Earlier this week, I wrapped up the second draft of ‘The Bluebell Informant’. After months of scurrying around on the study floor with pieces of manuscript and a pencil, I have finally got to the stage of starting on the third draft and, at last, the story is beginning to take shape.
But, as I put the final flourish on the very last page and sat back with a well-deserved cup of tea, it occurred to me how different writers approach the task of editing their work. For many the task is so anti-climatic after the thrill of penning the first draft that it is little wonder that so many authors decide to skip it altogether and, as a result, produce work that has no bearing what so ever on their true talent.
The problem, I feel, is that a lot of authors haven’t quite worked out their own way of approaching the editing process. I have heard so many different techniques from simply sitting in front of the computer and going through the manuscript line by line, to taking a Dictaphone and reading out the entire book and then playing it back to hear what didn’t quite work. There are no hard and fast rules about producing your second and third drafts, or indeed any of the drafts that follow it, and a lot of writers have to struggle for a long time until they find the process that works for them.
As for me, I have found my own process that is working for the time being. It is by no means perfect, but it is better than what I was doing before.
So, this post is ultimately about two things. Firstly, I want to discuss my process for producing a first, second and third draft and, by using example passages, show how the work changes between drafts….
Which leads me on to the second – in order to show this process to its fullest extremes, I will be using passages from ‘The Bluebell Informant’ which means that you reading this post will be the first to see what has been going on over the past few months.
I like to think of the first draft as a purging of sorts. There is a story in my head and, no matter how many times I write notes or plan bits of it out, that story is going to stay in there until I have it written down from start to finish.
As such, my firsts drafts are usually completely lacking in subtlety and class.
The dialogue is clunky and to the point. My descriptions are either vague or channel my obsession with describing people’s eyes. There are no subtle nuances because I can never be entirely sure where the next few chapters will lead. But the story is there and, usually within a month or so, it is out of my head and my imagination is allowed to breathe again.
Take a look at the opening passage from The Bluebell Informant to see what I mean.
Daniel Baker sat quietly in the darkest corner of the quietest room he could find in The King’s Arms public house. Through the doorway, he could see the bartender slowly cleaning glasses, trying desperately to look inconspicuous as he watched Baker swirling his whiskey around the bottom of his glass and listening for the faint tapping of the ice against the side.
Every so often, the bartender looked as though he might emerge from behind his fortification and brave the murky smoke of Baker’s room to ask him to extinguish his cigarette, but he never actually did it. For all the legal issues associated with smoking in a public place, no one was going to blame Baker for doing it; not after the day he’d just had.
The second draft is by far the slowest of my drafts. I usually print out my first draft, stick it in a lever-arch folder and then proceed to go through, page by page, cutting bits out or adding sections in using a pencil in the margins of the spare pages. Over the course of weeks, usually spending a day or so on each page, I meticulously cull the bits that don’t sound right when read out loud and try to add a little bit more atmosphere around my characters. Every so often a word or two changes or a paragraph is interrupted by a brand new passage. Some paragraphs are cut altogether.
Daniel Baker sat silently in the darkest corner of the most secluded room he could find in The King’s Arms public house.
But it wasn’t enough.
The route through to the next room had no door to close and the sounds of the early morning drinkers drifted in, contaminating his safe haven. One by one, they crept up to the doorway and peered inside, nudging one another gleefully and daring their friends to be the first to step inside.
Baker glared out of the darkness, sucking a cigarette and blowing the smoke forcefully towards the observers. His fingers scratched at the glass of whiskey in his hands whilst the ice tapped rhythmically against the side.
The first wave of spectators passed without incident. Baker didn’t know if they were simply too cowardly to approach him of if their sense of compassion had guided them away from his sanctuary. Regardless of the reason, he was grateful for the solitude, even if it only lasted a little while.
In comparison to the second draft, the third happens almost like lightning. Whilst the second draft consisted of hours of careful deliberation, made even slower by my limited writing speed, the third moves quite quickly.
As the second draft consists largely of hand written notes on paper, the third draft starts with the transcription of these notes on to a word processor. Whilst this seems like a waste of time that could be achieved by simply doing the second draft straight on to the computer, it actually serves a useful purpose as I am practically reading back the story at regular speed. This allows me to make little changes as I am typing to make the chapters read well and I can usually get through this at about a chapter every five hours or so.
It is also at this point that I start to focus on the characters a little more. At this point, they stop just being names on the page and start to turn in to living, breathing entities.
The result, quite often produces something that, whilst similar to the earlier drafts, is remarkably different in many ways. I even end up changing back something that I thought was important to change in the second draft at times…
Daniel Baker sat quietly in the darkest corner of the most secluded room he could find. The dark, brown fluid swirled around the bottom of the whiskey glass as he rotated it in the air, thinking about how everything had gone so spectacularly wrong.
He had built a career off the backs of his friends; for every speech they were there to support him. Behind the scenes they formulated plans and schemes, spread fear and distrust, herded people to Baker’s cause. But none of them were here now. They were off celebrating in the bright lights and drunken throes of victory. With the glee of triumph had come the bitter pill of defeat, bringing with it momentary pats and kind words of sympathy before they all gallivanted off into the night to enjoy their success.
Anonymity was Baker’s only friend now. The only friend he even wanted. The wolfhounds of the tabloid press, his one-time allies, were surely out there now, hounding every pub and bar from London to Edinburgh to find him. To break his soul even more than it had done already. He hoped that, for a time at least, the seclusion would somehow shield him from the rest of the world, keep him hidden until he was ready to stir out of the dark and emerge to fight once again.
But it wasn’t enough.
The route through to the next room had no door to close and the sounds of the early morning drinkers drifted in, contaminating his safe haven. One by one, they crept up to the doorway and peered inside, nudging one another gleefully and daring their friends to be the first to step through. Out of the darkness, Barker’s once approachable eyes glared out with ferocity. He sucked hard on his cigarette, breathing the toxic smoke deep into his lungs before blowing it out forcefully towards his observers. His fingers scratched at the whiskey glass whilst the ice tapped rhythmically against the side.
When he could bear their curious looks no longer, he threw his head back and tossed the whiskey down his throat, barely allowing his tongue to taste the liquid as it cascaded down.
His throat seized up. He plunged the whiskey glass down on the table and clutched his neck as he coughed the liquid back up again. The first wave of spectators backed away from the door as Baker heaved deeply to clear his trachea, but they still watched with interest. Perhaps this was to be the end of the Baker Story.
But it wasn’t. Regaining his breath, Baker slouched back in his chair, delicately wiping his lips where the phlegm had congealed. His blood-shot eyes glared back up at the crowd outside the door, causing them to scatter back in to the main bar of the pub. They would not ask any questions today, not if they knew what was good for them.
Baker was grateful for the solitude.
He banged the glass loudly on the table. ‘Another!’
I am currently ploughing through the third draft of ‘The Bluebell Informant’ with many more drafts expected before it is released. If, however, you would like to read the first chapter, subscribe to my blog and you will see it here in the near future.