Storytellers: the progress

As I might have mentioned once or twice, I am (hopefully) getting close to finishing my first novel, Storytellers, historical suspense with fantasy elements set in Iceland between 1885-1920. Here’s an honest confession about my delusions…

 

Drafts

Having read approximately 15823098 articles on writing, I was under the impression that a book is written in three drafts. The first is for the writer. The second is for beta-readers. The third is when everything gets fixed, becomes perfect, and I get my first Pulitzer Prize.

Things didn’t turn out that way.

On January 1, 2017, I started working on the first draft of the story I’ve been carrying in my head ever since I dreamt it years earlier. I vomited rather than wrote that first draft. It took me two weeks to produce roughly a hundred thousand words. At this point, I didn’t know yet where the book would be set, so I went for generic “village” and “ocean” terms. But of course, I was already starting to get obsessed with Iceland. When I read Independent People and Wasteland With WordsI realised it was the perfect setting. In fact, it seemed as if Gods created Iceland with the sole purpose of helping me write the novel.

I spent the next 2.5 months writing the second draft. This allowed me to figure out what I needed to find out, what I did not, which bits made no sense at all. At the same time, I was already trying to contact people who might be able to help me and making a very long list of questions I needed answers for. Once I finished the second draft, I sent it to beta-readers. They came back with feedback. I was arrogant enough to think that if only one person points something out, it’s probably not a problem. I would like to apologise to all my beta-readers. Because they were right.

What? I’m researching.

Iceland

As I might have mentioned once or twice, we went to visit Iceland in June 2017. I had a visit to the Arbærsjafn Open Air Museum lined up, a lovely historian willing to answer my questions, and no idea that this visit was going to have consequences. Namely, me falling head over heels in love with the country.

Armed with the results of my research I began work on the third draft, although to be honest, I was already working on it. It took me about five months to complete. At this point, I decided I needed someone to fix my grammar and spelling mistakes, and contacted Megan The Editor. I received what I expected to be the final version on my 40th birthday, October 3, 2017. Megan made a few remarks, some of which were strangely similar to the feedback from my beta-readers, and I realised for the first time that perhaps they had a point after all.

With a deep sigh, I decided to do a small rewrite, which quickly became a complete rewrite based on Megan’s remarks. I sent her the fourth draft. Megan responded with some more remarks, and now that she knew I wasn’t the type of person that takes offence when receiving feedback she was a tad less polite and more demanding.

This was fifteen drafts ago.

A luxurious house with enormous windows

Process

There are various sorts of editing. What we did with Megan in the first twenty years months was structural editing. The first chapter was 35 pages long. Out of the total of 180 single-spaced Word pages. Megan unknowingly repeated my brother’s remark that the book took quite a while to really get going. My brother, who does not feel the need to be polite just because we’re related, told me honestly that if someone else had written it, he would never get past those first pages, but once he plodded through he found himself drawn further and further into the story. In fact, he couldn’t stop reading when he got to the final chapters. Megan used the word “pacing”. I responded with a lot of question marks. This was when it occurred to me that despite having blogged for fifteen years I was not prepared to write a good novel.

I was now looking more carefully at things such as point of view, setting, amount of research I felt the need to include (I DID ALL THIS WORK, APPRECIATE ME DAMN IT). I started reading books on writing craft. And I produced further drafts. Megan pointed out some of my in-jokes were not understandable to people who didn’t know me personally. I half-heartedly defended each of them for about three drafts, then realised she was right again.

The phrase “kill your darlings” was something I’ve heard hundreds of times before. Those in-jokes went first. Then, under Megan’s direction, I started expanding the characters to give them at least some personality. This was especially important with supporting actors, as I originally treated them as sort of…interchangeable. Seat fillers. I realised that the fact I knew something didn’t mean the reader would find it fascinating, so a three-page lecture on Jón Sigurdsson turned into two paragraphs that were absolutely necessary to signify the fact Jón was a very important person who massively changed Icelandic politics. But the first chapter kept on bugging me. I cut it from 35 pages to 30. Then to 25. And then I got stuck, unable to figure out what else could possibly go.

Until I killed a darling.

