The three-pass rule

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I have a rule. No, that’s not true. I have a theory, an idea, and it’s this: after every big change you need to make at least two more passes of your manuscript before you can send it out into the great wide world.

At the moment I’m doing major revisions to my latest work-in-progress. This is a good novel (I think) but one upon which I stuffed a little in the character department. I have a plan to combine two characters into one easy-to-swallow morsel. This obviously involves a lot lot lot of work.

So what I’m going to do is this: I’m going to concentrate on that job. I’m not going to worry so much about the actual words I use. I’m not going to worry too much about little slips or finding the perfect prose. This draft is for big things: for who does what and when and how. Not about perfecting the micro-expressions or the tiny gestures.

And that’s why I’ll need another draft when this is done. I’ll need a troubleshooting pass, a precision-engineering job after the great earthmoving of pass #1 (actually pass #6, but it’s been a while since the last one). I need to make sure the voice is right, the silences are on cue and the smiles are from and to the right people.

So: two passes, one for heavy engineering, one for precision. So why is this a three-pass rule?

Truth is that two might be enough, but I’m not happy – I don’t trust myself enough – that this is enough to catch all the imperfections with this little work.

But before that, it’s time for a break.

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Such intense work is likely to take you extremely close to the material. So close, in fact, that you start to lose objectivity and focus. So it’s my plan that before I go on for a third pass I take a long, hard go at something else before coming back to the work in question. This isn’t my idea, of course; it’s in all books of writing advice and the like. I’m just trying to (finally) put it into practice.

That’s where I am at the moment with New Gods, the last in my Antarctic trilogy. I did a major overhaul then cantered through it to fix obvious errors. Now I’ve set it to one side to let cool and to give myself a little distance before I go through it again.

This would also be the time to get beta-readers involved but I fear I’ve already blown all of mine on earlier drafts.

And, while I wait, I’m on to the next task. For writing is a production line and there should always be something on the conveyor belt.

A new beginning

A few months ago I put the opening scene of Oneiromancer right here on this very blog. It was a first draft. It wasn’t very good. And that’s fine: part of the reason I posted it was because it wasn’t great. It’s part of the process – a fair reflection of the sort of shit I churn out as I find my way, as I walk that road towards – hopefully – publishability.

But that’s my rational brain talking. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about it; vulnerable, embarrassed. It wasn’t very good. Letting the great wide world see something so raw and incomplete is terrifying. Plus it’s counter-productive: I’m trying to build a following. Anyone who read that will think I’m an amateur. It will not get me a publishing deal. It will not awe people with my hard-earned skills. It will not make anyone eager to read the rest of the work.

Now I’ve completed the first draft and I’m on the rewrite. So I’ve decided to put the second draft here on my blog and to expose myself again. This is partly to do all the things I’ve just said: I want to impress. But I also thought it’d be interesting – for anyone interested in the process – for people to be able to compare and contrast the two versions. To see what I’ve kept, what I’ve cut, the ways in which the scene has developed or changed emphasis. If that’s you, the link above will hyperspeed you to the original post.

Or you could just want to read an opening salvo. In which case, read this version. It’s better. If you disagree then something’s gone badly wrong somewhere.

And please, please, please let me emphasise: this isn’t finished either. It’s closer, but two drafts are nothing. Many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip etc etc. Let me show the whole thing to my beta-readers first. Let me get serious, deep feedback. Only in context will we know if it works or not.

Comments, as always, are welcome.

 

*          *          *

 

“You’re ready?” Rosenkrantz asked. He held his sword by his side, handsome in his doublet and hose.

Guildenstern shivered, though the night was warm. The estate wasn’t silent – never was, not in the middle of London – but it was the quietest it would get, mid-way between the pubs closing and the rush-hour starting back up again. “Are you –”
“We’ve been through it how many times?” Rosie cut her off. “We want to make a difference, right?”

Gilly sighed and turned away. She looked over the concrete balcony at the half-lit plaza – more concrete, the occasional stunted tree failing to bring life to the yard. In the distance there was a scream and a thump, as of someone running into a wheelie-bin. She twitched back her long dress, unsure, now they were actually out here, just how to go about being a vigilante.

Rosenkrantz touched her arm. “There,” he said.

She focused on a ground-floor gap in the buildings. A woman, colour swamped by the amber of security lights and streetlamps, burst into the square created by the arms of squat tower-blocks in which they stood. She looked terrified; even from their vantage point – twenty metres away and another fifteen up – they could see her eyes were wide, her breathing laboured. She glanced behind her – and into the amphitheatre came a man. Broad-shouldered, well built with a black beanie pulled tight over his ears, he sighted the girl and made for her.

Gilly felt Rosenkrantz tense as he raised the sword again and turned for the stairs –

“Wait,” Gilly said.

“What? This is what we’re here for. Vigilantes, remember?” Below the girl was sprinting for the far exit, the narrow gap between towers on the east side. The man was catching her, though; easy loping steps that covered the ground deceptively quickly. “She needs –”

“Something’s not right here,” Gilly said.

Rosenkrantz shifted uncomfortably. The sword remained unsheathed.

Below them the girl finally realised she wasn’t going to make the exit. She turned at bay; seeing this, the man too slowed, adopted a stance more ready for combat. Gilly watched his empty hands flex. He said something – a question, maybe. By way of an answer the girl reached into her demin jacket and pulled out a flick-knife. Street-lights reflected off the blade.

Still the girl backed off, the man cautious, now, but still coming at her. She slashed the air between them.

Rosenkrantz was fiddling with his scabbard, rocking it back and forth. “Gil –”

“No,” Gilly said. “Just… just watch.”

