As a child, I never had any trouble dreaming. The ideas I dreamed up, often during the excellent opportunities afforded by afternoon maths classes, had a way of growing to alarming proportions and becoming projects that allowed me little sleep. Since then, I’ve almost always been working on one large project or another. But something I noticed about the trajectories from dreams to projects is that there was never any real division between the two stages. The idea generator could never be turned off and actually seemed to increase its output as the results of building led to new inspiration. I think most idea-driven people are like this because the objective is not only to finish the job, but to make something special.
I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if the inventor of the wheel began by drawing and then building a square block as a kind of support, but then realized he could move it around more easily if he knocked off the four corners and gave it an axle, and then realized he could knock off the next eight corners … until he had the first wheel and beginnings of the first racing cart.
Writing is like this for me. As the book takes shape, I begin to understand what it wants to be. Corners get knocked off, spokes are added, and I realize the original idea described the starting point more than the final product. There were other projects I worked on where I didn’t have this luxury and had to race for immovable deadlines. While the results weren’t necessarily bad, there was seldom anything special or magical about them either. I find that creativity only really breathes when given space. If, however, the breathing starts to sound like snoring, we have a different kind of problem.
I have a number of music albums I can listen to over and over, and then I have a few by the same artists that I can’t. Usually, when I go back and dissect the production, it becomes apparent that the ones that keep growing on me are the ones that were made with far greater labour. Occasionally one finds exceptions to this, but those exceptions are normally mysteries to artist and audience alike.
The writing of book 2 has been a very different experience to the one I imagined. At more than 40% longer than the first book, which was already on the long side, it’s been my biggest creative challenge to date. I know that, as a reader, the length of the process can be trying in a different way, because the progress isn’t visible. So I’d like to take you behind the scenes for a glimpse of what is happening and what to expect. I’ll do my best to keep this free of spoilers.
An overview of the writing log
I wrote the rough draft at speed in about four months, but it was very rough. I didn’t stop to research or embellish anything, so if there was a passage that had to do with nautical terminology, my text would read something along the lines of, “The captain bellowed for the men to [adjust the thingummy and get the ship to do whatever ships are meant to do in these conditions]”. I have a smattering of sailing knowledge, but that’s from single-masted hobie cats, not these tall ships that are all flapping canvas and knotted spiderwebs. The same omissions applied to the specifics of cooking, language, culture, architecture, and many other fields which would spill parts of the story if named. It wasn’t just technical detail I put aside. I also skipped over sections that I didn’t feel ready to write, that weren’t dripping from fingers to keys. The first draft held the kernel of the story, but it wasn’t readable, not even to me.
So when it came to the first rewrite, most of my attention went into plugging the holes and completing tricky parts of the narrative. Following this, I took a deep breath and approached the research mountain that glared down with a cruel smile. This stage took easily twice as long as either of the preceding two. Some of the research I handed over to members of the team, without whom I could never have borne the load. To be frank, this was a tough and not entirely exhilarating process. I don’t mind research, but digging for obscure details under pressure is not great fun.
Many will know that infusing research into a novel is nothing like presenting it for a report. It requires far more digging. You could, of course, try something report-like by bending the story around the first mounds of information you discover, but that generally comes across as data dumping. You could also avoid details by using summary-style dodges – “The storm was terrible, but using remarkable skill, the captain held his crew together and they eventually managed to negotiate all the dangers of the waves and rocks.” It doesn’t burden the reader, but neither does it allow the reader to stand on the deck and share in the world of sailors.
I find it pays to dig and dig until you unearth the information that feels right, that feels like it belongs. Detail is always more convincing than the absence of detail, but a few of the right details are more engaging than heaps of digressive ones. It’s ironic that it can take more research to present less information, but in the end, it takes the laboriousness from the reader’s shoulders and puts it on the author’s – where it belongs.
Another aspect to the research is that, when writing fantasy, you don’t want details to hearken too strongly back to any particular culture in our world if you can help it. I’ll use an example from the first book. When researching sword-making, there was a wealth of information on Japanese techniques. It was easy to find and there was more than enough for my purposes. But I realized that if I drew from only this, it would ring too many bells and people would be reading “Samurai” instead of “grey marshal”, ejecting them from the fantasy world being created in their minds.
