I recently completed my second novel which is set on a single day in the summer of 1947 in the place where I grew up. Here is a blow by blow account of how it was done.
The completed work is a whisker under 61,000 words. At times I am convinced it is the best work I have ever done, at others I am terrified that it is really a load of absolute tosh.
As soon as I completed the polishing of HonestHearts I began work on my second novel. It is based on a short story I had written a couple of years ago and that is part of the collection Pulse of Life published recently by the Laois Writers' Group. By early January 2012 I had in excess of 57k words written. Having set myself a target of 3,000 words per week I actually achieved a satisfying 3.5k/week from mid-September to the end of 2011. I am now undertaking the polishing process. I want to give the main characters greater depth and to provide much more evocative descriptions of the locale. This time I do not have to rely too heavily on web based research - this second novel is set in the locality in which I grew up and draws on my own childhood memories of the place and its people.
But right now I am trying to take a critical look at each of the episodes I have written and answer some key questions about each: what does this episode contribute to the whole? What does it tell the reader about the place and/or the people involved? Is it consistent with what has gone before and/or needs to be revealed later? Does it have an internal logic that follows some part of the eight point arc and how does it fit within the overall arc of the book?
So far I have covered the first 80% of the book and made a number of minor changes. The most significant development at this point has been the realisation that two key characters were not properly developed; I had no back-story for them. So I spent a considerable amount of time during the week commencing 16th January 2012 working out a scenario for the whole family history going back over a quarter century. That has led to a number of the changes.
I still need to raise the level of the language in the descriptive passages. I want to achieve something that could be described as "lyricism" in those passages. I also need to return to the dialogue sequences and provide more internal monologue. And I need to ensure that the tone both of the dialogues and the internal monologues clearly differentiates the characters and matches their backgrounds.
21st Jan 2012.
The first stage review and revision exercise was completed this morning. Some significant changes were made in the build up to the climax, especially Sam's day. I also began to have a few ideas about improving the climax and resolution by having Henry maybe think about Bible stories and his understanding of religion and an after-life, and by having his mother arrive on the scene of his rescue.
Throughout the process some words were removed and others added. The outcome was a net increase of ca1300 words bringing the length of the finished piece to 58.8k words. Some passages that were removed were saved in a separate file for possible future reinstatement or re-use in a different part of the work.
Next is to begin a second review and revision exercise, this time concentrating on the use of language to evoke a stronger feeling for the place and people.
I can't help thinking that this process is analogous to what happens when I create a painting. I always begin by blocking in the basic shapes and their flat colours and relationships. This is done quickly with fairly broad brush strokes. Then I settle into the process of adding detail, gradually reducing the size of brush used and maybe using other techniques to add texture and to blend colours in order to achieve the right textures and to show the play of light on the surfaces of objects and leaves. Polishing my novel to achieve the desired effect of realism and emotional involvement for the reader is a lot like that.
31st Jan 2012.
This second stage process is now about half complete. As I go through revising each episode in turn I am amending my outline of the structure that I have in a spreadsheet, rearranging the suggested order of the episodes to bring them as close as possible to the real-time chronology of the events they record. I am also converting everything except remembered events into present tense.
Language generally is receiving a critical examination and, where I deem it necessary, is revised so as to develop the mood of each episode. Each episode needs to match the character of the person from whose point of view it is being told and their changing moods as the day progresses. I am not sure I have come close to achieving that yet. I am also having doubts about the relevance of certain episodes.
12th Feb 2012.
I completed the second stage process yesterday. It included the addition of a little under 2k words. But that is only part of the story. The whole thing has been transposed to present tense which I think adds immediacy but also required a considerable amount of re-phrasing. Several paragraphs of the original version were removed and new passages added, including a 250 word exposition of Henry's feelings as the end approaches.
Now I am putting together each character's contribution to the overall work. The aim of this is to check for consistency within each character's telling of his/her part in the day's events. The re-reading involved also provides a further opportunity for copy editing. Each episode, once transposed and revised in the previous stage was re-read and typos corrected on completion so I do not expect this to reveal many errors.
I still have two principle concerns: is the ending told in a sufficiently engaging way and is the use of so many view points (15!) so unconventional as to make it unpublishable? There are certainly a couple of episodes whose presence is questionable in terms of their contribution to the overall plot.
20 Feb 2012.
Final completion was achieved over the weekend. This entailed putting the whole thing together in a single file in the sequence in which it is intended to be read. The first 10,000 words were also saved in a separate file for submission to agents/publishers. I then read the whole thing from start to finish and made some more very minor adjustments and typo corrections. Next I checked out some of the historical background. During the writing I had relied on memory but I know that can be faulty and needed to be sure of some of the detail.
Among other things this revealed that the raising of the school leaving age was implemented in 1947 whereas the NHS did not come about until 1948. As my story has both taking effect in 1948 I had to make some changes. I chose to change the year in which the story is set so as to keep the references to the raising of the school leaving age which has more relevance to the plot than does the availability of free health. In fact, the cost of Jack's treatment now presents another problem for the family adding to the preoccupations that distract them from the search for Henry.
Finally I ran a series of "find" queries to identify repeated use of some verbs and to rephrase the offending passages. The same process was used to ensure that unusual (Welsh!) names were spelled consistently throughout.