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The Final Approach

April 8, 2012 at 9:01 am

I'm nearing the end of the first draft of Something More Than Night.  I've just begun what will be, I think, the final scene.  I'm very pleased.  So now I'm at that phase where I look ahead to the second draft and think: ugh.

This book is very different from my other novels, not only in terms of story, characters, and world, but also in terms of how I've approached the writing.  I outlined this one just as much as the others—the 4' x 3' corkboard in my office is completely covered with notecards—and yet this book lent itself to far more improvisation and in-the-moment reinvention along the way. Which sounds strange, when I hear myself say it, because I hewed more closely to the outline for this book than I did to any of the original outlines for the Milkweed books. 

But the rewriting for this second draft will have a different focus, a different goal, than it did on any of the Milkweed books.

When I embark on the second draft of a completed novel manuscript, I like to print the entire thing on one-sided paper and stick the whole mess into a (very thick) binder.  Then I spend about a month, slowly reading over it with a pen in hand.  It's weird, I know.  But for some reason my eyes gloss right over typographical errors on the screen.  (As anybody who has ever read this blog can attest.)  

This approach isn't very fast.  It's a luxury I might not be able to indulge if I were writing more than one book per year.  (A worry for some very far-off, very hypothetical day.)  I've always said I'm a better rewriter than writer; this weird and cumbersome stage of the process inevitably conures major improvements to the manuscript.  I'd loathe to submit a manuscript to my editor that hadn't first been subjected to the savagery of my own red pen.

First and foremost, I read with an eye toward cleaning/clarifying/improving the prose.  Probably every writer has a tendency to constantly mentally rewrite everything they read.  It's almost impossible not to do it.  And it can be very gratifying to watch the manuscript improve so steadily just at the sentence level.

Beyond low-level craft issues, though, I'm always reading with an eye toward the big picture: the plot, the characters, the worldbuilding, etc.  Does the magic system make sense?  Are the rules of the world consistent?  Is this thing in chapter 64 sufficiently foreshadowed in chapter 3?  And so forth.  (By this point I've usually run the entire thing past beta readers, so I also have all of their comments and suggestions in mind while I read.)

And that's where this book differs from the others.  With the Milkweed books, I had the rules of the world more-or-less figured out when I started.  (Not entirely—there were revisions, revelations, and course corrections along the way.  That's inevitable.  At least for me.)  But for this project, I allowed myself far more room for improvisation while writing the first draft.  And this approach was much more fun!  By the end of this draft, I think I reached a pretty solid understanding of how the world works.  But now the trick is to go back and make certain that the rules of the world as depicted on page 1 are the same rules as depicted on page 400.

The other fun thing about this stage is that it's also the point where I discover, in my idle moments, that my backbrain has already spent a fair bit of time chewing over ideas for the next project without telling me what it was up to.


Andrew April 8, 2012 at 12:46 pm
Yay! Congratulation on First Draft, new art is born, spirits run wild. I use the same method, printing out the book and going over it with a red pen of shame. The moments I really like are the ones that make me say, "I didn't write this." The moments I hate is, "What language did I wake up speaking on that day?" I, also, always become concerned that my first chapter gets rewritten couple thousand times and the end chapters get A Lot less attention... Oh well. Again YAY! I can't wait to buy and read this one (what? in like 2 years or so?)! Sounds like my kinda story!
Ian April 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm
Thanks, Andrew. I do hope people enjoy it when it comes out. How cool to hear that you approach rewriting the same way I do. Now I don't feel quite so alone in this. And I'm like you -- I worry that the earlier parts of the book get more attention (and energy) than the later parts... In my case, I only have so much stamina for dealing with my own mistakes and weaknesses before they become overwhelming.
Mary April 9, 2012 at 12:23 pm
Me too. Print out, red pen, phone turned off, and let the slashing and hacking begin. Can't edit onscreen to save my life. And yes, the rewrite is where I truly figure out what the story is. It's rewarding, if a trifle masochistic at times.
Ian April 9, 2012 at 12:34 pm
Hooray for fans of the red pen! I also agree on turning off the phone. And turning off the wireless network! It's worth it, in the end, although the slog can be a trifle masochistic, as you say.
Steve Halter April 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm
Well, first--coolness & congrats! Years of doing most things via a screen have ruined me for editing on paper. But I do find if I put it in a somewhat different format I'll see things that shouldn't be there. A similar idea I think.
Ian April 9, 2012 at 12:56 pm
Absolutely, Steve -- putting things in a different format really helps. I use that trick when cleaning up/rereading pages before sending an excerpt to beta readers. Just changing the font, which changes the pagination, can make it much easier to see problems. (I mention pagination because if a line appears on the page in a different location, vertically, than I'm accustomed to, that alone can make me see it in a new light. Weird.) Also, thanks!
Alex April 12, 2012 at 10:51 pm
Your writing style sounds a lot like mine, except instead of notecards it's Moleskines. But yay for the red pen. It's always a good feeling (at least for me) to proofread something. When it's done I feel like I've cleared out the cobwebs and freed up some space, which gives me the room and clarity to write better stuff in the crappy stuff's place. Very much looking forward to your new book! And Necessary Evil. And Coldest War...
Ian April 13, 2012 at 9:27 am
Your style is much classier than mine. I like Moleskines, but I feel like my penmanship and overall organizational skills don't merit the fanciness. So I make do with scribbling on scraps of card-stock paper. Well said -- that's a perfect description, about clearing away the cobwebs and making room for better writing where the crappy stuff was. That's exactly it. And it feels gratifying, doesn't it? Also, thanks! Hope the books prove worthy of the enthusiasm...
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