Editing The Thaw – Second Draft Success!

A while back I discussed where I was at with the editing process with my post-apocalyptic novel The Thaw. Basically, just starting off on the wonderful journey! During that time, I happened to take a meandering, very-much-procrastinating wander onto my Twitter. I found this:

Well, I’m delighted to be able to say that, two years after I started writing the book at all (and about a year after finishing that), I now have a fully line-edited second draft in my possession! I even managed to print it out and it looks mightily impressive!

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A very proud author with his printed second draft in sunny Kingston-upon-Thames! 😎

Safe to say, I am thrilled and proud of myself for making it this far.  The Thaw is easily the longest single work I’ve written and I’m more proud of myself for being disciplined and making it through the edit. It’s been a tough process – it took about two months, with around 70 hours work, to get from cover to cover.

That’s longer than I’d anticipated but, in a way, unsurprising given how rough and heat-of-the-moment the initial draft was. What I’ve learned through this process is a lot – I’m certainly able to handle a work of this length, and more importantly, I’ve learned some important lessons about self-editing and how a novel evolves as a piece through successive drafts. With The Thaw I already feel the work is a lot stronger, a lot clearer and a lot more engaging than it was in its initial form.

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Ultimately, thinking back, I’m extremely proud of the core idea and story at the heart of my book, and I do genuinely think it’s something I’m going to pursue publication of. It’s a good story – yes, not perfect, but making measurable steps toward – and I think it’d fit right in the marketplace.

Now, while it’s easy to bask in my own self-adulation (and the heartfelt congratulations of friends and colleagues, all of whom have helped me massively) at completing this substantive edit… it’s not the final stage. So what do I plan to do now?

  • Take some time away from the new draft. One of the key lessons I learned (and ignored in a way) from On Writing is to let a draft breathe after completion. As a writer, having that objective distance from your work, so it’s not so fresh in your mind to cloud your creative vision, is paramount I’ve found. It helps ease the inevitable self-doubt that will creep in. The Thaw, even in its roughest form, is a good book. In its new form, it’ll be a better book. But it’ll still take effort to make it a great book.

    “With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development. And listen–if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself. Screw-ups happen to the best of us.”

  • Read it as a reader, than as a writer. I need to let the new draft, when the time comes, soak back in. For the first draft I did partially read over it but I found note-taking at the same time as that initial readthrough was erroneous. So when I re-read the book toward the end of July I will give it a reader’s pass before reading it again and asking myself questions how to improve it.
  • Enlist beta-readers. I’ve approached a few trusted writer friends to read the new draft and I’m designing a feedback questionnaire. I realise the book is a lot for people to mark-up inline comments on, especially to those with day jobs and family lives. But it’s important to me to get help and guidance, to help spot errors I wouldn’t on my own.

    “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”

  • Explore professional editorial advice. My friend Gary Thomas has been working on his autobiography for a while. He brought to my attention an organisation called The Literary Consultancy who offer manuscript evaluation and other editorial services. I’m going to get in contact with them once a third draft is complete in August about what services they’d suggest for The Thaw – as I previously stated, I feel it’s worthy of publication and deserves the critical eye of a professional editor. Yes, it’ll be expensive but money well spent in my opinion!

As a learning process, though… there’s been some invaluable and harsh lessons I’ve learned in retrospect. Yes, I am a little regretful that The Thaw has taken so long, but I hope it’s worth it. My confidence as an author – a proper one at that! – just, at this stage, feels so very buoyed and I am excited to get started on the next phase of getting this book in front of people who could make some exciting decisions!

Plus, relief – I can breathe and relax. Enjoy video games and books (hobbies which have suffered as I’ve edited; time management skills there but I’ll go into that later).

Overall though I can’t really express how proud I am of myself for making it this far with The Thaw and I hope to be able to share some more of it soon! If you have any advice, comments or things you think I should know as I enter the next phase of this project then please feel free to send them my way.

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Editing The Thaw – Starting Off!

