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.”

Workflow: Switching from Dropbox to OneDrive

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I thought it might be interesting to chat today about why I’ve made a pretty big (but hopefully seamless) change in how I carry out work. I’ve been using Dropbox as a file-storage and backup system (indeed, all my important project files are live on my Dropbox for seamless syncing and backup) but I’ve been pretty limited by the 5Gb limit my Dropbox account has.

I’ve used Microsoft’s email service, Outlook.com, since before it was even Outlook; I finally switched to an ISP-agnostic email in 2009 with Live Hotmail – who remembers that? A bonus of this loyalty on the basis of having an account that long was that I qualified for an upgrade to the storage capacity of my email’s associated OneDrive (back when it was SkyDrive) to 25Gb.

25Gb… 5Gb… can you see the immediate comparisons?

But I have only recently made the step to move my writing projects to OneDrive. There was more behind my decision than just the voluminous amount of free cloud storage that I had been ignoring for the most part!

As part of my Creative Writing course at Kingston University I have been granted access to Microsoft’s Office 365 subscription service for free. Having used this for three years now I’m pretty much a convert to this way of getting Office – I get useful new features fairly regularly but the key feature for me is adaptability:

  • autosaveOffice 365 allows me to legitimately own Office and use it concurrently on more than just my main PC but also my ThinkPad laptop, my iPhone and my iPad; the latter two require Office 365 to allow document editing on the go.
  • I recently received updates to the versions of Office 2016 that I have installed on my two PCs and there was one feature that pushed me over the edge to finally switch to OneDrive: AutoSave.

AutoSave in Word (and other Office programs, but Word is my mainstay) has changed how I work quite profoundly, and I’m now a lot more flexible in how I work as changes to documents are synced in real-time without any user intervention, so I can switch from my PC to my laptop to my iPad with so much ease the transition doesn’t even need thinking about. Dropbox, while very good with syncing, just doesn’t quite have the baked-in integration that allows total flexibility – I’d always need to hit Control + S and leave it a couple of seconds to sync. Even little things, like the syncing of my Recently Used document lists in the Word 2016 backstage view just give the impression of a tightly-integrated solution which saves on wasting valuable seconds. They add up!

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I’ve also found that the significant bump in available storage space allows me finally to back up my Camera Roll from my iPhone as iCloud has a similar, restrictive “free” storage allocation which isn’t really suitable for people who have owned an iPhone for a while, or have a high-capacity iPhone like I do (my current iPhone 6S is a 64Gb model as 5 years of a 16Gb iPhone 4S became… fun to say the least!). It’s a pretty seamless process – and being seamless is precisely why I’m enjoying the transition to OneDrive as it’s not as much “effort” as I was expecting!

Obviously this new-found convenience comes at some abstract cost – my privacy, arguably. There’s been stories about an update to Microsoft’s terms of service that on face value seem quite severe – swearing or profanity no longer “allowed in Office 365 documents”, but this isn’t something that concerns me deeply. I’d have to be a paid-up member of the tin-foil-hat brigade to buy into that being a valid and pertinent threat to myself on a personal level, and besides, Microsoft’s service is free and providing great convenience. The fear of “everything I upload being scanned” just seems a bit far-fetched, and with recent revelations about companies like Facebook and Google (the latter coming as no surprise) it’s almost to be expected. My data is gloriously uninteresting anyway.

At the moment I’ve just moved my critical writing folders to OneDrive and my camera roll but I’m evaluating at the moment, once the pressures of University work are over with, whether to migrate a lot more of my local documents and photos folders. Considering that a few years ago I was quite dead-set against the idea of “cloud syncing” (when I only used one computer at a time, and ferried USB drives everywhere, which are risky if lost) but I’ve totally turned a corner. Certainly when my University-provided Office 365 expires I will be looking to buy my own plan (it’s not unaffordable; around £80 a year or so) for my future endeavours. That bump from an already capacious 25Gb to 1Tb would alleviate my storage frugality concerns too!

Overall though, I’m pleasantly happy with the OneDrive experience as it fits into my workflow even better than Dropbox did – and I had no real issues with Dropbox’s integration! But the very tight fit that OneDrive provides to the other Microsoft products I use – Office and Windows – and their recent embracing of alternate mobile platforms after seeing the light that Windows Phone was doomed to irrelevance means that it provides an even-tighter integration for my workflow and, ultimately, a more productive me. And that’s all good!

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