Two days ago I finished the first draft of a new novel I have been working on. This, as you might imagine, felt wonderful. Finishing a book, albeit a scruffy, clumsy first draft, is a feeling like no other. It completes the circle, from the moment that idea first crept into your mind, to the moment you write the last few words of the last chapter, knowing it is done.
Writing a first draft is not new to me. I have written and published various other books, so I have been here before and experienced this before. But to be honest with you, I have never really taken the time to sit back and think about what it means. To savour, or appreciate the moment. I did celebrate, of course. Several glasses of wine were consumed as I hurtled towards the finish line, not daring to look back. I announced the good news on social media, danced about the house a bit and went to bed feeling really pretty pleased with myself. There was an undeniably satisfying feeling of relief as I got into bed that night. I had done it. It was over, at least for now. I had got the idea from that tiny seed stage, through to its completion, its realisation, its finish. Ahhh, it felt good.
First drafts are a funny, terrible, frightening and beautiful thing. They almost sum up the act of writing itself. The first draft is the start, the tender, doubtful beginnings. It is full of hope and promise and potential. Even when you are half way through, it still feels so new, so unknown and could change at any moment, becoming something else entirely. First drafts are lovely and ugly. They tease and torment you. As a writer, you are forever wondering if the book you are writing will ever live up to the expectations of the book you have in your head.
So what is the story of a first draft? I will tell you the story of mine, of this particular book anyway, as they all have different stories, different beginnings and came from totally different places. Quite often I can’t remember where the idea for a book came from at all.
This idea came about a year ago. I had just started writing the first draft for a YA novel called The Tree Of Rebels. As usual, this was another idea I had played with for a year or so, and now its turn to be written had finally arrived. Phew. Ready set go. I had my notebook, my ideas, my timeline, my goals and my characters. I couldn’t wait to start and I knew it was going to be real challenge, mainly because I have yet to write a dystopian novel set in the future. I knew I had a lot of work to do. A lot of serious research.
And then, out one day with the dogs, and thinking, like you do, about people, and the world, and how awful and cruel it can be, and wondering how we are ever meant to make sense of it or learn to live with it…I heard a little voice. At first I thought she was a girl, but perhaps because the main character of The Tree Of Rebels was a girl, eventually she became a boy. Elliot. Don’t ask me where his name came from either, as I do not have a clue.
Elliot was at his bedroom window, looking out at his world. It was a small, neat world, made up of small, box-like houses, and full of busy, stressed out people who scurried past his house and his life, living theirs. He watched and he listened and he was quite alone. I told him to go away. I ignored him, because I had this very important dystopian to write, you see, I had Lissie Turner’s story to tell now! But he kept coming back during that walk, and by the time I came home I had the first few paragraphs of the novel, his novel, all ready to be written. And I ran in and wrote them down. I didn’t know really what the book would be about, or what would happen, or what the themes would be, or anything, but I was getting a glimpse of him, and what he was seeing and feeling. It was annoying, I have to tell you. I had written and released four novels, and The Tree Of Rebels was next. Why did this kid, whoever he was, have to barge in now? With his comments and his statements and his character already shining through? God, it was annoying.
But how can you ignore something like that? Within days, Elliot’s character and Elliot’s world had overtaken mine, and he was in nearly all of my thoughts. I knew what his problem was. His mother was developing agoraphobia. I knew what his other problems were too. A bully at school and no father figure in his life. I knew who he was, what he looked and sounded like, how he dressed, that he was a mad Doctor Who fan, that his precious Uncle Liam was missing, presumed dead, and that he had this strong and beautiful and innocent desire to just connect with people. To just know people, talk to people, laugh and chat and spend time with people. But this would be a risky thing to do, would it not? It had to be strangers, you see. He wanted to branch out. He wanted to prove his mother wrong. And now I had her too, Laura. All the shaking layers of guilt and rage and hatred that had piled up on her over her life, and why, I knew why. And I knew that as she became more desperate, cutting herself from a world she could not bear to be part of, her son, Elliot, would do the opposite.
And then something would happen. Elliot would go missing.
A year ago, just about to start writing The Tree Of Rebels, I knew all this about other goddammn book. I can’t really complain. I am privileged to have these people invade my mind on a constant basis. What would I do without them? So I did all I could do. I made notes and character profiles, jotted down dialogue and loosely plotted the story. And then I pushed it to one side and wrote The Tree Of Rebels. Which I then had to rewrite. Then rewrite again, and so on.
Elliot just had to wait and wait. There was one point when some beta readers had an early draft of The Tree Of Rebels, and I thought, well I’ve got nothing to do until they’ve read it and got back to me! So I grabbed Elliot Pie and started writing. Of course this then got interrupted and it wasn’t until around June of last year that I could really dedicate the time to it.
And as with all my other first drafts, the process went a bit like this;
‘This is the best thing ever, I am such a good writer, I am so glad I finally have the time for this, this happens next, now this, on we go, yes, yes, yes, oh now hold on, that beginning was a bit slow wasn’t it? Let’s go back and change it a few hundred times. Okay let’s move on, it’s shit, I see that now, but it will be shit, it’s the first draft, just let it be shit and accept the shitness and just get to the end, get it done! Okay, okay, averaging half a chapter a night, always leave it hanging, so I’m excited to get back to it the next, no real blocks, just shit writing every now and again but just ignore that, and keep going, very clumsy, very clunky, ugh, don’t look, don’t look back, don’t read it, just get to the end, get to the finish line, oh my god this really is total shit, even the idea is shit! The message, what message? What am I even trying to say here? Do I want to say anything? It’s all getting confused and messy. Ugh, ugh, torture, yuk, don’t look, really this is very gross but keep going anyway, because you know what happens so just get the bare bones down, the basics, the skeleton then worry later, and oh, here we go, yes, yes, this is all making sense again now! Whoop-eeeee! Yes, because yes, because she did that because that happened and that’s why he does that, but no one knows, and this comes out later and oh yes, of course they would do that, and yes, yes, yes, this is wonderful actually, this is perfect, better than I thought it would be..oh no crap city, just stop, just give up now for the love of God! Okay I’m done. Oh shit. I did it!’
The best thing is knowing you didn’t give up. Knowing you did your best and didn’t get sidetracked, climbed over the walls and the humps and got around every corner and raced on to the end. Yes it is shoddy. Yes it will need sooooooo much rewriting and reworking and messing about with, just like all my other books. The first draft is just the baby. It’s really still so small and new and helpless. I’ve got to pad it out and make it grow, help it to shine. That’s when the real hard work starts! Now I owe it to the story and the characters who came to me to really, really make it as good as it can be.
But not yet.
It has to do its sitting and stewing and breathing now, just like The Tree Of Rebels did. Because I thought that book was done, and was just waiting patiently for me to whizz through Elliot Pie before I gave it its final shine. But no, not quite. Things happened to it while it was sat alone. Things changed and grew and evolved, and oh how glad I am I made it wait this long. Waiting is good. I know more now. I have seen the light!
Time to dive into the final draft of this one and make it work. I cannot wait to see what happens to Elliot Pie’s first draft while it’s waiting though…