Friday, 6 September 2013

Getting in a Stew

I've started a fourth draft of my current novel this week, and it’s proving to be tough going. Some of that is psychological, I’m sure, because I keep saying “wow, this is difficult” to myself. But a lot of it is because I’d written a third draft that I was very happy with, and it feels like I’m pushing against that as I make further edits. So why change it at all? Well, a couple of my very knowledgeable critique group members have fed back, suggesting ways that the book could be a deeper experience for the reader, and this draft is about adding that depth. But it’s a tricky process.

Let me use a cooking metaphor to illustrate. When you’re making a stew, you put a lot of ingredients together with a little flavouring, and if the quality of the components are good, it’s not too hard to come up with something that’s very palatable. But how do you take that perfectly edible meal and make it into a dish so rich and flavoursome that every bite is a pleasure? The difference might only be the addition of a single ingredient or just a change in the ratio of the others. It sounds simple enough, but it’s also possible to make the thing completely inedible by, say, adding too much cayenne pepper.

I want my book to be a richer, more emotional experience for the reader, but I also fear over-seasoning. As my writing style has evolved, I’ve become ever more technically precise, moulding my sentences for maximum impact with minimum word count. But I have to accept that sometimes I can go too far, so this fourth draft is almost entirely about adding words, not taking them away. It’s been an uncomfortable realisation for me that I'm much better at editing through subtraction than addition, and I feel somewhat out of my comfort zone as a result.

In principle, I’m in favour of stepping outside your comfort zone once in a while, in practice ... well ... it’s a bit scary! I remember how I slaved over each scene originally, balancing the flow of action and dialogue, which makes shoehorning in something new without disrupting the rhythm a difficult process. It’s possible I may end up completely rewriting some of the scenes where the additions can’t be inserted cleanly, but I hope not (though that might be quicker than me agonising over it!) At least I have a deadline – I want to get this draft finished before the SCBWI Agents’ Party (3rd October) and I’d like to add no more than a thousand words to the book, if possible.

I have a very good book called Novel Metamorphosis by Darcy Pattison, which is specifically about the process of adding depth to an existing draft, and shall be consulting it in times of hair-tearing crisis. Apart from that, all I can do is write my way through to the end (and go easy on the cayenne pepper).



  1. Great to see you the other day. You seem to work with such speed through draughts! I hope you keep hair-tearing to the minimum - all good wishes on this round of edits!

    1. I think my secret (if you want to call it that) is that I take a really long time to write the first draft, and then the subsequent ones are (usually) pretty quick. I don't know if that's a good way to work, but it's the pattern I seem to have fallen into.

      Looking forward to the Shine launch!

  2. Yes, good luck, Nick. I am guilty of the same "crime", and read the same revision book recently. Found it very helpful, esp as I have a tendency to keep my characters' emotional responses to under-written at times--at least in current WIP. Good luck at the agent's party, too!

  3. I'm at the same stage, Nick. It's hard to know when enough spice has been added. Good luck.

  4. As someone about to start on Draft #3 (and a half), where every new draft has been a complete rewrite, I feel your pain. I comfort myself with the thought that each draft has *really* been about me improving as a writer.

    Let me know how useful that book turns out to be - sounds intriguing.