The girl below them slashed again, skipped forwards as she thrust towards her opponent’s chest. But this time, almost faster than the watchers could perceive, the man’s hand shot out and crashed against the girl’s wrist. The knife skittered across the paving stones.

The girl had backed up against one of the bare trees that seemed so out of place in this land of concrete. She shook her head mutely – and then, and then –

She changed.

Slowly she stood up straighter until she was taller than the man before her. The fear went from her expression, her mouth drawing tight and contemptuous. The man took a half-pace back and she laughed, hard and cruel, and there was something unhuman in it, some harmonic that rattled the fillings in the teeth. For a moment the background noise, the ever-present traffic, the nightbirds and night-dwellers were silenced.

Then the dogs started barking.

The woman held up her arm. Gilly watched as her fingers, her nails – they grew, sharpened, became talons. Her face darkened but there was no shadow on her now; as if a tattoo was only now coming to the surface.

The man stepped forwards and rammed the heel of his hand into the bridge of her nose. The snap echoed around the courtyard. She staggered back against the tree. And all the time she was changing, chin becoming pointed –

The man was on her before she could recover, grabbing a wrist in each hand and holding those horrible bladed fingers up and away –

“She’s not bleeding,” Rosenkrantz muttered. He was right. The nose seemed distorted but there was no splatter, no trail – and no sign of pain on the woman-thing’s face.

She tried to kick out but the man was ready for her, twisting his knees to deflect her legs away. She tried to angle her blades to scalp him but his grip was too strong, too rigid.

With a flexibility that Gilly knew she’d never have, the man calmly extended a foot and planted it in the woman’s neck. He pulled on her arms, stretching her, throttling with the dark sole of his boot. She let out a little gurgling sound, drool spilling down her sharp chin, head forced back against the tree-trunk at her back. She spasmed and shook, the gurgling turning into a keening wail. Still the man kept the pressure on.

“We should go down,” Gilly said. But before she could move there was a crunch of cartilage and the girl-thing went limp.

The watchers made their way towards the staircase as the man kept his boot on the throat. It was only as they reached the harsh grey steps that he stepped back, let go of the girl-thing’s arms and let her slip motionless to the ground.

“Follow him,” Gilly said. “We need to know who he is.”

The man was looking round now, face calm and controlled. As if he did this sort of thing every night. Rosenkrantz drew Gilly deeper into shadows. She didn’t think they’d been seen.

“Follow him,” she said again and he turned and started to stride back the way he’d come.

“So this is vigilanteism, is it?” Rosenkrantz muttered. “Not exactly as I’d imagined. What about you?”

“I’m going to dispose of that… thing.”

“What? Why?” he asked as they hurried, as quiet as they could, down to the courtyard.

“It’s not dead yet. Not dead enough.”

 

First-draft doubts

I forgot a character for 100 pages. How do you do that? Just completely forget his existence whilst at the same time building for his denouement? Takes a special kind of dysfunction to hold contradictions like that. Fortunately I’m a writer. I’m in a permanent state of dysfunction, capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast.

So, the work-in-progress then. I’ve talked before about how the first draft is essentially a walk-through; a dry run, showing what scenes you need, who’s where and when and how to get from one world to another. For that reason I’ve spent little effort in description or in making the world itself come alive. I’ve been concentrating on where people are at and where they’re going.

I’ve also written a fair bit that will likely be completely cut. It’s one of the perils of this kind of procedure: unless you plan every scene in detail before first setting metaphorical pen to paper you’re likely to write in redundancy and waffle. Similarly, you’ll likely find yourself omitting scenes that, in later drafts, you’ll wonder how you ever did without.

That’s the nature of the game. It’s the nature of my game. And I’m sure you’re there wondering if I’m going to turn round and advocate a more logical, planned approach. Nah. I’m still in the process of discovery: I’m telling myself stories, I’m learning and I’m happy. Even though it can be an absolute pain.

Yesterday I hit the 100,000 word mark, which in itself doesn’t mean much. I’ve always envisioned this novel would weigh in at about 120k: more important is that I’m building up to the final climax, the last battle. I’m at the stage where, having a solid idea of where I want to end up, I’m now in the process of manipulating my characters so they get to the right place at the right time. In this particular case I have to work out how to break into a London police station that’s already on high alert.

Logic moves slowly. Characters are rightly suspicious of manna from heaven; the buggers see traps in everything. To get from one place to another without a massive wrench is a case of a thousand tiny corrections, of a series of decision that all make perfect sense in themselves but inexorably lead my cast to where I want them to be.

Hence these scenes that may well end up being cut. I have to write them. I have to know how this line of reasoning works – or if it simply doesn’t. Even if it all seems like a pointless slog, it’s much easier to write something and later cut it out than to have to go back and insert whole sections. Besides, you never know – and you always hope – that although you’re going through the motions your readers might love the quiet, tension-building scenes as much as the noise. You might just have written something really good, and this is just standard first-draft doubt.

Incidentally, whilst I was lying in bed the other night I suddenly realised that I might want to take out a whole loop of action: around 20,000 words would be erased with just a snap of the fingers. That’s still an option. Every story is about the roads walked: but sometimes the roads you’ve not gone down are the ones that fascinate the most. The road not travelled. And there’s no time better to see those than when you’re first-drafting.

So where goest I now? Well, I go the only way I know and that’s onwards. One foot in front of the other, marching, hobbling, ambling down that road. This isn’t the time to look back, to wonder if there wasn’t a shortcut better taken. It’ll have to be examined later, when I can properly sit back with a map and review all the junctions and signposts and ghost-towns I passed on the way. There are always other options. All those brilliant stories you fell in love with throughout your life? In another world they’d all end differently. Some would be better for it.

Some, of course, would just be a whole lot weirder.