An answer worth the journey: plot and story
From candyfloss to flesh-eating monsters

Flying blind, just for a moment

A friend of mine had her novel picked up by an agent at a writing festival, and the agent sold it to a major publisher as the first of a two-book deal. The book was published a few months ago, it's doing well, and everything's wonderful ... except that now she has to write that second novel.  She has to write it for someone who's already bought it, while coping with the first novel being out there, to sell to people who'll be expecting something in the same mould only different... and to a deadline. And my friend - let's call her Sally - is a self-confessed slow writer not least because she's an obssessive re-writer-as-she-goes, refusing to move on from a paragraph or a page until it's absolutely right.

So when I bumped into her at a launch the other day, I said carefully, "Shall I ask how it's going, or would you rather I didn't?" But she was very cheerful, and said that because of the deadline she's had to work out a new process, and it's working really well.

Some of us concentrate first on writing lots half-way decent words, and make them the best words afterwards. Others focus on the best words, however slowly they become lots of words; Sally isn't the only friend of mine to feel that she can't move on until the ground she's moving on from is solid beneath her feet. But Sally's obssessive focus on her every new word being the best word meant that they accumulated very slowly indeed: the last book took five years. This one needs to be handed in about nine months from now. And, above all, she didn't want to find herself ruining the last third because the first two thirds had taken so long and the deadline was looming.

Of course, she could have gone for what I've re-christened the crazy-first-draft; that way, she'd know that there would be a whole novel of some sort on her desk before too long. But for the Sallies of this world, the thought of flying blind through 80,000 words of the cloud of unknowing is just too terrifying. It's not silly or cowardly to be terrified, either: if you're used to working out your plot as you slow-go, then you really could find yourself two months from your deadline with a "finished" novel which turns out to be built on a plot that's rapidly sinking without trace.

So what Sally now does is to crazy-first-draft just a few pages: say, three or five. That much flying blind she can face; it's not too scary, and it can't go too horribly wrong or too off-course. Then she prints those few pages out, and edits on hard copy. That way, she can change as much of it as she likes, but she can't get embroiled in the slippery, always-perfect, never-ending business of editing on screen. Then she goes back to the screen, and inputs those edits. When they're in, she leaves them on the ground behind her and takes off again for the next bit of flying blind.

That leaving-behind does take discipline, if you're someone who finds it hard to leave existing words alone and write some new ones. But in some ways, what's going on is a form of Not Fiddling: Sally uses the hard-copy stage to be clear to herself about when she's flying blind, when she's editing, and when she's finished editing... just for a moment.

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