In this second part of excerpts from my writing journal, which outlines my thoughts while writing Red Star Falling, I’m assembling the first draft and thinking about the revision process.
Saturday, 30th March
So the theme today is a somewhat technical. I’m trying to get myself out of plot knots that I’ve become ensnared in. For this story, I’ve given myself a general view of what goes on—a high-altitude version, if you will—and relied upon my unparalleled writer’s brain (sarcasm alert) to figure out the fine details during the process of composition. This is one way of doing it; it’s also a way of creating panic. That said, the panic is probably necessary. What it means is that I must solve problems as I go along. It makes me focus much more. They aren’t really difficult problems, to be honest. They’re problems like ‘Character A needs to do X because otherwise things will be boring; but why would Character A do that?’ and selling them to the reader.
The theme of ‘selling’ is certainly one that I keep coming back to. The story itself might be mundane, but it can give the impression of being a cracking story if it is sold well. A magician will have only a small staple of tricks—misdirections, etc.—but they can be sold as things like mind-reading and levitation. That’s why you can paraphrase a story like Hansel and Gretel and it sounds like a piece of crap. In selling it, in putting it together as a story that the reader can almost experience, almost touch, you create something like fiction. So much of my ‘problem solving’ is really about doing up with solutions that the reader will ‘buy’. Not to have the characters be clever but seem clever. Much the same applies to the writer, I’d suggest.
Sunday, 31st March
The struggle continues. Since I finished the writing session last night, I’m bugged by the little universe in my head. The story has reached the point where several interesting things have to happen simultaneously. To be specific for a moment…
Last night in bed, and this morning in bed, I’ve been thinking over the mechanics of what needs to happen.
In my last session, I left Saskia…
As the Fonz says, redactamundo!
I did that according to Hemingway’s principle that one should always leave something in the tank for the next session. That is, you should always be able to pick up where you left off.
But once I’ve written the next bit—which is fairly easy—I’ll then hit the murder-wall of the coming action scene, where all things come together. I know I’ve written good action scenes in the past, but it does, at moment, seem difficult to scope out.
As ever, the best way of getting the thing done is to do it. Let’s rock. (Pun-tastic!)
Wednesday, 30th April
Well, I’ve finished the first draft of the short story.
Came in at about 15,000 words.
The idea now is to let it mellow—but not too much! The first draft works, essentially, as a rough map of the final territory. It now needs to be finessed in a couple of ways. The first is a ‘developmental pass’. I’ll need to read through the thing in its entirety and check that there aren’t any major errors of geography, motivation, and so on. Next, I’ll do a ‘research pass’, where I’ll ensure that visual descriptions, etc., are accurate. Finally, I’ll finish the text itself; this will involve re-writing the story from the ground up. I’ll probably start with a blank document and have the original open to one side.
This comes first. It’s about a high-level overview. Here, I can change structure to maximise things like pace, clarity and parsimony—but however it’s described, it means producing a structure that is the best way of telling the story. In a sense, when you change the structure, you change the story, but there’s a distinction between plot and story. (There might be a technical one; but I’m using my own distinction here.) The story is what the text is about; the plot is what happens, and in what order. What is the story about? This is a question I don’t like to ask beforehand, because it stifles the creative process. It’s important for me that I don’t really know what it is about to start with. This needs to be discovered during the writing. In the case of Red Star Falling, I guess the story is about a woman going…
This is quite good fun, though there is a pervasive anxiety that I’ll uncover a crucial detail that renders implausible a key aspect of the story. What I need to do in this stage is identify locations, the weather, sound patterns, smells, fashion—anything specific to the situation of the story that I’ll need to mention or imply. Red Star Falling is set in Switzerland in 1908. It begins in a mortuary and finishes on the Eiger Nordwand, or ‘north face’. I’ve been looking up descriptions and pictures of Edwardian mortuaries and dropping them into an application called Evernote. I’m not sure how much of the detail I’ll need to use, but I want to have it at my fingertips.
It might be worth saying something about the interaction between the research process and the first draft. I’ve learned, over the years, that the story-based element is quite independent from the research-based element, even though they may appear to the reader (and the amateur writer) to be tangled inextricably. The problem for the writing process is that you’ve already got a ton of stuff rolling around your head. Essentially, you are trying to simulate an independent reality in your head. The less you need to think about research the better. If you write peripatetically, the flow of the story will suffer, and it will be very hard to write. It’s better just to crack on. So, these days, when I write (and this is true of the draft as it stands today), I’m writing the letters TC (standing for ‘To Come’) whenever I need to write something that I would need to look up—time of dawn, name of a minor character, or street, and so on. This means that I can crash through and get the draft finished. However, it’s not easy, because you’re well aware that what you’re producing reads like a goddamn lubberly mess. (It doesn’t help that prose is shot full of cliches, either, but you’ve also got to postpone beauty to a later draft.)
Finalising the text
This will be laying down a new bed of prose that is all-guns-blazing, possibly overblown, and certainly purple. It’s when I’ll start to think: What is the absolute best way, aesthetically, to describe a night/mortuary workbench/lake lit by moonlight? The draft will probably be much longer than the first draft. Decisions of tone, pace, and all that will need to be made. Then it will be drafted a few more times. Probably, that’ll involve printing the thing out, correcting the language, and doing it again.
The fun you can have. Next time, the journal will look into issues like the cover for the book.