Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Jessica Shirvington – Murky Waters of the First Draft

First drafts! I hate them. They make me feel as though I'm a fraud, not a writer, and I wouldn't even show one of mine to my dog. Or as Hemingway put it, 'The first draft of anything is shit!'

Jessica Shirvington's first three novels – all urban fantasy – have been published in Australia in the past year, and her fourth will be published in 2012. Clearly, Jess has had to survive quite a few first drafts recently, and here she shares her thoughts on them – and exiled angels. Thanks, Jess.

Currently, I’m working on punching out the first draft of the fourth book in, The Violet Eden Chapters. I know that doesn’t make it sound altogether pleasant, but in many ways it’s like all best relationships – lots of love, hard work, storming away from, and running back to.

Each time it’s a different experience; I have different expectations and goals for each manuscript and therefore I approach the writing process as best I can each time to achieve those goals.

Since I'm writing a series, the first book was all about creating my universe and the rules that would give the story function and the characters purpose. For that book, it was also about discovering my heroine, Violet, and her all-important voice.

When I look back on writing the first draft of the first book in the series, EMBRACE, it was all about letting the story flow, discovering my heroine and her purpose. I spent a lot of time creating the world rules for story function and writing about the premise and the structure of my version of angels and ‘exiled’ angels on earth – and then I spent a lot more time, reducing those explanations so I wasn’t giving readers an unwanted history lesson! But really, the redrafts were all about voice.

In book two, ENTICED, it was a slightly different experience. This time there was expectation (more by myself than anyone else) and also, it was a sequel so that meant it had a premise to be loyal to. Whereas my chapter breakdown for EMBRACE was short, maybe 3-5 pages long initially, my chapter breakdown for ENTICED was closer to 20 pages. And even then, I found myself stuck at the middle point. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what was going to happen – even how I wanted to get there – but sometimes writing can become thick and sticky.

When you write so many words and so many scenes it’s easy to over-analyse and the most dangerous time for me to do that is in the middle of a first draft. Is it all too convenient? I don’t think I like the way that character is behaving? Has my writing become sloppy? Did I really just write the last 4 pages solely dialogue? What am I doing? Oh shit, everyone will know I’m a fraud! Things like this … to name a few.

But the trick, for me anyway, is to just keep putting words on paper. Sounds simple, right? Not always. Sometimes it can feel like forcing yourself further and further into quicksand – you know threads of your story have gone off on a tangent and you know that other story threads, you have changed course on as you have written but, somewhere back between pages 10 and 200 it is still completely wrong. This is one of the reasons why no one, NO ONE, ever gets a sneak peek at my first drafts.

So why persevere? Why don’t I just go back and redo what I know needs to be reworked and start from there with a cleaner manuscript? Because, like when I read a book – I’m fully committed and the only way for me to feel any kind of satisfaction, is to get to the end. Only then can I sit back and say – ok, now it’s time to start at the beginning. NOW, you know what you have to do. And it has proven true for each of my manuscripts.

Now I'm writing book four, ENDLESS. The chapter breakdown for this book is over 120 pages. And, yes, I’m in the murky, murky waters. Actually, I’m coming through the other end at about the two-thirds point, so I have the reward of writing the climax, but also, the unfortunate knowledge that the last 300 pages are rife with question marks. I’m tempted to go back, as always. Start again and make it better, but I won’t, because that’s not what works best for me.

Once I have put the climax and the conclusion down on paper I will have the first draft of my manuscript. It will not be perfect, not close. It will not be consistent. There will be pages, scenes, likely entire chapters that will be binned altogether and the entire manuscript will be re-written. Several times.
BUT, I will have a few small, tiny, nuggets of gold in my sieve and because I will have completed the entire story, I then know how to go back and write it the way it should be. And each time it’s like going back and searching for more gold and then welding it all together.

Sometimes, parts are just painted in gold and you have to look closely and be honest with yourself. Yes, it looks goldish in colour but when you scratch the surface – not so much. It hurts, the hair pulling, head banging kind of hurt, but – despite all induced distractions you can throw at it; the coffee making breaks, reformatting, researching sessions, pondering, trips to the shop to pick up dinner – you know it when you have to call it and rewrite. You don’t often hear a writer say rewriting didn’t make their manuscript better and there is a reason for that. It’s worth it. (But it still hurts!)

On the upside, a first draft is where the main magic happens. When, as a writer, you can surprise yourself and discover a scene you never saw coming, a character decision that surprises even you, a scene setting that comes together beautifully. Sure, it continues to happen in the re-drafts but I think it mostly belongs in first draft territory.

No one draft is more important than the first.

Not that I’m trying to freak myself out or anything!

Thanks for having me as a guest, Ian!

Some nice insights there, Jess, thanks very much.

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