Monday, February 8, 2010

What Second Drafting Has Taught Me About Writing

For me, it was all about setting...

I began thinking about this novel two years ago. Since then, I’ve had several false starts, lots of thinking and rethinking, six weeks at Clarion West, a research proposal and a couple of academic papers to write. About two months ago, I finished my first draft and celebrated. As far as novels were concerned, finishing a first draft was indeed a first.

Last November, I workshopped my novel at our retreat in Eagle Bay. My novel had a beginning, middle and an end, several characters vying for dominance and a plot that I knew would work with just a little tweaking. It felt good. My Egoboo friends pointed out its strengths and weakness. My uni supervisor did the same. Everyone gave me lots of suggestions for improvement.

Christmas came and went. While I worked on a couple of short stories, I started thinking about the novel more critically. Some of the points-of-view needed changing. Some elements needed foreshadowing. Lots of loose threads needed either developing or eliminating. And the dialogue needed work – lots of it.

But that was just the beginning.

Throughout the novel, I had mostly concentrated on plot and character, which is rather unfortunate for steampunk because, in steampunk, setting is important. It needs to function as more than just backdrop. So, I started to add bits of setting into the prose I already had, but it all looked too tacked on, like an afterthought. Worse still, I realized, if I deleted the Victoriana and turned it into high fantasy set in the middle ages, the plot would have still worked. Not good at all.

I had known this might happen, but the trouble was, when I was figuring out how to write my novel, I couldn't do everything at once. So when writing my first draft, I just let the words flow as my mood took me. Some days, I concentrated on character, others on plot and conflict. Setting was always in the back of my mind, but I was so caught up with getting to know my characters, I had not given myself a chance to write it in. I’d do it later, I told myself.

Easier said than done.

My setting needed to mean something. It did not only have to be pretty and awesome as well as disturbing, frightening and thought provoking, it had to matter. And then it dawned on me. To make that happen, I needed to put my first draft away, open up a blank page and rewrite my entire novel from scratch.

Unthinkable, I told myself. I went away and played with another short story.

The novel is part of a PhD, so I can’t leave it forever. Besides, I have 130,000 words under my belt. I know my characters well enough to understand their likes and dislikes, what motivates them and how they’re going to react when something goes right or, inevitably, when everything goes wrong. I know the paths they are going to choose, and the mistakes they’ll make, and their regrets and failures and successes. So although I’m rewriting my novel from memory, a lot of what happens will remain the same, even if the words turn out different. This could only be a good thing, I told myself. I’ve already thought of the most obvious words to use. Now I’ll discover the less obvious.

So far, things are working out well. Starting from a blank page didn’t turn out as bad as I thought. If I remember a passage I like, I look it up and paste it in. If I don’t remember it, I tell myself that, most likely, it wasn’t memorable anyway.

I have steampunk pictures everywhere in front of me -- images to inspire me and remind me that my setting must never be forgotten. It must work as hard as my characters and as surprisingly as my plot. My new first chapter begins with everything working together: setting, character, plot, dialogue, tone and focus. I didn’t have to think about it. It just flowed.

At last, my novel has a setting that matters. If I turned it into something medieval, it would no longer work.

My novel is starting to feel real.



  1. How exciting and encouraging! Good luck with the rewriting, Carol!! I can't wait to read it.

  2. Writing is a wonderfully organic experience. Stories grow in weird ways and the lesson I see reinforced in your post is that if you want to tell the "true" story you can never get too set on your original vision.

  3. Yep. Keep writing with an open mind, that's my plan. Though, in my first draft, I had my editing mind turned mostly off. This time around, I'm letting my editor have more of say. Not in little picky things, but in big picture overall things, so that I keep on track.