Out of the Chaos — A Manuscript

I’ve been quiet on this blog for the last month or so for a a good reason, which is that I’ve been frantically trying to pull together a draft of the novel-in-progress to be professionally read by someone who knows me and my writing but has read little of this actual novel (I’ll reveal more later when she comes back and tells me what she thinks of it). However, how I got to this point — and the state of the manuscript — is a story worth relating first.

(There’s also a fairly tedious reason for the blog posts being more sporadic — the cumulative drag following the resumption of my daily grind into London to earn a crust doing the ‘day job’ — and even though I’m fairly new in this stint, my superiors seem to have twigged that the day-job, despite what it says on my CV is not actually my ‘passion’).

The most shocking discovery of the consolidation of many fragmentary files of novel was to find that I had 173,700 words — and that was after at least 20,000 words were dumped from the manuscript and with quite a few chapters either missing or in skeletal form.

I’d naively thought I could get the manuscript into reasonable shape before I started commuting again in mid January. This was way too optimistic but I eventually settled on a day I’d deliver a manuscript (early March) and then I had to push it back a week — partly because I fitted around work commitments in taking a couple of days leave to sit down and hammer out the manuscript. (That goodwill doesn’t feel as if it’s being reciprocated at the moment with a micro-managing boss who likes to suddenly appear at your shoulder and comment on what’s on my monitor — the kind of socially inept behaviour that one might hesitate to do with a trainee, let alone a supposed professional who he’s charging the customer a ridiculous daily rate for — that I don’t see much of. There’s a huge temptation to slip him in as a character in the next draft of the novel as revenge.)

But in the end, I managed to get a manuscript together of some semblance (it has a beginning, a middle and an end — of sorts). I wrote quite a lot of new material — including one piece for an MMU workshop that I stayed up until 6.45am in the morning to complete. Then I went to bed for an hour (it was a Saturday morning) and got the train into London for a 10.30am workshopping session with my ex-City friends on a piece I’d written earlier in the week.

To get the manuscript into one piece I worked for four days solid, getting up about 5.30am and working more or less steadily on it until about 10pm (quite a contrast with my enthusiasm for the day job). Even so, I know I’m still quite a way off getting anything that could be put in front of an agent. I was quite embarrassed that I’ve had to end up sending it in the state it is to my reader but at least I sent her something — perhaps this is some glimpse of what it may be to be a professional writer?

There were numerous ways in which it wasn’t wholly satisfactory:

  • Some sections were very sketchy (dialogue only) or even just brief notes
  • There were parts that are complete first drafts
  • There are, no doubt, many continuity issues involving times, plot events, minor characters (one changes nationality, people swap between driving a car and being a passenger), etc.
  • There were various duplications of exposition and no doubt many gaps too
  • Some of it is badly cut-and-pasted together so may not make complete sense.
  • There were definitely bits of content that I would have removed if I’d allowed myself longer to edit it.

While I think I’ve got lots more to do, I learned a lot from just pulling it together into one document (some of the files were so old that I had to do a bit of IT work with DOS command prompts and Excel editing to discover what was lurking in the mists of time on my hard drives — I even had to mine e-mail to get material that I’d forgotten to file away too).

One unique thing about writing a novel while on creative writing course is that the manuscript has largely been shaped by the demands of workshopping – and I’ve workshopped the pieces in a fairly random order as the novel wasn’t written sequentially. So due to the word count limits the novel tends to arrive in 3,000-5,000 word sections that are relatively polished then suddenly mutate into much rougher passages.

Also the sections of the novel were written over a period of a couple of years during which I ought to have learned something. I was quite dismayed when I went back to some material I’d written a couple of years ago, although I retained one chapter that was written in a completely different POV from the rest because I liked that one so much.

As it stands, from all the advice I’ve heard, the manuscript is probably significantly longer than publishers would want to consider for a writer’s first novel. If I could find an easy way of cutting it to a word count that publishers and agents might happily accept then then I’d be delighted. For example, I’ve just received some excellent feedback this morning from an ex-City coursemate who’s pointed out that I could easily lose about 5% of my word count in one recently-written section just by cutting out repetitions and echoing phrases in the dialogue and removing places where I explain in the narrative what the dialogue already states (or vice versa). I suspect a lot of the novel could be shrunk down by a similar ratio.

However, the question is whether to cut big sections and to leave the rest of the book fairly intact or should I edit down each and every sentence for brevity. I suspect that it’s a combination of both but I do think that novels with humour and social comedy will tend to, almost by definition, use more words for a given scene than thrillers and straight dramatic narratives. This because you’re often trying to surprise readers and to set up unusual situations to create the humour. My current MA writing tutor is a big fan of ‘what’s not said’ (or leaving material out). I’m intending to do this on a structural level in the narrative but, while I see the argument, I’m not convinced this can easily be done in a quirky humorous genre because a reader will inevitably fill in the gaps in the most straightforward and logical way — you can allow them to do this (as you might with suspense) in order to set up a punchline or joke but you still have to use the extra words in the end to create the humour.

To illustrate the point, here’s one I drew up that I think illustrates the point I’m at with the novel. I have good bits and not so good bits and parts that are relevant to the plot and sections that are more tangential. These can be mapped on a quadrant a bit like this:

Novel Revision 'Magic Quadrant'

Novel Revision 'Magic Quadrant'

And a note to any management consultants reading this who fancy ripping this off — the quadrant is mine (maybe I’ll write a creative writing book one day for burnt out consultants who’ll love this stuff?). In the meantime, I’ll license it to you for big bucks if you grovel.

So basically that means I have badly written material that’s essential to the novel plot and better written material that’s not so crucial. Rather than the facile (and perhaps deliberately sabotaging) advice of ‘kill your darlings’, I think I’d rather be more eco-friendly and recycle them back into the plot.

I have a list already of many aspects of the novel that are inconsistent and wrong and just plain embarrassing. But I’ve also come up with a list of really good additions and tweaks from sitting down and assembling it as a whole. Seems scary to think of putting more in a 173k document but hopefully I’ll get a second opinion on the stuff that really needs weeding out.

However, I’ve also wondered whether I could get two novels out of this and whether that might be another option (although I’d need to alter the narrative and the general structure) — though if any agents are reading (one can live in optimism), my intention is to try and get to about 120,000 words eventually, if possible.

I guess it’s not surprising that the novel is so long when I routinely write blog posts that are more lengthy than virtually anyone else’s. I guess the tangential nature of this blog is also reflected in the novel text.

But it might be incoherent, full of faults and inconsistencies and, in places, mystifying to read but the draft is done. Now I can try and get more than 5 hours sleep a night.

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One Response to Out of the Chaos — A Manuscript

  1. Pingback: A Most Critical Two Weeks? | MacNovel

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