From first draft to gigantic project

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I’ve been writing since I was eight years old.  When I last burrowed through old files, I had eight novels completed to at least first draft stage, three screenplays and a number of short stories.  When friends wonder why I’m not yet published or at the very least, actively looking for a publisher, I usually give the same reason: it’s simply not enough to finish a novel, find an agent and then a publisher.  Writers face greater challenges than just finishing work.

I’ve been working nearly twenty years in the book trade and one phenomenon that has been pretty constant in all that time has been the ’emerging talent’.  Every year, a new author is hailed as the best, the brightest and blah blah blah.  It would be unfair to name those talents of yesteryear as the failure to repeat that early success should be expected given the pressures that every author is subjected to in the drive for sales.

There are some writers who can produce a novel a year, every year, ascend the bestselling charts and generate sales that are exceptional in comparison to the vast majority of books produced.  I’m pretty sure I’m not one of those writers.  Writing fiction is more than just a process for me as I suspect is the case for most writers.  From the initial idea for a novel, I might spend at least another four months working on character development, fictional environment and background history and at the end  of that time, hope to have completed a first draft synopsis.

Just like proving a loaf of bread, the synopsis needs to be left to leaven.  After a few months, I’ll go back to the synopsis and after re-reading a couple of times, I’ll redraft the synopsis.  When I’m satisfied that there are no plot-holes or mysterious turns of character in the outline of the story, I’ll then begin to write.

Most days, I can write around two thousand words but there are days when everything I write will be scrapped.  A typical novel produced by a UK publisher is around 180,000 words.  Shorter novels are rarely published in the UK unless they’re bestselling works in translation because it is felt that book lovers in this country expect books to be a certain length (and from what I’ve observed in bookshops, that certainly seems to be the case.  Few people will buy a novel of 100 pages or less for the same price as a novel three times longer even if Andrew Kaufman’s ‘All My Friends Are Superheroes’ ranks among the very best contemporary novels).  This means that at least ninety days are going to be needed to produce the first draft of the novel.

Guess what?  The novel is not finished then.  It needs to be redrafted and that’s best begun after the first draft has been been allowed to sit for a while.  Fresh eyes make better for better editing.

It seems crazy but UK publishers will usually offer a standard format of book contract to all new fiction authors, regardless of genre, age or experience.  After years of effort, it must come as not only a relief but a huge vindication when a contract is offered but the hard work begins before the ink is dry.

With so many books published each year, getting any sales at all involves a lot of marketing.  With a celebrity author, that part is easy, particularly if the celebrity has a strong presence on TV.  Authors will not only need to create a strong presence on social media (requiring daily effort) but will need to visit bookshops, book festivals, try and get themselves on radio and into newspaper articles and so on and so on.  While doing all this publicity, the author’s not writing and remember, most of them will not have been offered a lot of remuneration for their initial contract and will have to continue with their day job.

How on Earth is a debut author supposed to produce their second, third and fourth novel while fulfilling all the other obligations in their book contract?

Over the years, I’ve been very aware that few authors seem able to keep up the momentum and so I’ve quite deliberately held off sending out my work.  It wasn’t my own idea but advice I’ve been given by a couple of editors, one of whom also made the leap to becoming a fiction author.  At the time, this editor-author told me that I’d find another advantage to holding off and acquiring a backlog of work: my writing is better now than it’s ever been.

And so it should be: on 1st February this year, I began writing a re-imagining of Tolstoy’s ‘War & Peace’.  I loved the book and knowing that it was simply a matter of discovering the ‘right’ translation, I felt the book (Tolstoy never described his magnum opus as a ‘novel’) could reach a larger audience.  ‘War & Peace’ isn’t a heavy-weight, intellectuals-only book but a vast sprawling soap-opera that switches between bloody battlefields and romantic parlours.  It’s the DVD box-set to other author’s summer movies.

When I first started writing ‘Gargantus’, I thought it would be an interesting project that would keep my writing muscles exercised while I worked on improving the synopses – or story outlines – for two other novels.  Eleven months and over 600,000 words later, I’m close to finishing the first draft.  By this time next year, I hope to have finished redrafting the novel.

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