A dark and stormy night not pictured

It was a dark and stormy night…

The original beginning was a description of, well, a dark and stormy night. Certain events happened, of course. But once the characters were back in the safety of a building with not too many holes in the roof, I was essentially repeating the same information in a different way. I think I noticed that around draft fourteen.

I chopped the entire dark and stormy night without a second thought. The latter part was essential. The former wasn’t. In order to realise that, I needed to internalise the fact that readers didn’t need to read the same information twice to memorise it. Once I had, I found hundreds of sentences and entire paragraphs that I was able to cut. Instead, I started adding more conflicts, problems, secrets. I removed unnecessary characters and names that appeared once and never again, remembering how confused I was whilst reading Silmarillion and trying to memorise Tolkien’s endless lists of kings’ sons’ names that would never appear again in the book.

The original third draft contained a very graphical rape scene. I was uncomfortable writing it. But I became more uncomfortable when I read a tweet saying “it would be so refreshing if a male writer did not use rape as a plot device at least once”. I started softening the impact, removing details, then the scene shrunk to one sentence that made it unclear what happened. In the nineteenth draft, which I coincidentally sent to Megan this morning, the entire scene is gone, and I can’t say it made the book worse in any way at all.

Write what you know

There are certain topics that are particularly dear to me. Some of them were…thoroughly researched by me. Blacksmithing, of course, was one of them. But also depression, social anxiety, avoiding people who knew better than I did what I was supposed to become, drinking to forget… Iceland itself decided to become researched by me as well (I am aware this is a very awkward sentence). If Iceland was a person, it would have taken a restraining order for stalking against me by now. I started learning the language, joining every group I could find on Facebook, following people on Twitter. We spent the entire April 2018 in Iceland and we took a million photos, which I later put together into a photo book. (Calendars coming soon.) With each draft, I both knew more and removed more of my research that didn’t really need to be included for any other reasons than to show how Smart and Educated I was. And with each draft, I realised the book was becoming better and better.

I feel that the 20th draft will be the last. Not because I achieved perfection, as perfectionism is the best way to never finish anything (and a great excuse when someone asks you how the work is going). But, as my favourite philosopher Madonna Ciccone once said, “there’s only so much you can learn in one place”. I’m ready to move to the next project – a year and eleven days after I thought I was done with the first.

Main photo: printout of the second draft. Ooh, to be this young and naive again…would SUCK.

4 comments

  1. As someone who has worked more on the academic side of book publishing, I can say that even dry medical textbooks go through multiple rounds of rewrites and revisions before moving into production, where they go through at least three more rounds of edits. So the more time you take with your fiction, making it all it can be, is time well spent. I envy your progress; I haven’t even come up with a concept for the book I know is brewing in my soul somewhere….

    1. You know, it took me almost 40 years to go from “pfft, I could write a better book in my sleep” to actually doing it! I have multiple unfinished first drafts that never got anywhere, this is the first time the idea has been bugging me so long I had rather than wanted to work on it. Jeffrey Somers just published a blog post that talks about it – sometimes we get invested in the idea of a novel, but if the idea won’t even stick in my mind, why would it be interesting to anybody else? With Storytellers I can’t stop thinking about it, even now, on draft 19, I keep on coming up with little ideas and changes. Right now – welp, a minute ago, before I came here to reply to you – I am reworking the second novel again because this idea also won’t leave me alone no matter what my opinion on that is.

      One day you will find out exactly what is brewing in your soul, and once you do, it won’t let go until you start writing. There are millions of ideas. It’s just that there are very few that would suddenly turn me from a lazy bum into someone who spends 20 months…hang on, 21 months working on one of them. I’m writing the book I want to read whilst hoping there will be at least a few readers who will enjoy it as much as I do. And I am looking forward to finding out one day what story you feel you must tell. 🙂

  2. Just want to say I am in awe of both your writing and your tenacity. I can’t wait to read this book! (And also if you needed any more beta readers, I would love it! I am an editor specializing in grammar.)

    1. Thanks so much Bess! 🙂 I am very happy working with Megan, but I might ask your help both as a beta and editor when the second book gets to the stage where I am not too ashamed to show it to anyone 😉

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