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Just coming up to a year ago I finally finished the first full draft of The Thaw, a post-apocalyptic thriller novel I started between my second and third years of University. I’d recently read Stephen Kings’s On Writing and, as I finished the draft at some ungodly hour, I recalled a piece of advice:

“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”
Stephen King – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

King recommends leaving a book to sit for six or so weeks:

“You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”

As is unfortunately life, getting around to editing The Thaw, for me, has taken considerably longer. There’s two big reasons for this gap, because I’ve wanted to edit the book for ages:

  • Guilt about working on personal projects while in the final throes of University, where all my creative and productive dragon energy needed to be focused on my work.
  • Self-doubt about my abilities as an editor and a writer, frankly; can I do this work justice?

Happily, both of those issues are moot – my coursework is in and I finally j umped into the editing process. So approximately five chapters in, how do I feel so far about it?

I feel… impatient, honestly. The beginning five or so chapters have taken some intense work but it’s good work too. I’ve some notes I’ve made myself from a readthrough of the first draft – I’ve taken the approach to ask myself questions I want each chapter to answer.

Indeed, re-reading the book after such a time away from writing it (which was an intense process) has allowed me to soak it in afresh. Yes, the opening is the weakest part and taking the most work because I feel that, while I was writing it, I was yet to find my feet in my own work. But what I’ve read later on is some thrilling and, honestly, brilliant stuff. I’m really confident about it because it’s a fantastic story and I want to share it!

So what is my rough plan for the edit? I’m planning to take the time over the next three or four weeks to really get to grips with fixing the deficiencies, foibles, niggles and nags of the first draft, ironing it out into something less… raw from the forge of my mind. Then a week or so off then back to square one for the third pass. Once I get there I’ll have a much better idea of what I want to do with the book going forward, and maybe even share some extracts!

Ah, heck, here’s an extract now! Enjoy!

“Not too much further, Mr. President,” Abercrombie reassured coolly. The moisture seemed to drip around the prefabricated panels loosely lining the corridor. Abercrombie turned to Miller. “We’ve achieved a lot since your last report, Vice-President.”

Miller smiled again. Even the President thought his apparent glee peculiar and looked suspiciously at his junior and deputy. “Excellent. I’m sure the President will be impressed with your results. I knew you were the right choice in this division, David.”

“I do hope I’m about to see tangible results for my investment,” Meadows mused. Abercrombie stopped at the end of the tunnel. Another heavy metal partition blocked the end of the passageway. A door, like before, was here, with a computer next to it. The door was wide, with a viewing hatch punched into the metal.

“Gentlemen,” Abercrombie said lightly, “take your positions.”

Meadows and Miller stood before the closed viewport that was just on eye-level. Abercrombie tapped a few buttons. The noise reverberated into the rock outside. A metal shutter slid with the ticking of a delicate mechanism. Two gasps were audible.

Abercrombie laughed as he watched the dark bodies of the President and the Vice-President almost stick to the wall, transfixed. “Gentlemen, I present to you the future of the American race.”

Authenticity in Writing

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It’s always rewarding when discussions with friends plant seeds of thought into my head; indeed, this happened recently with a friend who was discussing his enthusiasm for the thriller novel First Blood, which was adapted as the movie Rambo. One of the aspects my friend enthused about was First Blood’s apparent “emotional authenticity” and implied this infers the writing with a special quality.

Emotional authenticity, my friend asserted, tied into a theory of “characters driving the car whereas the story just kind of picks up the radio station.”

Well, let’s buckle our seatbelts and enjoy a cruise on a road trip to discover what emotional authenticity is and whether I agree with it being the motor that purrs under the hood of every decent story.

But first, what is “emotional authenticity”? A good question, not easily answered. From the various reading I’ve done on it since the question flew like a paper aeroplane into my mind and continues to circle, caught on an updraft of latent thoughts and musings. On a literal definition, emotional authenticity is a genuine expression of emotion. Whether we are emotionally authentic is a concept that seems so deeply ingrained in the psyche – the experience, the emotional response to it, the acknowledgement of the emotion and the assigning of adjectives to it and the expression of those emotions – that it is almost beyond definition. We as humans do this subconsciously many times a day, to many levels that seem to pass the conscious mind by.

