‘It’s the arrangement of events which makes the stories … Hindsight can give structure to anything.’
– Carol Shields
‘Arrange whatever pieces come your way.’
– Virginia Woolf
Almost five months ago I wrote a piece about being stuck two-thirds of the way through the first draft of my new novel. I was in the midst of the messy stage of writing, then – the stage where all you have to do is show up and get words down (sounds much easier than it actually is). It’s the stage where you know so much of what you’re writing won’t make it to a final draft, but you write it anyway. Because you have to. Because it is by writing what doesn’t work that you get to what does. There are no shortcuts.
I got myself unstuck (largely thanks to writing out the problem in that post) and finished a first draft about two months ago. I put it away without reading it, and focussed on research for a while. I still wrote – bits and pieces, scenes that I thought might work their way into the story somehow – to keep myself in the headspace of the novel. But I gave that first draft a chance to sit, the way you put a casserole in the fridge overnight in the hope that the flavours will settle and grow.
Now I’m ready to start cleaning up some of that mess I made.
‘Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.’
– Scott Adams
This part of the process, though still creative in its own way, is much more analytical. I’m thinking about the story I’ve got, and also about the story I want to have. I’m figuring out how to cut away at the words – bit by bit – to get to the right shape. Writing a novel is, in a sense, like sculpting. Except instead of clay or stone you’re removing and moulding sentences and paragraphs, until the story you want to tell emerges.
Before I start rewriting, I find that this is a good time to pause, and plan. It’s also a good excuse to use coloured markers, and draw, and think. A time to round up all the characters and plotlines and themes that have run loose across the first draft, and put them into neat lists and outlines and maps.
They won’t stay put, of course, but it’s nice to pretend they will. For a while.
‘Plot grows out of character.’
– Anne Lamott
‘If I want to write a message I will write a sentence and not a book. A book is much more complex.‘
– Paulo Coelho
When planning, I think it makes sense to start with character. Novels are, in essence, about people, and relationships. Starting with plot or theme can make a story feel forced; you end up writing characters that are often just vehicles for ideas, and that never ends well. Plot grows – naturally – from character. Let it grow. Help it, nurture it, but let the characters tell their own stories.
In thinking about characters I like to create a page for each major character, including physical descriptions (which I draw, badly). I also draw webs of how people relate to each other, and outline each character’s story arc.
This involves the kind of mathematical thinking I usually avoid, but somehow in this context it’s fun. Making sure things make sense, that scenes fit together logically, that there’s nothing so confusing it threatens to distract a reader from the story. I usually just make a timeline of the main plot, but sometimes there are mini-timelines that help with a rewrite, as well (for example, for this novel I’m making a timeline of seasons and plants).
Another aspect of planning that can cause headaches. This involves gathering the major themes that come from the character work above and listing them so they stay in your mind. It also means thinking about context and subtext; i.e. what’s going on externally, and what it means for the characters internally.
‘You need to be moving your characters forward, even if they only go slowly. Imagine moving them across a lily pond. If each lily pad is beautifully, carefully written, the reader will stay with you.’
– Anne Lamott
This part can feel like a jigsaw, where you start to find where all those pieces of character and theme fit. It’s oh-so-satisfying to feel them snap into place, but it takes a lot of sorting and looking and testing first, to make sure everyone is moving in the right direction across the pond. I like to make an overall plot outline, with only the major events, as well as a more detailed outline of each third of the book. From this I’ll make a chapter outline, which I’ll use (along with draft 1) to rewrite.
More drawing! Making sure I’ve got it clear in my head where things happen, so that a hospital doesn’t appear on one side of the river in Chapter Two and the other side in Chapter Twenty-Four.
6. One Sentence
This can sometimes take longer than all the other planning steps put together. Trying to capture the essence of your novel in one sentence, so you can fit it on an index card and stick it above your desk. It is the sentence that you will always come back to, the centre, the load-bearing wall that keeps everything from collapsing around you. This sentence is so important, and so hard to get right. It almost goes through more drafts than the book itself. But it’s worth it.
7. Everything Else
There is always something else that needs thinking about: things I forgot to research, a list of ideas to add, recurring elements to keep track of, books to read. This part of the process can be neverending. Which is why I give myself a deadline. If I didn’t, I’d play around in this stage forever. It’s that much fun.
‘The novel is a territory where one does not make assertions; it is a territory of play and hypotheses.’
– Milan Kundera
Still, even in this stage I have to remind myself not to stress. Those familiar doubts and monstrous criticisms are, of course, still there. And it is still work to ignore them. But the beginning of a second draft is far from a final draft. It is more shaping. Things have to be a little clearer, a little closer to the final image, than they were in draft one. But they don’t have to be perfect. Not yet.
I’m reminding myself, as Henry Miller advises, not to be nervous. I’m reminding myself to ‘work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is at hand.’ And I’m reminding myself that, after all, writing is easy, right?
‘All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.’
– Mark Twain