The fermentation of first drafts


Recently, I spent a weekend in Auburn, in the beautiful Clare Valley in South Australia, with the ever-inspirational author Fiona McIntosh, a team of industry experts, and a great bunch of writers. It was fabulous – the company, the information, the conversation, the weather, the food, the coffee, the autumnal colours – everything really.

I have no doubt that the wine, provided by local vineyard Taylors, was also fabulous, but I did not partake. I was told once, by a toffee-nosed snob selling fizz at a Victorian cellar-door, that I have an “unsophisticated Queensland palate” because I said I don’t much like wine. Cheers, bitch!

Anyway, I understand the concept, so I’m going to try out a wine metaphor here. You can correct me in the comments (or call me unsophisticated, I’m good with it).

Before I went on my roadtrip, I finished the first draft of my latest manuscript (let’s call her number three). I printed her out, handed her over to a couple of trusted people for general feedback, and put her out of my mind. That was OK. I had to do some serious culling of manuscript number one to dent the word count and tighten up the pace. A week later, I was twitchy to look at number three again. I had to take something away with me to work on at a writing weekend, right?

But, and here’s that wine metaphor, drafts need time to ferment. You can’t just rush in there and bottle the stuff, and say it’s done. The bottle will explode. Or, wait, is that ginger beer?


Alright, then, drafts, like wine, need time to age.

When I’ve just finished writing something I’m way too close to it to look at it critically. I’m still inside that character’s head, caught up in her drama, and I can’t see the story’s structure, theme, pacing, or anything else I need to be objective about, for all the feels. I need some air. The draft needs some time.

I gave myself a month, minimum, before I picked up number three again.

But, like I said, I was twitchy as hell for something to work on. So I dug out an old story idea. I’m not entirely certain how old it is, but I remember thinking when those Pandora circular charm bracelets first came out ‘oh, that’s like the anniversary bands on the wedding bracelets in Arlvagne in that old story I started.’ Yeah.

Anyway, I turned it around, shook it up, and still had 10,000 words in the file. So I’ve been writing more. I thought about the plot while I was driving, and typed it up at night. I’ve written more every day since I got home. I’ve slipped over into that skin and given myself some space from number three. My draft’s month of fermenting, or aging, or breathing, is up today, and in the meanwhile I’ve slapped an extra 22,500 words into what is shaping up nicely to be manuscript number four.

If I wasn’t so damn unsophisticated, I’d crack open a bottle of wine to celebrate.

Retrofitting story structure

engineMy current work in progress is something in the way of an experiment. I’ve never tried to write a novel-length anything in a single process. I’ve always written bits and pieces, here and there, put it away for ages, written a bit more, edited what I had, mucked around with it – you get the idea.

I’ve heard of a marvellous kind of storyteller who has an idea, starts writing and writes through (you people know who you are). I gave it a try and at around 35,000 words realised that this particular bunny was never going to fly for me.

No worries. I worked out the broad brushstrokes of what the plot needed to do, wrote the scenes that were clear in my head, and added in hashtag notes like #check delivery time 1834 mail London to York and #Julian needs to talk to Mattie about hares and curses. On the next sweep through the document, I write out more scenes, or maybe add more hashtags as I need to.

It’s a messier process, but it works for me, and I can easily search for # in an edit to find any points where I’ve reminded myself to check a fact.

What I don’t do is consciously plan out the overall three act, or five act, structure. And while I understand that a story doesn’t necessarily need that structure, it’s a reliable touchstone for the reader. I’m a big believer in the writer respecting the hell out of the reader, because that’s what I want when I’m reading.

The reader is doing a lot of stuff , inside their busy brain, bringing the writer’s story to life, and if the writer has used a solid structure it’s like a strong foundation on which you can build anything.

The other great thing about structure is that it reminds me to bolt things together better – that is, to make the connections that I’ve made in my writer head more overt on the page (but remember, respect! – no bludgeoning the reader with it).

I’ve written about four fifths of this current WIP. Soon, I will need to have a look at my document as a whole and identify the turning points (or the pinch points, or the pivotal scenes, or whatever you want to call them) where things shift for the characters, and tension increases.

Ideally, these scenes will mark the transitions between the acts within the classic story structure, and I need to make sure that my main character is being proactive, rather than reactive – that is, that she is making choices that cause things to happen, rather than just having things happen around her. I’m pretty confident she’s doing okay on that front, but retrofitting the structure also makes me think about the overall pacing of the story.

I’m a little worried, after trying the just write the thing from start to finish approach, that my pacing is off, and doing some word count checking of where those turning points happen will help me ensure that the eventual reader will feel invested early in the story, and there will be enough rising tension to keep them turning pages until the entirely satisfying conclusion.

Sounds perfect! Now I just have to make it happen.