.
Then she was a girl, entering a spooky, long-empty apartment in Paris with an elderly man.
Then she was a teenage girl, out rollerskating in Paris and meeting someone who may or may not be a ghost…
Then he was a fifteen-year-old boy. I went back to the empty apartment… then reverted to the skating. Then back and forth again…
As of this week he’s still a boy, still on skates. But he’s lost three years… maybe five…

 

 

Ideally, the first draft would be like free-skating. You just buckle on that idea… and you zoom away! Sadly, it’s not quite that easy… and there are plenty of potholes to stumble over.

I seem to assemble a first draft by working up what seem like necessary scenes. But in the same document I inevitably find myself jumping backwards and forwards to other scenes that prepare for or follow on from whatever I thought I was doing. I usually end up with pages and pages of notes that aren’t, in the end, about what they were supposed to be about….
For me, the only way that content seems to emerge is in the writing. It’s a mess. I wish it wasn’t. I wish it was easier. A demented amount of handwriting and typing is involved. But the real point is that no matter how much I try to organise the material in files or notebooks, the only place the story really lives is, consciously and unconsciously, in my head.
In the end, I don’t see any way to organise a first draft. It’s all a ghastly, incoherent mess. You do whatever you have to, and hope for the best.

I really envy Lee Child.

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3 comments on “Rolling through the first draft, by Donald Hounam

  1. Emma H
    July 14, 2016

    Brilliant! Loved this.

  2. writeanne
    July 16, 2016

    Yes, your method for writing a novel sounds similar to mine. It’s not pretty and wouldn’t condense into a nice succinct ‘how-to’ or bullet pointed list. My notes to self re the work-in-progress are on post-its, coloured A4 sheets – there was supposed to be a strict organisational code as to colour of paper used – but that hasn’t happened, scribbles in notebooks, scrap paper, on my phone’s voice recorder, and occasionally in the file on my computer set aside for editorial notes.

    I go two steps forward and one step back as I write, retracing and reworking as I go, in contradiction of all the received wisdom about ploughing on through that first draft.

    But in the end I seem to get a coherent (I hope) story.

    All the best with all your writing. And here’s to us messy workers 🙂

    • dhounam
      July 17, 2016

      Particularly impressed by your doomed attempt to colour-code post-its. Like Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales, we ‘endeavour to persevere…’

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This entry was posted on July 13, 2016 by and tagged , , , , , .

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