Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Monday 25 March 2013

First Draft Syndrome

I read a twitter conversation the other day that rather tickled me. One writer was celebrating the fact that a first draft was finished, and she was sending it off to her agent. The other was horrified, saying that he would never send a first draft to an agent... maybe a sixth.

I was reminded, at the time, of the first line of Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I can’t remember precisely why, now, except that it was something to do with all writers having a process and every process being different, and then I imagined that all writers must, by definition, be unhappy... or at the very least insane...

Enough of that, though.

I guess today's question is, "How many drafts make a novel? And why?"

Honestly, I have no idea, but then, I’ve never written more than one draft of anything.

OK... Is there anyone out there who hasn't got his mouth hanging open? Really?

Right, I'm just going to qualify that.  I'm going to say that, in my own mind, I’ve never written more than one draft, and I’ve never understood how a writer could stand to go over and over a piece of work, fretting and honing and dissecting, and driving himself to drink with the fussing and cutting and editing and... Honest to goodness, life is too short, and writing is already too daunting.

I am easily daunted.

I am so daunted that unless the work is commissioned and I’m required to pitch a story and provide a chapter breakdown, I don’t so much as plot a novel before I begin, or redraft a novel when I’m done.

I literally sit down at my computer with a theme in mind and I begin, and when I’m done, I’m done. That’s it... That’s all you’re going to get from me.

I stopped to think about this because of that twitter conversation, and I was tempted to ask the poor man who wrote six drafts before sending anything to his agent, “Can’t you write and think at the same time?” I’m pretty sure I even asked him out loud, through the medium of the screen, although I didn’t actually tweet him, that would have seemed rude, even by  my standards.

There in lay my answer, though.

That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? It’s about how a writer structures her thinking and her writing, and whether she prefers to keep her processes separate. It would appear that I am the sort of writer who likes to think and write at the same time. There is, it would appear, some kind of connection between my brain and my hands; I need the action of the keys beneath my fingertips for the synapses to sing.

I do think while I’m washing up or making beds or hoovering, but I never, and I do mean never, ever just sit and think... It’s way too much pressure for me.

I cannot, will not simply sit at my desk first thing in the morning with the day stretching ahead of me, ready to have an idea, or to sort out and put in order the ideas I have. I won’t sit down at my desk to work a premise into an idea, or make pathways between ideas.

To be fair, I will sit and brainstorm with the husband. We sit and talk and make notes, and we do it quite deliberately, but I’m almost never sitting behind a desk while I’m doing it, and there’s much more likely to be a glass of wine at my side than a cup of tea, and a pad and pencil at my elbow than a laptop.

Thinking is... has to be... an integral part of the process. Thinking is writing. When I was talking yesterday about choosing names for characters when I was writing ‘Cell’, it was only when I needed a name for a character that the idea occurred to me that the names could be French, so I used ‘French’ as the first surname. Still writing, I remembered that Abnett is Huguenot, so I searched ‘French’ and substituted ‘Huguenot’ in the text. I didn’t stop to think. I didn’t work it all out ahead of time; the writing created the thinking process from which the writing grew. It’s a symbiotic relationship, for me.

Clearly this isn’t the case for all writers.

Clearly, when I say I write one draft, and that’s what the reader gets, that isn’t quite true, either. At the beginning of a book, I read every word every morning before I begin to write, and some of those words will be changed. In effect the first twenty or thirty thousand words of a new novel are redrafted every day until the book is well under way. It gets easier, the more familiar I become with the material, but the first third of a novel can be pretty slow, certainly two or three times slower than the last third... or four or five times slower.

I’ve never written a second draft of a novel, but I have made changes suggested by my agent. I don’t call those things redrafts, I call them edits.

As yet, I’ve never been asked to take a second run at a commissioned book. I guess that time will come... one day.

The point is, that there is no right way to write, there is only the writer’s way to write. If you’re a writer, I wouldn’t suggest you write the way I do. Beginning, very literally, with no plan, and only a few brain cells and a blank screen seems to me to be the least daunting way to begin, but I know that others like to have a plan, a plot, a reason to start... some sort of material.

Can I suggest that however you do it, you find a way to do it that suits you. Where this one’s concerned take your own advice.


  1. Nice! I really enjoy this insight. It seems that "drafting" and "editing" can be considered semantics, rather than integral parts of the writing process. I like that you to re-evaluate what you wrote, but you never second-guess what should happen. More writers need to keep that in mind.

  2. I only ever really 're-draft' once. Whether it's an essay or a short story I always always hand write it first. There is something about the physicality of being able to scrub out a word or a line...or a paragraph that I just don't seem to have when I type. This also allows me to self-edit myself, much like you do as you re-read every morning, while I type up what I have on the page. Often the typed version will be finessed, sleeker and will flow much better than my scrappy hand written draft. It's a long and laborious process, but it works for me I think.

    1. Oddly, that's how I always worked in the age of manual and then electronic typewriters. I literally used to hand write, often in various colours if I was switching povs, themes etc and then I'd cut and paste with scissors and sellotape before copy typing the finished piece.

      I still often use various fonts of colours so that I can find sections easily if I'm not sure where they belong or how they fit together.

      Once you luck into a system that works, it's rather reassuring to stick with it, I think, and adapt it to new technology, and since my first typewriter was a little portable manual, with a real ribbon, with very real ink on it, and no way to erase, I'm not even sure that Snopaque (early Tippex) was available then... and autocorrect didn't even recognise Tippex! Crikey I might as well have typed super-eight, except that's making a comeback... Oh no, wait, let's try Betamax! There you go! Smiles.