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First draft - then what?

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Completing a first draft is a peculiar experience.  You know that much of it is rubbish and you have to be honest.  You know the plot is a mess, the characters are undeveloped, there are contradictions and discontinuities, the quality is all over the place, there are repetitions and omissions, and the whole thing needs rewriting.  Right?

Not entirely.  The first draft is exactly that, a draft.  I'm feeling a little smug at having completed my draft running in at 77000 words.  I thought it might be longer and a silly part of me wanted it to go on and on, whereas that critical pest sitting on my shoulder kept urging me to wrap it up and get it done.  That tension between enjoying the process of just getting the story down and realising that it's in dire need of revision is a difficult one to reconcile.

I could have revised chapter by chapter, rewrote sections and tried to improve it as I went along but I followed the advice of so many other writers and resisted the temptation.  If I had started to revise as I was writing, I would have stalled and I wouldn't have completed the first draft at all.

But now I have to do something with it, that sprawling mess of a draft which I know is inadequate in so many ways.  Looking at the printed pile of paper covered in words, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task but it's manageable.  Almost everyone else seems to be able to do it, but of course the vast majority of novels never get beyond this stage.

Sometimes authors can't bring themselves to rework the draft and simply tidy it up and send it out of the door, inviting a cascade of rejections and interminable expense.  Others obsess about the difficulty of getting the draft into a reasonable shape, finally leaving it in the draw awaiting another spark of interest, that just doesn't come.

I've got to do some serious work on the manuscript.  It's now become a potential manuscript after all.  So how do I go about it?  What do I analyse, correct, rewrite, cut?  Well, I'm going to try to be fairly objective as if I was reading it for the first time and I'm going to ask some hard questions of myself.

Am I still interested in this story?  What happens, when and to whom?  Why does this matter to me?  What do I get out of reading this story?  Why should anyone else read it?

Then there are more technical aspects I need to address.  I need to study the order of events, the locations, the times, the scenes, the characters, their back stories, a whole host of details that might feed into the rewrite.  Having dived in and written the draft, I have a collection of incidental and contradictory details scattered throughout the text.  That now needs to be cleaned up, organised and assessed.

Reading through the draft will throw up a whole load of new ideas and there will be lots of details I need to record as well as the changes I want to make. It's a scary prospect, generating so much detail.  There is a massive temptation to go and find some software to play with, something which will give me the impression that I am making progress whilst evading the necessary work.  But I already have a notebook and a printed draft so there's no excuse.

My plan of action then is to read it several times without editing anything.  I'll make notes on where there are problems, and what they are.  I'll note the scenes, events, locations, etc, and make a long list of the problems and I'll try not to feel too bad about that.  This is exactly what the draft is for and I knew I was not producing the final product.  Of course, I hope there's a lot I can keep, but I'm realistic.

One thing I am resolutely trying to avoid is planning several revisions.  I want to do that analysis of the draft and get as close as possible to the final version in one pass.  I expect that there will have to be a further version but I want to minimise the work involved, so that means addressing all of the structural issues up front.

But before everything else, there is one thing I absolutely must do - store my backups onto a CD.  As if I would trust my hard drive never to fail!


Western Sahara refugee camp attacked

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Sometimes when you're writing, a news item hits you hard.  Yesterday I saw the reports of the Moroccan attack on the Sahrawi refugee camp in Aaiún in Western Sahara in which at least thirteen Sahrawis died from machine gun fire - unarmed civilians were attacked by helicopters.  As ever, the justification seems to be that the Moroccan army suspected that there were armed militants there.  Quite why that justifies an air attack on unarmed civilians is not explained.

Ever since the Spanish withdrawal from its former colony in February 1976, the territory has been disputed with Morocco, Spain, France, Algeria and the US debating how to settle the rival claims to the area.  In amongst all the diplomacy, there is a displaced population of Sahrawi tribes who live in the area.  And of course, there's the mineral wealth and access to the fisheries which attracts international commercial interests.  The Sahrawis are treated as almost incidental.

They are the people who are living in the protest camps in Western Sahara, nominally under the control of Morocco.  The Sahrawis are largely without representation, discriminated against, desperately poor, and even though they have their own government body, the SADR, which is recognised by over forty states, Morocco does not recognise their right to sovereignty.  The UN has been trying to implement a scheme to hold a referendum but the dispute has been around who gets to vote.

In 1975, the Moroccans had organised a "Green March", a movement of 350,000 people into the disputed territory to take over the land, effectively pre-empting any discussion about sovereignty.  In a move that greatly resembled to Israeli occupation of Palestine, settlers were established.  Morocco subsequently argued that these people should also be able to vote in any referendum.

