Posted by: stelladuffy | January 21, 2010

the tricky middle bit

Right now I’m 50,000 ish words in to my new book, VERY first draft, stumbling through slowly and at a point where I can take the story in one of several directions. I’m scared that the protagonist is starting to be a little less likeable (but as it’s historical fiction I can’t exactly re-write the life totally!) and trying very hard to make sure this chunk of the book doesn’t get too bogged down in apologia or rationale or the detail of what actually happened. (As if anyone can ever truly know what actually goes on in another’s head!). People do bad things, mean things, simply not very nice things all the time. We’re used though, to heroes who are all or mostly good, whose reasons we understand, whereas in reality people make inexplicable choices constantly.
So I’m pressing on with this section in the sure and certain knowledge that once I’ve actually written the first draft, THEN I can make it better. I’ll see ways to give reasoning without labouring over it (as I am right now!), I might beef up some small character that gives an echo of what’s going on for the protagonist so it’s not all about her and too intense, I’ll pick up a thread I didn’t even really remember laying in the opening scenes that then somehow illuminates what has to go on in this section. AND I’ll also be cutting like mad, turning three or four excessive paras into one, deleting the unnecessary ‘truths’ in order to keep the pace going even if the historians say it’s not quite right. (Oh, and I’m sure they will!)
My point is, makers of work, that at this stage, on my thirteenth novel, I now know I can make it better later. I know that I’ll do several drafts before showing it to Agent, who will have notes, and then I’ll do more work, and then Editor will have useful notes too. And so will Copyeditor, and Proofreader. Right now, I’m doing my best, getting the shape out in the first draft. Later I’ll make it better. Then better still. (Well, unless it all goes horribly wrong somewhere in there!)
This is how it works for me, and no amount of planning or plotting or hours working out on the whiteboard (too much of that recently) make much difference. My first drafts are always a bit flabby, a little excessive, too broad, too much. Like asking actors to really go for it in rehearsal, to be much bigger than is needed, to overdo it in order to find some truths and then bring the performance back to a more natural if heightened state, one the audience still recognises as theatre, but can also bear to watch! The more direct, the more I see it’s so much like writing.
I also use the sculpting analogy quite often – for me, it’s all about the honing. Take (or make!) the big thing, find the shape in it, clarify that shape, let it show itself.
So, that’s me persuaded that it’s ok to spend my work time on something that’s not yet perfect. How about you?


  1. I’m doing exactly the same sort of thing with my current story – now half way through the second draft. When I write the first draft I always seem to get hung up on getting everything right yet I know damn well that it is just a prototype – quite bare in some places and overdone in others. On the second and third revision I always start cutting and adding, layering, introducing more subtlety and more interest. Picking up on things I’ve never thought of in the first effort. It’s a weird process and I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand how it happens. It just does and I have to remember to stop worrying, relax and let the craft take over.

  2. No matter how many times I read something so true I always have a difficult time actioning. The part of my brain that says terrible! terrible! terrible! always seems to shout the loudest. Still, great to remind myself of how the pros do it.

    Computer crashed – lost your email. Changed mine too. Shoot me one when you have a mo🙂 Hope you are well. A

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