This is the third in a series of blogs about the way I write books.
So assuming my publisher didn’t hate my synopsis, it’s time to start writing. For me, this initial draft is the hardest part of the process. I can easily talk myself into doing a bit more planning or a bit more research. Eventually, I put the first words on the page. It’s painful. (And yes, I use a computer. No one can read my writing. Not even me.) I make myself write 1000 words a day. It doesn’t matter if it’s dreadful writing (and it often is), as long as I’m making my way through the story. I cringe at what I’m writing down. I really don’t like this part of the writing process, but I keep going. Sometimes it takes me three hours to write my 1000 words, sometimes it takes all day.
Along the way, ideas in the synopsis change. Not the big things usually. But often things I’ve imagined will work, don’t. It might not be believable or the timeline of the story might not work (too much happening or not enough) or I just come up with a better idea. Almost every day there are decisions to make. Big picture ones: How will I make that bit of the story work? How will the character react? Or small detail ones: What is in her suitcase? Why did they decide to go to the beach? (These are actual questions from the novel I’m writing now). This happens every day. Every day, I write up the questions I need to answer on my whiteboard.
I answer the questions first thing in the morning, which is when my brain is at its sharpest. I write as many different ways as I can think of to answer each question. (Yes this is a Robert McKee technique!) I write them on the whiteboard, not on my computer. Sometimes I get to 15 options, sometimes I only get to three. Then I stand back and see if there is a good, fresh, interesting, non-cliched solution among them. Sometimes two ideas put together solve the problem.
Every couple of weeks I print out what I’ve written and reread it. I write corrections all over it in red. I add bits, I cross out bits, I move bits around. Occasionally I can see a theme starting to form and I make a note of that, so that I can work on that later. I reread and correct again and again.
I stole the term “Zero Draft” from YA author Scott Westerfeld. I think it’s a great way of describing that initial draft. I wouldn’t show it to anyone. It’s too rough. I can hardly bear to read it myself. I suppose it’s a bit like a rough sketch for a painting. Except it takes ages to write, six months or longer. I’ve just about come to the end of this process with the book I’m writing at the moment.
Eventually I’m ready to show it to someone else—my publisher if I think it’s ready to show him, or my daughter Lili if I’m still not happy with it. It has now evolved from a Zero Draft to a First Draft. By this time I have reread and corrected it at least ten times.