But how does this normal, almost mundane subconscious response relate to writing? Essentially, it’s the ability of the author to be able to transpose themselves into their characters shoes and channel the emotion to something that others can relate to, empathise with and recognise as a genuine and believable emotional response.

This emotional authenticity is only half of the story though, literally. Obviously, characters should act and emote in a way that is broadly like how people act and emote in the real life; of course, this may be intentionally altered for the sake of characterisation. And this characterisation must, of course, be consistent – for example, if Jack Reacher from the Lee Child books was to suddenly start scrubbing the scullery floor this would be highly incongruous; likewise, if the downtrodden heroine from many a Catherine Cookson (my mum watches them on TV all the time) story were to suddenly find themselves in – and winning – a high-octane, action-packed fight then this would break the emotional authenticity of those characters.

The rest of the picture comes from situational authenticity. This can be tied into the example I just gave, switching the situations from a Lee Child and Catherine Cookson story, which are the most polar opposite I could think of on the fly. Situational authenticity is getting the events of the story right so they are not challenging, and in come cases, shattering the reader’s suspension of disbelief. This error with situational authenticity is something I have experienced a lot of issues with in books I have (attempted to) read.

While yes, anything can happen to any character, and in a work of fiction, anything can more or less go, imbuing a sense of situational authenticity just makes things seem plausible in the created universe. Do we expect the author to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of every situation they could be writing about? Of course not, and part of being a fiction writer is being able to transpose storytelling skills – indeed, imbuing emotional and situational authenticity – into situations the author cannot possibly have experienced on a first hand level.

For emotional authenticity, does this mean the author need have that literal sense of first hand experience the emotions characters are expected to exhibit. This doesn’t mean a like-for-like emotional equation; just the ability for the author to empathise. If the author can empathise with the characters emotions, that’s a success. They don’t need first hand experience of the direct emotional incident to be able to empathise; that empathy can be derived from personal, similar experience or even from so far as witnessing how other people react to the emotion the author wishes their character to exhibit.

Case in point, a good friend from my Creative Writing class brought in the opening to a story they had written for the class. The beginning of the story was of an autistic boy making a scene on a bus in public, and with a harsh rebuke from an unsympathetic member of the public, told from the viewpoint of the boy’s sister. It was a deftly-done and sympathetic piece, but a notable member of our class complained that about “neotypicals” writing about autism, as if to say “only autistic people may write stories about autistic children!”

I disagree profoundly with both this assessment and this person’s attitude; indeed, as someone diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome I feel qualified to answer – their usage of autism as a shield from criticism, and as an excuse for their poor behaviour is totally unhelpful. But they failed, too, to acknowledge the context of this writing (arguably to challenge that view) but also that the author’s brother is autistic and this imbues the story with that emotional authenticity because the author transposes their direct experiences and empathy into that protagonist.

Turning back to situational authenticity, this is largely down to two things: doing your homework and consistency. An author is quite lucky in being able to write about time periods, characters and worlds they could not have possibly experienced. Indeed, fiction is by definition made up; but a piece with situational authenticity will be backed up with studious research. Not to the point of the work becoming an essay or treatise, but with pertinent attention to detail that, again, doesn’t strain the reader’s suspension of disbelief. There will be no digital wristwatches in the Catherine Cookson, no laser pistols in the Lee Child, to give two examples.

But it is fantasy and science-fiction that I feel can experience the most difficulty with situational authenticity – especially with magic or advanced technology (which are sometimes indistinguishable, to quote Arthur C Clarke). Fantasy and science-fiction need to tread carefully to maintain situational authenticity to preserve the suspension of disbelief. Things must make sense in-universe; an example of this done well would be The Expanse by James S. A. Corey, which feels grounded in a sense of reality that is an effective dramatic device (spaceships don’t zip here and there like taxis, they’re very complex to fly); by contrast, a poor execution of this would be in The Soul Drinkers Omnibus by Ben Counter, where my suspension of disbelief was shattered by a poor explanation or build-up to the “chaos” theory within, which led to what I considered a clanger of a deus ex machina when the protagonist just happened to sprout a load of game-changing mutations at the climax of a key fight scene.

