The First Draft of Everything Is Shit

Copyright Freefoto.comThere he is, of course. The man him­self. Mr Ernest Hemingway, hold­ing his ‘edit this’ gun. Hemingway once wrote, “The first draft of everything is shit.”

Well, I’ve just fin­ished read­ing the first draft of my tech­no­thrill­er, Flashback. Is it shit? Before I answer, I’ll wave the usu­al caveat lect­or: The primary aim of this blog is to cap­ture the con­trary genie of the writ­ing muse, and the next few para­graphs will, per­haps, not be all that inter­est­ing to the gen­er­al read­er. Writers, be my guests.

First Impressions: High-altitude

Right. Good. I’ve spent a good four months of my life writ­ing the skel­et­on of a story. The first thing I want to know about the book is wheth­er it is viable as a book at all. Does it have great­er artist­ic mer­it than a sim­il­ar weight of used toi­let paper?

The answer is ‘just’. Beneath the sur­face of this 125,000-word string of typos and ‘Write this bit when the research is done’ lurks a decent book. Far below that level, way deep down, there might even be a good book. But I don’t even want to think of the work neces­sary to dis­inter it. Certainly it will involve a call to Phil off Time Team.

A first draft is like col­lect­ing togeth­er snazzy com­pon­ents — a spank­ing-new hard drive, a swanky key­board, a bit of love — throw­ing them into the air, and then inspect­ing the pile to see if you’ve made a Macbook yet. (Excuse that simile; it’s quite pos­sible that I’m mor­bidly obsessed with Apple products.) A draft is like build­ing an aero­plane without any test­ing (but you’ve seen lots of oth­er aero­planes), climb­ing into the cock­pit, wav­ing hope­fully at your girl­friend, and tip­ping off the edge of a cliff.

Is there a theme? If so, does it work?

A week back, I har­angued Haruki Murakami (it’s OK; he wasn’t listen­ing) for pur­su­ing a theme that was pois­on­ous to a fun­da­ment­al com­pon­ent of nar­rat­ive fic­tion: the prot­ag­on­ist as a driv­ing force. It appears that the theme of Flashback could fall into the same cat­egory. Here’s how I tried to get around the prob­lem: We have a time trav­el­er — Saskia Brandt — who is well aware, being from the future, that the actions and decisions of all those around her are com­pletely determ­ined. However, she refuses to accept this; that makes her human. Another char­ac­ter, also from the future — known only as Kirby — sim­il­arly becomes aware that all the actions of those around him are determ­ined. But he — being in his own ‘present’ — thinks he is immune. That is, while all those around are zom­bies, he alone is ‘alive’. The res­ult? This provides the found­a­tion for psy­cho­path­ic beha­viour; for him, a man is a pup­pet. Not a human. The strings can be cut with impun­ity. So the theme is about the dif­fer­ent reac­tions to in-your-face evid­ence of the impossib­il­ity of free will. Does it work, con­sid­er­ing that free will is cru­cial (imho) for a nar­rat­ive to sus­tain itself? Well, I think so. At least, this theme is what a read­er might induct from the way the story unfolds.

Are the Characters Compelling?

I can’t stand fic­tion where the vil­lain is just plain bad. I want the vil­lain to be the hero of his own story, and I think that the vil­lain of this piece (the very same Kirby) is well-motiv­ated. Throughout the draft, I asked myself: Could I rewrite this story from the per­spect­ive of the vil­lain and make it believ­able? If so, he’s a good, well ima­gined char­ac­ter. If not, start again. This wasn’t a great chal­lenge in the sense that — at least in my head — char­ac­ters in my fic­tion are not char­ac­ters but people. (Once, an early read­er of Déjà Vu told me that he thought one of the char­ac­ters was a ste­reo­type. I was piqued. Not because, for him, the fic­tion had not worked. I simply thought, “Bastard called Saskia a ste­reo­type!”)

The main char­ac­ter, Saskia Brandt, is drawn from my first nov­el, Déjà Vu, and I know her well. (That said, Flashback is not really a sequel; Saskia is the only com­mon char­ac­ter.) She behaved bril­liantly through­out the writ­ing pro­cess, and I always wanted her the scenes. But does she work in the first draft? Yeah, basic­ally.

The oth­er main char­ac­ter, Jem, is more prob­lem­at­ic. Her story is one of will she/won’t she redeem her­self. This means the read­er is intro­duced to her as a fairly rep­re­hens­ible char­ac­ter. Since she is fol­lowed closely through long sec­tions of the book, will read­ers care when she is in per­il? Right now, I don’t know. A thrill­er usu­ally works when the per­il is overt, life-threat­en­ing and clear. If Jem is not com­pel­ling — i.e. the read­er is indif­fer­ent to her plight — Flashback is going to fall on its fat arse.

I’ve sur­prised myself by, I think, not doing too bad a job of the love affair between Saskia and Jem. Due to a chro­mo­son­al imbal­ance, I am, it appears, male, and I did not think it would be very easy to pull off a con­vin­cing descrip­tion of a female-female rela­tion­ship. But I’m happy with it. It’s pos­sible that the rela­tion­ship hasn’t worked at all, des­pite my impres­sions; I’ll learn that when my happy few (beta-test­ers) take a look at the manu­script. I like to throw in at least one risky ele­ment into a piece of fic­tion, and this is the risk in Flashback. At best, the lack of a believ­able rela­tion­ship between Saskia and Jem would make it dif­fi­cult to appre­ci­ate what one would do for the oth­er; at worst, it would make the story laugh­able, and smash the care­ful fic­tions to smithereens.

Is the story too complex?

This is anoth­er prob­lem. My fic­tion always has asked a lot of the read­er. (I nod in the dir­ec­tion of Hemingway inso­far as my goal is eco­nomy at all levels of the story, from the words up; I also like scenes where the ele­phant in the room barely gets a men­tion.) Quite frankly, the story is too dif­fi­cult to under­stand at this point in the draft­ing pro­cess. Hell, I don’t under­stand it all the time. “Diamond? What dia­mond? And how did that guy sur­vive get­ting sucked out of an air­liner at cruis­ing height? Expatiate, Hocking.” Fortunately, the nar­rat­ive is pretty air­tight, and I think I can flag up the sig­ni­fic­ant bits without resort to Da Vinci Code-level bull­shit like, “As you know, Bob, an ana­gram is a non­word formed from the jumbled let­ters of a real word.”

Final Thoughts

So these are my ini­tial impres­sions based upon a first read­ing of the first draft. I wasn’t wast­ing my time by writ­ing it, but I’ve got a shit load of work to do. If I worked full time on the manu­script from this point (and I can’t, since I’m also work­ing on Proper Job, and I have an idea for a ‘lit­er­ary’ nov­el, God help me), Flashback could be reas­on­ably com­plete by Christmas. By then, my exper­i­ment to see wheth­er I can make any money from writ­ing may be at an end. I’ll keep a record of the major changes I make to the manu­script as I go on. Is, as Mr Hemingway sug­gests, the first draft of Flashback shit? No. But it isn’t far off. It’s more like…vomit. The one per cent of inspir­a­tion has come and gone. Now it’s time to get sweaty.

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

2 thoughts on “The First Draft of Everything Is Shit”

  1. Ian, how long do you reck­on it’d take you to get the syn­op­sis and first three chapters done?

  2. Good ques­tion, Neil/Rodent. I could do the syn­op­sis right now (and, actu­ally, I’ve prom­ised it to one or two people, so I should crack on). As for the first three chapters, dif­fi­cult to say. Probably a few days…

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