Can you make a sword from an iron ore mine and a pickaxe?
Ultimately, yes, but digging ore isn’t enough.
I imagine you’d mine the ore with the pickaxe, turn ore into iron with a blast furnace, create steel with a basic oxygen furnace, and use a forge and other techniques to shape steel into a sword.
No step can be missed. A lump of iron ore might have the same shape and weight as a sword, but it won’t last long. Iron ore is where you start. Writing is similar. A first draft isn’t a novel, it’s a novel’s foundation, the words need refining and shaping, maybe sharpening.
At first I planned to flesh out the whole story before writing the first draft, but inspiration proved hard to chase. I had a clear start and end, but writing abstract scene plans proved difficult. I changed tack, extending the opening scene, letting the plot twist as it wanted. Writing without an immediate destination helped me create new ideas and plot twists. There’s a firmness about dialogue and detailed directions, something for imagination to grip. You may not know which road leads to your destination, but the journey can entertain, even educate and inspire. New story arcs and character developments followed the words, creating a richer story than any theoretical plan would create. The ore was being extracted.
The first draft saw me writing 500 words each day. I ended 2015 with 156,000 words, but I had quantity without quality. Scenes were repeated, conversations were a meandering babble, characters were thin, and my car would have fitted through the plot holes. However, my desperation to hit quota forced ideas onto the page. If characters fell silent, I created action by changing their environment. If a situation lacked tension, I pushed trouble towards the characters.
Establishing habits was critical. The weight of past achievements often pushed me over the 500 word limit. Winning streaks build momentum.
Jack London was right, inspiration needs chasing with a club. Writing without an immediate destination helped me chase; giving characters’ autonomy handed me a club. I emerged from the first edit with a welter of ideas, good and bad, some bizarre enough to spark new ideas. Editing pruned things, but if science fiction is a carnival of ideas, enough good ideas remained to make the novel worth visiting.
Editing has been like discarding mud and stones. I followed George Orwell’s guidance, use as few words as possible, use simple words, avoid commonplace metaphors, favour the active voice.
Characterisation was part of the mining. I’m always working to add texture to characters. I filled in back story, past activities, previous jobs and relationships, earlier troubles and disappointments. Character notes were kept as they occurred, giving me material to mine for later edits. I wanted to know about their desires, their interests and plans for the future. These details might appear in speech, actions, even their decisions.
Plot development means writing and discarding. Character development is more of a steady improvement, a dialogue with actors, testing their reactions to extraordinary circumstances.
My characters have strong opinions, underpinning robust motivations. They react to each other in different ways. These relationships act like stage lights, illumination comes from contrasting angles, each beam shows particular aspects of the individual’s character. Handing out problems revealed more about their personalities. Would they want to save their own skin, or help others? How would social ties fare against a chance to get rich?
I’ve refined the themes and thoughts behind the work. I started by disagreeing with the idea that natural things are better than artificial ones, but my views became more nuanced as I wrote. For instance, writing about an artificial world showed me technology and nature aren’t so different, and this coloured my thinking when writing scenes where characters interacted with their environment. I’ll write more on themes in a later post, but it’s worth saying that they only emerged after I’d started writing.
The sword forging process had four steps, one finished before another started. Novel writing mixes the steps together, work on one inspires changes in other steps. A character’s experience in one scene may alter my view on his personality, which means I must revisit an earlier chapter. Ideas spring into life during a final edit; adding them might produce new avenues for tension and drama elsewhere. Continual re-writing works like the creation and shaping of steel, but it affects all parts of the writing process. I may need to return to the mine for more ore, and scenes may be re-written, but I am always marching forwards. Quantity becomes quality.
Putting things on paper brought everything to life. I’ve learnt from the experience, and my next novel may be approached in a different way, but I’m close to sending the manuscript to agents, and can’t wait to write again.