First Draft Blues

It all starts with a great story idea; that light bulb moment. You can’t wait to sit down and start writing. This is far too easy, you think … until it all goes pear-shaped.


Now, there are plotters and pantsers and I happen to fall somewhere inbetween. As it happens, I have to approach my writing a little differently these days as I have an agent. As it turns out this is a good thing. Initially, there were a few moments of panic. I dreaded having to pitch an entire book I hadn’t even written, but as it has turned out it actually makes life easier. I will never be someone who spends months pre-planning, but I am coming around to the idea of doing enough to get me started.

With your main plot points laid out in your synopsis-like pitch, it takes some of the pain out of it and gives you a timeline, and for a murder/mystery, your victim and perpetrator. All good. But is it too restrictive? That was my fear. Happily, it hasn’t been the case and the most important thing is, it still leaves room for the spontaneity that research often ignites. And I love research. Probably too much!

In my first novel, I sauntered along and the research threw up a lot of my sub-plot and some joyous characters I might never have discovered. The plot evolved slowly. This time, however, my main characters were there from the start and I find I am concentrating more on developing them than having to worry about ‘what happens next’.

So, you may think draft numero uno is a doddle. Unfortunately, writing historical fiction has many pitfalls. I am a demon for detail and can spend hours on one relatively thinsignificant point, to the detriment of actually writing. Detail that may not even see the final draft in the end. (Sob!) But I cannot move past until I have worked it out. Then you want to be as authentic as possible without swamping the book with detail. But how much do you assume your reader knows? It’s a balancing act.

This is even more of an issue as this book is set in 1887 Egypt. The field of Egyptology is vast. How accurate do I need to be? Do I use actual characters and locations from Ancient Egypt? Do I include real Victorian Egyptologists? I’ve never been to Egypt – how do I evoke a sense of time and place? Luckily I have two contemporary sources for my detail: Amelia Edwards (A Thousand Miles Up the Nile) and Baedeker’s Travel Guide to Egypt (1885). Both godsends and, by the way, fascinating reading.

To add to my ‘difficulties’, I am currently writing a sequel to book one of a series of three. My main character is fairly pinned down and yet she needs to evolve too. How do I keep her interesting while she figures out what is going on around her? Most important of all, she has to be an authentic Victorian displaying attitudes and mores of her time but still appealing to a 21st century audience. Yep – it’s no easy task.

But it should never be easy. You never stop honing your craft and every new tale you weave makes you a better storyteller. Some of it is fun; some of it gives you nightmares, particularly those days when you stare at an empty screen with an empty brain. But there is no greater pleasure than typing ‘the end’ on your first draft. Ahead lies months of editing but that doesn’t matter. You have nailed it.

For me, the first draft is all about getting the plot down, fleshing out your characters and doing your research. It may not resemble the final version in all respects, but no matter how painful a process it is, it is valuable and necessary.

First draft blues are common. But when the final version is published, they are soon forgotten.

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