Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Freedom of a First Draft

It seems a little odd to be talking about the process of writing a book without actually showing any of the writing itself, so to redress this I’ve decided to write this blog around a small section from my novel.

It’s a section that may never make it to the final book, not because it is bad; on the contrary, I like it a great deal, but sometimes there are good reasons to edit out a section, even if there is nothing wrong with it within itself. To put it into context, I'm working my way through a first draft at the present time, mostly free-writing sections of chapters I have planned as part of the overall narrative. Whilst the style, prose, and even structure of the work I'm producing in this stage can be downright embarrassing when I read back through it, it does serve a purpose; writing in this way offers a fantastic freedom to explore my characters and explore new possibilities for the narrative flow and colour. Sometimes I find myself writing outside the original plan because something suggests itself as worth pursuing. These explorations of character are giving me invaluable material about the characters and how they behave, interact and think, and more importantly I'm getting to know the minor characters, and through them the principals.

Not that some of it won’t be a casualty of editing when I come to a second or third draft; I realise that everything that makes the final draft must pull its weight, either moving the story forward or providing needed understanding about the characters.

The section I'm including here is part of a larger chapter, in which the principal character Melanie and her work colleagues have a group evening out. It is a very complex chapter that cycles round several of the characters and importantly brings some of the possible love interests, and complications, to the front without actually resolving them. The piece I wrote here was a complete sidetrack from everything else and I won't know, until I have completed the first draft, if it just adds complexity to the scene or is a much needed island in a rough sea. What I do know is that it provides a delightful moment of friendship that both characters had lacked up to this point, it also offers a lot more depth for Sue as well as one of the only direct physical descriptions about Melanie's appearance in the book, albeit through dialogue.

The toilets were a cool relief from the barrage of sound in the main club. The gaggle of women monopolising the mirrors above the sinks turned to stare as Melanie and Sue entered, then turned back to fine tuning their faces.
 Melanie ignored the attention, and lead Sue to a suitably blank corner, beside a hand-dryer displaying an out of order sign. 'Sue, can you do me a favour?'
'Um, Ok, what?'
'I need to brush my hair–it's all that dancing, my bag stays still but I move around inside it and my hair gets all messed up. I'm going to take it off facing the corner so no one can see me, but could you just stand behind me, I'll feel less uncomfortable with someone I know stood there.'
'Yes, Ok.'
'Um, do you want me to hold your bag?'
'Oh, thanks. You know you don't have to watch me.'
'I don't mind. I mean you're really lucky to have such thick wavy hair, mine's just dead straight, I can't do anything with it.'
'I am? I can't really tell at the moment it's full of tangles and I daren't use the mirror, everyone can see my reflection.'
'Here, give me the brush.' Sue took the brush from Melanie and passed the bag back to her. It was strangely thrilling to be without a bag in a public place and have someone touching her, even just her hair. It felt intimate and risky, but not sexual and oddly, not embarrassing. Let them look for once, perhaps they might learn something.
'You really do have beautiful hair you know, those red highlights, and shiny, like, um, horse chestnuts when they're just out of the case.'
'Are you saying I have hair like a conker?'
'Sorry, Sue, I'm just not used to compliments. It's odd, I suppose most people only get to see the ends of my hair with the bag on. I don't know why I bother sometimes, it would be a lot easier to have it all cut off. It's not like anyone would know but it's nice to hear that someone likes it. It's a good confidence booster–so, thanks.'
'I wish I had a quarter of your confidence Melanie, the guys really like you.'
'I don't think so, what do they want with a girl who has a congenital difference? I've got to be realistic. Although do you think Howard likes me?'
'Howard? Um, I don't know, I thought you liked Robbie? You're always having lunch with him and sending silly messages over the network.'
'No, Robbie and me are just friends. Brother and sister of the bag. Besides I love Japanese food.'
'There you go, I think I got all the tangles.'
'Thanks Sue, you have no idea how much I appreciate that.' Melanie slid her bag back on and turned around. 'We should do more hot chocolate lunches together at work, proper girl lunches.'
'You know, work's been much more interesting since you came. You're a really nice person.'
'You haven't seen me transform into my evil double yet. Oh–sorry I'm doing that thing with compliments again aren't I?'
'Um, yes.'
'You're a really nice person too.'

If you want to know more about the story and why Melanie wears a bag, please read the brief overview of The Different posted on my website.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

My Own Deadlines

As a writer and animator, I'm used to working to deadlines but the only deadlines I find myself failing to meet are my own.

Most of the time such things are not an issue. I set an arbitrary date by which I would like to complete a self-initiated task, such as writing a blog, and attempt to work to that. More often than I would like: work, family or other considerations will lead me to revise these self-imposed deadlines. This is fine, unlike my work deadlines, they are meant to be a flexible guide rather than a rigid cut-off point.

But I got caught out by myself recently. I had planned to write a short seasonally themed story in time for Christmas. It was to be delivered via Twitter as a series of tweets spread over a two week period, which I calculated would give me a deadline around the 11th of December. During November I had a great deal of coursework for my MA, I also had a lot of paid work during the first two weeks of December. To consider this story was probably unrealistic, but as is often the case with me, I used it as a pleasurable thing to wind down in the evenings, after a hard day of doing other things. As the deadline approached I still had a small amount of the story to write. I wanted to get the ending working well, tying up a number of threads, but I had altered the story from it's original outline and I felt the ending should also change. Unfortunately, I also had another deadline for my coursework on the same day, as well as an article I'd promised to complete. I realised something had to give.

In short, I missed my own short story deadline. I did consider posting the beginning whilst I was still writing the end; it's not the first time I've had to do that, but in the end I decided to pull the story. Which, in hindsight, was the correct decision; I had not done enough promotional work for the story and I still wasn't happy with the ending. That I didn't meet my deadline, I don't mind at all; I can revise, and improve it ready for next Christmas; I can deliver it with a more relaxed timeframe and, most importantly, I will have a whole year in which to plan how to promote it. I've also learnt that it is better to not deliver something at all than something done badly.