Of course, in considering both of these things, we must remember that ultimately it is a combination of both emotional and situational authenticity that really does sell a piece of prose. It adds a dimension to the story and the characters within. We expect some liberties to be taken – these are fiction pieces, and fiction tends to be more dramatic than real life, as it should be. Would we want to read stories that rigidly reflected real life? It wouldn’t be as exciting or dramatic. But it is important that both characters and situations do have a sense of truth to them, derived from humanity.

I hope this helps delve into a literary topic; indeed, my research has led to me realising quite how important these facets that support inventive and engaging prose can be. So consider me an authenticity convert!

Further Reading and research

Is it possible for writers to write about an emotion authentically without ever experiencing it directly? – Quora

What is authenticity in writing? – Quora

Defrosting The Thaw – My Planning Process

I was asked to write about how I planned my post-apocalyptic novel The Thaw, and seeing as I’m pretty much done with the first draft and am going to be putting it away for a while before I start editing, it’s a great opportunity to look back at the workflow I devised, see how it worked out, and perhaps reflect and think about how I can further improve this.

My general goal as a writer is to learn and adapt my workflow with each project I embark upon. Learning what works best, and exploring new ideas is a great way to show evolution of my skills. I remember quite vividly the first novel I attempted to write, and how I didn’t plan it, really, and I didn’t even chapterise it, which made editing it a nightmare and hence it’s mothballed. Not to say I’m, not proud of what I’ve done; but I’m still not in a place to do the heavy lifting to realise that project just yet. But stay tuned!

I was surprised to discover quite how invaluable Microsoft OneNote was for planning. OneNote has proved an effective and invaluable tool for laying out notes for my various projects. I use OneNote quite extensively at university for tracking lecture notes and essay plans and I like several aspects of it. First, it’s available everywhere – I can sync my notes, via OneDrive, to any device, whether that be my iPad, iPhone, desktop PC, ThinkPad or even anywhere via the web, which is invaluable as inspiration can strike in the oddest places, so I can get my phone, and quickly write down ideas or snippets of thoughts and know it’ll all be catalogued in one online notebook.

OneNote’s format also pretty much gets rid of formatting that I feel can be constraining. I can write anywhere on the page in OneNote, so I’m not limited to overly linear formats on the page – I can draw links to ideas wherever; this is most useful on my iPad – I use this with a keyboard but the touch/ink facilities there can be invaluable.

onenote-1In terms of how I use OneNote specifically for The Thaw, let’s look at my folder tree. I have a single folder for The Thaw inside a writing notebook linked to my account, separate from my university and personal notebooks. I can create pages, and subpages. Nothing gets thrown away, either, hence a variety of versions of the plot outline.

The plot outline for The Thaw was always in my mind, but planning the outline was probably the hardest aspect of the book as I had a very cloudy overall feel for what I wanted, and the core signposts of the story, but the specifics were at times really hard to. It took a couple of tries to get something I found was workable, but my general philosophy was to not over-plan the chapters; this would make the actual writing feel both too constrained (like joining the dots) and I’d also know I’d get subconsciously anxious about deviating too much from “the plan”. So I decided on a structure I feel was a good compromise – I detailed general aims for the chapter in the heading, with four of five key plot events that should take place. I also put checkboxes on each of the chapter headings so I could see at a glance what was done; I also implemented a quite useful “point of view” tag for the characters each chapter was seen through, using different coloured fonts to easily differentiate, so I knew how long at a glance it had been since a point of view shift, et cetera.

