Finishing The First Draft Of A Novel (And why they sometimes take forever)

Well, the first draft of my latest magnificent octopus is done. And, damn, was it a grueller. Enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but a heck of a climb.  It was, what? Nine months? A rather symbolic amount of time, that.

To put it into comparison this latest draft (tentatively called The Dragonfly Girls) is roughly 92,000 words long. My previous first draft, Feral Space (which became two separate novels, mind) was close to the 190,000 mark and took me maybe thirteen months. I don’t know how good you are at division but, let me tell you, Dragonfly doesn’t come out a winner.

Doodle for Dragonfly Girls. I like to doodle while I draft.

So why? Why do some first drafts, all things being equal size-wise, take longer than others? I can only answer in relation to my own experience of course, but I don’t imagine my experience is an outlier on the bell curve of the authorial biomass. So here goes…

The Day Job (or in my case, Night Job): Would that I were Keira Knightley or Ryan Goslings’ house husband or, failing that, the secret kept man of both (though no doubt that would be riddled with guilt and complexity). But I’m not. I’m Jonny McPay-The-Bills. I’m Chad O’Food-On-The-Table. Bobby Toiletpaper-shortage. So I work.

It’s a rather nice job, in the main. I get to meet all manner of people and hear their stories, which is great for a writer. I’m also privileged to be allowed to write for an hour or so while I’m there, should things be quiet. I recognise most other job-holding authors don’t get that. But it’s still work, taking up more than a third of a twenty-four hour cycle. And let’s not forget travel.

But… then again… I was working the same job while writing Feral Space. I’ve a few more tasks at work now, granted, but if anything that’s made me squeeze more writing in where I can, paradoxically. That’s the take home here my work-a-day comrades: learn to squeeze. You get more juice from your squeeze the more you do it.

Wee character sketch

Other Writing Commitments: Now this has definitely shot up in the last few months. There’s been a film script, offers to write short stories for general things etc. But I think that’s the best sort of busy a writer can find themselves deep in. If other writing commitments disappeared (and this game does famously fluctuate) I wouldn’t be too happy. You have to take a holistic approach and accept that horizons widen the more effort you put in (that’s true of anything you might choose to pursue). So, yes, this factor has slowed me somewhat and I’m constantly having to recalibrate. But variety is the spice of life; that’s why everyone fights to control Arrakis.

Raising Brand Awareness: Gah, that felt awkward to write. One doesn’t simply refer to oneself as a brand and not feel icky. But it’s sorta true now: I’ve books out there and I’d like more people to know, Ideally everyone on this planet ALL THE GODDAMN TIME! I’m not great at it, but I’m always trying to be better. To that end I go to writing events of various kinds, devise adverts for various media and generally writhe before the capitalist Jabba like that tentacle-headed woman before she became Rancor chow (Perhaps there’s a lesson for me there). Staring at my Amazon rating whilst crying into a pot noodle and praying to all and every god takes up time. Any author will tell you that.

But here’s the big reason:

All Novels Have Their Own Unique Set Of Rules: It never gets easier with the next book, at least not if you’re pushing yourself that little bit further each time. Each novel is a new continent, with wholly different geology beneath and a new culture with strange customs atop.

More doodle

The Feral Space series is an epic canvas with three, okay four, major viewpoint characters. Hard to pull off, granted, but at least the narrative is linear. With The Dragonfly Girls on the other hand, things are… different.

It’s set in the same universe as my earlier books (though it opens up a whole new corner of it) but the narrative is dual in nature. One follows Isha, an officer of a volunteer army on a war-torn planet (Reading about the International Brigades of the Spanish civil war was a starting point for me) who finds herself commanding a unit with an old childhood acquaintance in it. Isha’s unnerved by the fact, to say the least. The second follows a person going through the formative years go her life. This person, Xursie, is bullied and generally messed about by the popular-yet-cruel student at her school: Isha.

You may have noted that these two narratives take place years apart and that the protagonist in one is the antagonist in the other. It was a challenge I was eager to do though I may not have figured how difficult it would be to actually do (though I had my suspicions). The true suspense lies not just at how the tale ends but rather what occurred in the intervening years where the Isha and Xursie narratives meet up.

Let me tell you folks; that’s a lot of notes in pads and on my iPhone. Thank f**k for Scrivener!

I’m pleased with this first draft and, looking back, I understand why it had to take so long. I feel I’m a better novelist for it, however things transpire.

So What To Do When You Finish A first Draft? Nothing. Seriously, let it sit like a ribeye steak you’ve just taken out of the pan. Think about something else, my dear, live your life.

Why? Because when you return you will no longer be a drafter. You’ll be an editor. To give the best edit you’ll need a certain cold detachment. Very cold. Slice-away-your-favourite-scene-if-required cold. Sub-zero, is what I’m saying here.

My brain and heart are bound into the prose of my draft right now. I’m deep in its sludge. So, I’m going away this week. Firstly to a convention and then to visit friends. When I get back to Dragonfly, It’ll be with a scalpel and a scowl.

I’ll just need a few more months. Honest…



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