People often approach Jeffery Archer and say: ‘I’ve got a book written, what should I do now?’ And he replies: ‘You don’t have a book, you have a draft of your book….’
It took about 16 weeks to write the first draft of El Niño. I’d started in August and was determined to be finished by Christmas. It’s important to have a deadline, otherwise you’ll write into infinity and never finish it. Most days I wrote, and kept the evenings steady. Some poker, some bowling, less cider. I noticed that, even if you have only two pints the night before, your synapses don’t fire as well the next day. You miss tricks, key lines, good dialogue. There’s a crackle in the creative reception that wouldn’t be there otherwise. If you can get a run at a project, say three or four straight days of full on working, then you hit a kind of zen. You hear writers talking about this all the time. They say – “I sat down to write at 9am and the next time I looked up it was 1.15pm. And I have no idea where the time went.”
The manuscript was 50,000 words and about 220 pages. I remember printing it for the first time and picking up random pages and reading them to see if they sang. Sometimes they did, others they didn’t, but I knew at least I had a document that could be worked with, sculpted into shape, made totally complete.
The best thing to do, after finishing, is to leave it for a couple of weeks and then come back to it and read it fresh. Like a new novel written by someone else. When discrepancies arise, you mark them down.
E.g. Why is the sun shining on Page 10 and it’s raining on Page 11? Why would Charlie agree to do a robbery when he has so much to lose? Are the relationships believable? Is the ending obvious? Is it too long? Can anything be cut?
When you answer those big questions, and feel that story is a bit closer to where it needs to be, it’s wise to do a micro edit. This means going through every page of the book, line by line (with a red biro), and marking out all the spelling mistakes, awkward sentences, stray apostrophes and lethal homophones.
E.G. You’re house. Your a clown. (Your house. You’re a clown).
There faces are yellow. (Their faces are yellow.)
They’re is a time and a place for everything. (There is a time and place for everything.)
Their is no way these sentences sound right. (There is no way these sentences sound right.)
Two be or not too be. (To be or not to be.)
To’s company. (Two’s Company).
Two many to faced people. Where are you going too? (Too many two faced people. Where are you gong to?)
When you do this for long enough, eventually you’ll spot a mistake from the far side of the room. It’s an intense experience but ultimately makes you more intimate with your book. You’ll soon know each page by heart and when you change something on Page 5, you’ll automatically know how it affects the story on P 60.
You’re balancing an entire fictional universe in your head and when something goes awry, you will know about it. Every minute you spend doing micro edits makes it a better book.
El Niño wasn’t done after the first draft, or the second or third. Eventually I realised it would take at least another 3-5 months to get it right. But how’s the credit card going to feel about that, Micky?