As there are around 300,000 Sahrawis from ten tribes, they would be outnumbered by the settler vote and effectively deprived of self-determination.  For more than thirty years, the struggle has continued with a new generation of Sahrawis growing up under occupation and suffering hardship and discrimination.

I wanted to articulate this situation with perhaps a short story, or something longer.  I created a character who had grown up in the camps, in southern Algeria, someone close to the Polisario Front, the organisation fighting sometimes militarily for Sahrawi independence.  I quickly found myself drawn into the history and the politics of the conflict, and trying to make the character authentic I found a level of complexity that threatens to overburden any plot.

The first thing you realise is that the material on the conflict ranges from the studious academic treatment of the various diplomatic initiatives all of which have failed, through the statements of political positions.  What is missing is the first hand accounts of the people themselves.  Just as you never see a Palestinian in the media talking for himself, the same is true of Sahrawis.  They always have someone, not from their community, talking on their behalf.  And just as history is always written by the victors, it seems sometimes that the experience of the Sahrawis is being packaged and presented by journalists.

This is understandable because a refugee community often does not have the resources required to publish its own accounts.  Political organisations are focussed on the political message, the campaigning.  I'll continue to look for first hand accounts, some of which occasionally appear in the Spanish press, but if anyone knows of anything that might be useful, please add a comment.


Stephen Fry on linguistic pomposity

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Probably most of us have been irritated by seeing horribly misspelt signs in shop windows, apostophes in the wrong place, even wrong words used but it doesn't incite us to write complaint letters, to get out the felt pen and correct it, to whinge about the decline of linguistic skills amongst the general population.

Language, as anyone who has tried their hands at writing will know, is constantly changing.  Ways of speaking evolve rapidly especially amongst young people whose expression of positive sentiment can include "bad", "well-bad", and "crucial", through to modern equivalents that remain a peer-group secret.  That delight in redefining language, stretching meaning, creating new associations, is exactly what keeps language alive.

Stephen Fry is well-known for his utter disrespect for pomposity and posturing and this little animation will warm the cockles of your heart if you care about language rather than the pedants who feed themselves on it.  I couldn't resist posting it if only because I want to listen to it again from time to time.


Good books about writing

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If you're anything like me, you'll have a shelf full of books about writing.  There will be books about how to get published, how to write novels and short stories, advice from editors, publishers, famous authors, and the occasional study guide full of writing exercises and helpful tips.  I've even got a book called Novelist's Boot Camp for times when I feel like being shouted at.

You've read them all, and still wonder what you need to do to improve your writing.  You might have heard that Ray Bradbury reckoned that you had to write at least a quarter of a million words before you were ready to write seriously.  Other, such as Stephen King, were submitting stories while they were still in school, collecting rejections and trying again and again.

But we each have our own path and we muddle through trying to figure out what is good advice, and what's just run-of-the-mill platitude.  We already know that the first draft is unlikely to be the best.  We know that avoiding clichés is important.  We've probably heard lots of times that adverbs are bad, that the passive voice is weak, and that you should cut as much as you can.

But for me, the problem is getting the balance right.  You can go through and chop out every adverb and you can seriously weaken your work.  Seriously, that's an adverb.  You can avoid every use of the passive and exhaust the reader.  So although most of the books have good advice, it's almost never enough.  We still have to do it for ourselves.

Here are some suggestions for books which, in my view, offer useful and practical advice.  There are sure to be many other excellent choices and I'd welcome hearing about them but for me, these five stand out.

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction by Michael Seidman
After covering the usual elements of character, dialogue, scenes, point of view, and so on, all of which contains useful examples and discussion, part 3 of the book covers Refining and Editing.  You are shown how to spot redundant phrases, unnecessary words, weak structure, text that slows the pace, and a great deal more.  I wish I could absorb more of the lessons of this book and I keep going back to it.

Rewriting: A Creative Approach to Writing Fiction (Books for Writers) by David Michael Kaplan
This is a real treasure trove for me and it teaches you to be dispassionate when editing and cutting text.  Once you understand what is wrong, it guides you clearly towards the fix.  Kaplan knows all the ruses authors use to let their pet phrases stay even when they contribute nothing, and he provides countless examples to demonstrate the improvement when they are chopped.

On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
This is something of a classic, going through countless editions since it appeared in 1976.  It's a guide to writing non-fiction but its focus is on the effective use of language so all of the advice is pertinent to fiction writing as well. It's an enjoyable read and although you probably won't go back to it often, it will leave its positive mark.

Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale
This is an excellent and readable guide through the grammar that you need to know about.  Like the jazz musician who learns about musical harmony theory so that he never needs to think about it, you will learn all about prepositions, adverbs, conjunctions, verbal phrases and lots more, so that you will use them correctly without thinking about them.  But this isn't a dry book at all.  It's infused with humour with plenty of examples of gruesome writing as well as excellent prose.  Each time I recognise phrases I've used, I cringe and hopefully learn something.

On Writing Stephen King
Although academics often criticise King for being low-brow, the advice in this book, part memoir and part guide for writers, is very solid.  He serves up the usual fare, chop the adverbs, keep it simple, keep the pace, and so on, but gets behind the reader's eyes and explains why these things matter.  For me, that makes it a much more practical book.  

Last Updated on Friday, 03 September 2010 15:31

The Empathic Writer

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We've all read material that made us react emotionally, even physically, because of the impact of the writing.  We read a particularly violent passage and wince, or a particularly sad episode and feel the tears well up. When we read about a particularly odious character we might feel ourselves tense up, grit our teeth or frown, or even shudder.  We show physical signs of anger. Our physical reactions are in some way caused by what we are reading. But how?

Think about how we react when we see someone upset.  We notice that they are breathing rapidly, perhaps shaking, they are tense, their face is unusual flushed, perhaps there are tears in their eyes.  Very soon, we feel something of what they are feeling, we feel a little sad too, even though whatever caused them to be sad hasn't happened to us.  That's empathy at work.

When we relate to other people, we have a remarkable ability that few of us are even aware of: we can mimic the facial and bodily gestures of others but on a much smaller scale.  When someone is frowning, we can tense those very same muscles but only a little.  When someone winces, we can wince too but with very much less intensity.  But what does that do?

Just as the state of our brain affects our body in fairly obvious ways, such as when we are scared or excited, so also does the state of the body have a subtle influence on the brain chemistry.  When we mimic the bodily reactions of someone experiencing strong emotions, we generate a small but similar response in our own brains, releasing smaller quantities of the same hormones responsible for the emotional response. And that's what we recognise as empathy.

So when we see someone who is sad, we actually mimic them almost imperceptibly and make outselves feel a little sad also.  That gives us an important way to relate to their feelings.  We know how they are feeling because we too are feeling the same emotions but not as strongly.

But how does understanding that help us as writers?  If we read some of the more exciting passages, we can feel ourselves changing our bodily position, tensing our muscles, feeling fear or excitment which has a noticeable effect on our bodies.  That physical reaction in turn stimulates our brain to excite those same areas responsible for empathy.  The reason we can empathise with the characters is at least in part because our bodies are responding to what we find out about them.

Instead of picking up on the perception of their bodily state, their voice and their gestures as we would if we met them in the flesh, we are getting similar stimuli from the text.  If we, as writers, can generate the same physical response through the use of language, we will greatly help the reader feel empathy for our characters.

How does that translate into the craft of writing?  Compare the use of an active verb tense with a passive verb tense.  "John caught the ball" is an active verb in which you can imagine yourself holding your hands out to receive the ball seconds before it reaches you.  You can almost feel how heavy it is.  Now contrast that with "The ball was caught by John".  This is the passive and it also disconnects you from the action.

Instead of feeling the movement because you are in John's position, you feel nothing because the subject is the ball.  Nothing to encourage your body to react, nothing to empathise with.

Those hooks into action, into people doing things in places, give the reader the opportunity to empathise.  And the more opportunity for the reader to empathise, the more credible are the characters and the more captivating the plot. The reader reacts to what happens and cares about the characters.

How do we draw out the empathy?  One way is to think about the situation and try to feel how you yourself are reacting.  Do you feel scared, tense, relaxed, carefree?  Are there menacing things around, people you don't trust, do you feel guilty, or relieved?  How does your body react to these feelings?  The answers provide you with some useful hooks.

If you draw out the physical aspects and show the reader how the character is reacting, that provides the opportunity for empathy.  The reader will find themselves reacting too.  Of course it can be overdone.  Terrifying the wits out of the reader may drive empathy to the point of discomfort and they stop being entertained and just get scared.  The overuse of excessively emotive language can make the character seem false and break the empathy spell.

And a constant appeal to empathy can exhaust the reader just like a needy friend who gives us no rest.  We get tired of the emotional roller-coaster.  Some genres can survive on the high-action, high excitement, ever-moving plot.  But others require some chance for the reader to regain their composure, to readjust their perspective, to relate in different ways to the other characters.

It's a useful technique to think about the opportunities for the reader to empathise with each character, not just to make the characters more credible, but also to develop our skills as writers, using language to evoke such strong responses.

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