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This is a format I feel worked really well, so it’s a structure I feel very comfortable using in the future. My plot outline wasn’t massively detailed (indeed, I didn’t document a whole lot of the backstory, but this is something I want to do as I’m going to be hinting at a lot of it in future drafts) but it served a purpose as a series of signposts, not barriers, to keep me roughly in line with what I thought I should. But also it was a flexible outline style so that helped keep it malleable when waves of inspiration struck and threw everything into disarray, as these things do. It’s extremely easy to plan every item of minutiae into the outline and I tried to avoid that as it just sucks the fun out of writing – there’s no discovery to the writing process and it’s just too constrained.

My only real regret is that, as I was writing The Thaw, I didn’t necessarily become disciplined in keeping the outline in OneNote up-to-date with what was happening in the actual draft. Again, I’m glad the story gained a sense of organic growth, but I feel I have in some respects made life difficult for myself by not keeping the outline updated with as much discipline as I should have; for instance, the end chapter has been quite difficult to write as the outline is very scant.

Looking at my outline file now, I focused mainly on the plot of the book, with relatively scant details on characters and settings, mainly because they were assembled in my head and translating them to the notebook was difficult. That’s not to say I’m not going to nail down my character profiles and my backstory ideas – of which I’ve had many! – because I feel having that overview of characters, their desires, needs, wants and fears, and also a written and codified “bible” of the world my story takes place in is just the sort of detail that needs to be consistent to be added into a future draft, so my “month long vacation” from the book that I’m planning may be spent drawing maps, writing profiles and working out the intricacies of this post-apocalyptic world I’ve created – and that’s something I actually cant’ wait to do!

I definitely feel I should’ve taken more time to plan more of the story – I began the draft with the plan for the initial act and half of the second; I feel a bit more gestation time would’ve been useful but conversely, I was glad to begin and not be too bound by what I thought would work so that any ideas I came up with – especially for the middle portion of the book, which was easily the most difficult to plan – would disrupt that. However, I did feel that I’d been planning The Thaw for months, perhaps to procrastinate from actually putting the first words down, so I did eventually just decide to be bold and throw the words down, with the overall plan never far from my thoughts, if not my OneNote file!

Like OneNote, Dropbox was a key cornerstone of my workflow, and it worked largely behind the scenes as a key method for both ensuring my drafts were kept backed up online, and not slaved to one computer (and ferried around on an easily-lost USB key, or constantly “emailed to myself”). I’ve a dedicated writing folder in my Dropbox for all my work this year, and I have archival folders going back to 2010. With the baked in support for my iPhone and iPad there’s really no excuse for a writer to not use a solution like Dropbox to keep their work backed up.

I also elected to use Dropbox as my working folder, so when working on my draft in Scrivener, it would be updated pretty much automatically, which worked well for making sure changes were saved in a timely manner, and also cut out another step of remembering to copy the project into Dropbox. With the way Scrivener works on Windows (projects are comprised of folders populated with many smaller files that contain the text etc), it also made a lot more sense to just work on the project from Dropbox direct. Now, Scrivener’s an entirely different beast that I will talk about separately because I’d not really be able to write The Thaw without it; sure, I could’ve written in Word but Word, from previous experience, is not best suited to long-form narrative projects whereas Scrivener is tailor-made for this work.

I was quite lucky that I didn’t run into any conflicting issues with having the project open on more than one computer or device; Scrivener, the writing software I used (I will talk later in depth as to how useful Scrivener has been) has some built-in protections from that.

Overall though I’d definitely attribute OneNote and Dropbox as key tools in my writer’s toolbox, because writing a book like The Thaw really demands at least some consideration of the planning process that goes on for a long time before writing starts. I’m really confident in The Thaw so I wanted to do the idea and concept justice with planning, but at the same time striking a balance between letting the story have the right amount of space to evolve and take its own course, in a way, but while also having a general idea, written down, of key events that need to happen – so it’s about applying my learning process from previous projects to this one. I do feel that I maybe almost spent a bit too long thinking about it  – outlining is possibly the hardest part of novel writing for me because it’s the literal application of ideas to a blank page, but I definitely feel I had a workable structure to my overall plan and I had the tools to help me shape that plan throughout the writing process!