The joy of a first draft

On 31st December 2016, I completed the first draft of Pax Caledonia, my children’s novel set in Roman Britain in the aftermath of the battle of Mons Graupius. This was my ninth completed novel – completed to first draft, at least.

Five years ago, I’d started loads of novels, but never managed to get beyond 15,000 to 20,000 words before stalling and ultimately giving up. It was in March 2012 that I started The Chimney Rabbit. At one point, about half-way through, I came to a complete halt and stopped writing for several months; however, I managed to get going again, and by December 2012 I’d completed the first draft.

I can still remember than night. I’d opened up Scrivener on my laptop late that evening, intending to get a few words down before going to bed, but as I went on I realised I was getting closer and closer to the end. I couldn’t stop. After so many failures, after that months-long near-fatal stall, I was desperate to finish this book.

So I kept going. And going. And long after midnight, I’d done it. I had completed the book, and could write those magic words:

THE END

It doesn’t get much better than that. And even now, several years and eight further completed novels later, I still got a massive buzz from finishing the first draft of Pax Caledonia.

Now, I mentioned that I’ve completed nine books. If you look at Amazon, you’ll see that I have only two books actually published. There’s a reason for that.

With one exception, my first drafts are rubbish. Absolute bobbins.

The exception is The Wreck of the Argyll – for some reason, possibly due to a tight deadline, heavily constrained plot, and a huge amount of luck, the published version is virtually identical to the first draft, and even now, looking back on it, I can’t think of anything that I’d want to change.

The Beast on the Broch‘s first draft was awful beyond belief. It was actually written before The Wreck of the Argyll, but was so bad that it wasn’t worth sending anywhere. It took being put away for a year, a complete rewrite, restructure, and heavy edit before it became anything that I’d be happy to show anyone. And even now, there are things I’d consider changing in the manuscript.

Since The Wreck of the Argyll, I’ve completed four first drafts. All of them are terrible to a greater or lesser extent.

Murder at Eaglecrest is a sequel to The Wreck of the Argyll, so as such fails through its very concept – you don’t write sequels to books that don’t sell. It also throws away the interwoven plots and rigorous historical detail of WWI Dundee of the original in favour of a country house murder investigation, which was probably a mistake.

My Dragon Has No Nose is a fantasy set in a Victorian Edinburgh where dragons are real. It doesn’t work mostly because of its failure to grasp the possibilities of the concept – instead of exploring the ramifications of a world where dragons power the fires of industry, its plot is based on putting together a show in a music hall. Also, crucially, it’s a story about a comedian that doesn’t contain any jokes. Oh dear.

Far Galactic North, my science fiction adventure, doesn’t have enough of a high concept to it. It’s just generic sci-fi setting with nothing to distinguish it; and the plot seems to be high-paced but low-engagement.

Pax Caledonia, the latest in this long line of first drafts, seems to work OK for the first act, but the meat of the plot – the  “promise of the premise” in Save the Cat terms, doesn’t really convince. I’ve got a nasty feeling this means a 60% rewrite.

So, what does this mean? It means that more work is needed. Unfortunately, coming up with solutions to problems is nowhere near as easy as blasting through a first draft. With The Beast on the Broch, it took about a year of thinking before I could start on the massive rewrite. Whether any of the above four books is salvageable, I don’t know – I certainly don’t have any solutions in mind at the moment.

The other problem is that you don’t get a first-draft buzz from completing a second, third, or tenth draft. It’s just hard work. And I have a certain amount of difficulty finding the motivation and enthusiasm for such an amount of slog.

I’m deliberately holding back from thinking about any new books at the moment, in the hope that what little creativity I have is directed towards my flawed first drafts – my rewrite of The Beast on the Broch was done during a hiatus between new projects. We’ll see if it works!

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