Tracking revisions

I’ve lost track of how many revisions The Beast on the Broch has gone through. It’s had the most complicated lifecycle of any of the novels I’ve written.

I began the book in the autumn of 2013; I’d only managed a few thousand words when I had to take a break for personal reasons, so it wasn’t until April 2014 that I managed to complete the rough first draft. This was a very rough draft – as an experiment, I’d written it without chapter breaks, using “beats” from the Save the Cat beat-sheet as an alternative to structure it. (This isn’t an approach I’ve ever tried again – it really doesn’t suit my writing style.)

I produced a second draft, then a third, then got a copy printed and asked my partner Sandra to read through it. It… wasn’t great. The pacing was off, the action confused, the revelations at the end too abrupt, and the lack of characterisation for anyone other than the protagonist and the beast made it appear like the world was populated by cardboard cut-outs.

It wasn’t all bad! Sandra liked the setting, the general concept, and Talorca and the beast. There was the seed of a good story in there. I don’t think it helped that I still hadn’t put in chapter breaks.

So I went back to the manuscript. I inserted chapter breaks, I tried to beef up the characterisation, added a couple of scenes, and tweaked the ending. Then I did another revision pass on the manuscript. (I think we’re up to five revisions now.)

It was better, but it wasn’t good enough.

So I made the hard decision to put it away, and start another project. There was a competition being run by Dundee libraries and schools to write a children’s book set in the First World War – I thought I might as well give that a go.

So I wrote The Wreck of the Argyll, then another book, then another, then in the summer of 2015, nearly two years after I began the book for the first time, I pulled my Pictish beast manuscript out of a drawer, blew the dust off, and started again.

(I didn’t really have it in a drawer. This is the 21st century. It’s a Scrivener file stored on my local HDD, backed up in Dropbox, and archived on my local network storage. But the principle’s the same.)

And I really mean “started again”. A tweak or an edit wasn’t going to do the job. I hadn’t touched the manuscript for over a year, but that didn’t mean I hadn’t been thinking about it. Thinking what I could do to bring out the potential that Sandra had seen.

I made a radical decision about the beast – a decision that would necessitate a complete re-write. I’d have to make enormous changes to make this work. That was good! I didn’t want to have an easy ride with this revision. I wrote several new chapters from scratch. I completely restructured the chapters (again) to make them much shorter. I rewrote a lot of the chapter endings to make them snappier. I threw away the ending and wrote a new one.

Once I’d completed this draft (six now?) I treated it like a first draft. To all intents and purposes, it was. I ran through two further drafts, correcting and polishing as I went, then read through the finished novel.

It worked. Or so it seemed to me. But the proof of the pudding and all that. So in October 2015, two years after I first started writing it, I started sending the manuscript out into the world.

At first the signs weren’t good. I was still getting flat rejections, or being ignored, by agents, even though I’d already had a book published. It was dispiriting. Maybe I hadn’t done enough? Maybe eight drafts, including one re-write, across two years wasn’t sufficient?

But then the tide started to turn. An agent requested the full manuscript, and a new publisher, Cranachan, started to show an interest. Anne and Helen at Cranachan really seemed to understand what I was trying to do with the book, to see the themes I was trying to bring out. They sent me an edit letter full of suggestions for the book, and those suggestions were exactly what the book needed.

Reader, I signed a contract with them.

Over the past few months I’ve been working with Anne and Helen to lick my book into shape. I implemented all of the changes in their edit letter and resubmitted the manuscript. Helen first, then Anne, went through the manuscript and made their edits and suggestions (including inserting some Gaelic words and phrases to represent the language of the Dalriadans). I’ve spend the past week going through all of those final edits, and yesterday I sent off the completed manuscript.

What are we up to, ten drafts now? But that’s it. There’s just the final check of the typeset version to come (assuming Anne and Helen are happy with how I’ve implemented their edits) and then it’s all done.

A book takes as many drafts as it takes. The Wreck of the Argyll was written in a blaze of creativity in the space of a few weeks, had two further quick drafts that didn’t make many changes at all (more of a proof-read, really), and one substantial edit from Helen Sedgwick at Cargo. Structurally, the finished, printed book is identical to the first draft. The Beast on the Broch took ten drafts across two and a half years, and is unrecognisable compared to the initial version.

So if you’ve got a manuscript that just doesn’t work, put it aside. Maybe it needs more work than you can give it when you’re so close to it. Give it time. Give it distance.

And when the time is right, pull it out of the drawer, blow off the dust, and look at it with fresh eyes and a ruthless attitude.


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