Rereading the First Draft
I reread the first draft of my novel yesterday after a three-month break. I’m pleased to say that it was mostly not awful. However, it’s not necessarily the story I feel I want to tell now. (And to be honest it was a bit of a Frankenstein monster of a plot, with bits stitched here and others appened there just so I could bring somthing alive.) The parts that I really like (and will likely remain) were written towards the end, and have now been moved towards the beginning of the novel.
There is a line in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in which Prufrock is preparing to attend a party with his companion. But he is so riddled with self-doubt that he cannot make up his mind on how best ask this companion a vital question:
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse
This toing and froing in the face of commitment, of taking that momentous leap towards something so vital that it seems final is how redrafting feels.
But I must pause and ask myself (as I imagine all writers must at some stage), is it so wrong to want to cruelly discard so much? To callously kill our ‘darlings’? Much of what was written can only be seen as exploratory work. They seem to hold no other value in the cold light of objectivity now.
Reliving the Story
You let the story cool off and then, instead of rewriting it, you relive it.
— Ray Bradbury.
The current first chapter dazzled me, it had a particular voice and style that I really liked. The voice was the character’s not mine — perplexed and forlorn. The subsequent ones were not so much fun to read. They lacked the vitality of language, the voice had become mine — the author’s — and was too didactic. And from this first chapter I feel like embarking on the journey again, and discovering the plot (a new plot) for the first time — to relive the story, not merely to rewrite it as Bradbury says.
I don’t think I need to quote Hemingway again here. We all know how that one goes: the first draft is, to put it politely, a bit pants. But should I be sad that my original premise will be going? After all I put so much into it. I guess I can pick up those ideas again another time, if I feel they have value. Should I mourn tens of thousands of words I laboured over in the preceding months? Should I feel bad for killing off those characters who only wanted to live and breathe and fulfil their own personal desires? Or should I just let them go, as a leaf passes in the wind to settle on sodden ground, with no other meaning to us than as something that exists. Nothing remains fixed, things die and other things spring into their place.
Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.
― Arthur Schopenhauer
Attachment is unhealthy — with words as much as it is with possessions and people. It clouds our judgement. We must not fear loss in order to grow. I once read somewhere that the best place to start your book is the second chapter; and the best place to end a chapter it is oftentimes the penultimate paragraph. This is because we pour so much into the first draft we fall in love with it for the wrong reasons. The reader is unlikely to have such an attachment. Sometimes what is left out is just as important as what is put in.
The first draft is written so it can be rewritten (or ‘relived’ as Bradbury says). Maybe it’s because I’m not much of a plotter, but sometimes I feel writing is about exorcising something that doesn’t let you sleep; it is about externalising that subconscious dream so you can hold it in front of you, screw it up into a ball, you let it go. There is a natural progression in these processes, in that the second draft could not exist until that scrunched up, disordered first draft has been committed.
Stephen King in his book On Writing says that our job with the second draft is ‘to make something even more clear’ and that it ‘may necessitate some big changes and revisions’ and through this ‘the benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story.’
A New Draft, a New Story
Despite my own advice on deciding the narrative voice. I’ve reneged on my decision to write the novel entirely in limited third person POV.
The revised idea is to narrate the story in multiple third person POV spread across three parts.
The first part will have alternating chapters between one man who finds himself in a hospital with no memory and desires only to discover himself; and another as he enters a therapeutic community wanting only to forget the past. In part two these men will meet as within this therapeutic community setting. Part three concerns the outside world as both these men find their new footing within society. Although there has been a major shift, not all is lost. A majority of the hospital scenes will remain.
I am in the process of conceiving a host of secondary characters who will populate these places — some of the existing ones may yet be saved by being recast rather than rejected. Of course I could be writing to you by the time of the third draft with different ideas. But for now I’m going to enjoy ‘reliving’ this second draft.
If you’re redrafting your novel good luck, remember don’t be afraid of letting go, be afraid of getting attached. Or if you’re approaching your first draft, don’t worry, nothing needs to be fixed. Write so you can rewrite.
Image credit: Klaas via Unsplash