I felt the only way to get past this was to collect information from a range of cultures across the world. I churned it all together so that it was, in effect, cultureless, and then drew out what seemed to fit with the Castath people and their level of technology. I’ve tried to adhere to the same principle with the second book. I think this makes for a more convincing sense of new cultures, which very strongly impacts a reader’s sense of place, of being somewhere otherworldly that still seems real.
Once the narrative was tied together and the details worked in, it was time for the first edit.
With the second rewrite (version 3) done, I was feeling quite spent. Usually, I don’t let anyone read the manuscript at this stage, but I needed help. It came in the form of a developmental or big-picture edit. I’ve always shied away from this kind of thing because outside comments on an incomplete process can bring more confusion than clarity. When a project is in a rough state, people tend to misunderstand, and their feedback conflicts with the objective which can be difficult to express. For an outsider to be able to see not just what it is but what it wants to be and how to get it there is like looking at a wriggling white larva and being able to say, “Honey bee!” or “Harvester ant!”, and hopefully not “Dung beetle!”
A good friend, who has been the team’s PR manager for some time, took on the task, and I don’t think I’ve ever had such helpful feedback on any project. It was the rope thrown down to haul me out from a creative mine shaft. That edit gave me the perspective I’d lost over the past few months. What followed was no small revision. It wasn’t about sandpapering rough edges but rather bashing corners from a large wheel that wasn’t turning properly. Many parts of the manuscript went through a radical transformation, while others were simply removed and replace with better ones. The resulting book is something that finally rolls along without jarring. For the first time, I’m looking at it and thinking, “Yes, that’s what it was meant to be!”
The process from here
Another member of the team has started working through the manuscript, compiling tables of names, places and times for the purpose of checking internal consistencies, as well as highlighting and commenting on anything in the text that needs attention. These comments will be added to a list I’m currently working through – corrections and ideas built up during the past few months. (All of this falls under the developmental edit, so you can see why the progress bar is not zooming across the page. 5% actually represents a pretty significant amount of labour).
Many of the items on the list are sparks of inspiration. They arrive at odd and often inconvenient times for note-making, like when I’m trying to sleep, on the dance floor, hanging from a climbing wall or in a cinema. Artists often comment on the randomness of inspiration. When it alights like a drifting leaf, you can brush it off, but you won’t likely find it again. I make sure I snatch and record all those little ideas when they flit by. Digital notes work well, but there’s something about the immediacy of scratching thoughts on paper. There is one tiny note book that works well for me on hikes. It’s slightly bigger than a credit card, very thin, and holds about 60 pages. It was actually the inspiration behind Kalry’s walkabout diary – something small and light enough to hang around my neck.
Once I’ve finished with the current list of notes, I’ll use the compare document feature to check all the additions, and changes to the manuscript that appeared in the last stage, improving the flow and fixing the typos. Then I’ll do one more deep rewrite. Much of what I look for is explained here. A little over ninety chapters later, the alpha readers will hear the call to action. I’ll go through the manuscript again while they are busy. Once their feedback is incorporated, the beta readers will step forward and I’ll do another revision as they read. Graphics, sketches, print setup and so on will be happening in the background. Once the beta’s feedback has been worked in, it’s over to the final editor, the final corrections, print setup, audiobook recording, and the stores.
Expectations and timeline
Readers and authors basically want the same thing – a good book as soon as possible. A few people have suggested that I split this sequel into two, or even three, in order to reduce the waiting time. I could actually earn more that way because nobody minds paying 3 x $4.99 but we all deliberate when presented with any ebook over $10. However, when I consider breaking this book into parts, it just doesn’t feel right for the series. Something of The Wakening’s identity would be lost.
I’d originally hoped to have the book out by the end of 2017, which would have been just under a 2-year write given that book1 expansions and self-publishing demands ate several months after the debut’s release. But that date was estimated when book2 was around 650 pages. When it grew by 50% to 980 pages, any thought of completing it by that time faded. I’ve learned my lesson and I’m not going to suggest another date until all variables are dealt with – nobody appreciates it when expectations aren’t met. When I look back and look forward, I can see that most of the hard yards are done, but there is still a healthy distance remaining. It is, however, the stage of the process when everything starts fitting together and the pace begins to pick up.
I’m working as fast as I can – attested by the typing cramps in both hands – but also as conscientiously as I can. I’m just reaching that energising stage where the overall form has begun to emerge and it inspires me afresh to make sure this this book is allowed to develop into all it wants to be. (And don’t anyone dare say, “Dung beetle!”)