Things I Learnt Reading the First Draft of ‘The Adventures of Abigail Storm’

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A first draft is like good whiskey, it needs to age. You can’t just finish the thing, put a stamp of approval on it and send it out into the world. You need to barrel it, distil it and you forget about it. Yep, forget about it like a girlfriend that broke your heart, forget about it like you’ve forgotten about Phantom Menace, forget about it like… well, you get the idea. Once I finish writing a first draft I try my hardest to forget it even exists at all. I go to the bar, I play pool, I read more books but the single most important thing I do, I start another project.

After I finished the first draft of The Adventures of Abigail Storm, the very first thing I did was start a new project. Now that I’m trying to forget about that, it’s time to crack open the barrel and retrieve Abigail.

Here’s a couple of things I learnt while reading the first draft of The Adventures of Abigail Storm.

  1. Come armed with coffee.
  2. The first draft is always shit. No matter how much I hope that the novel has rewritten itself in my absence, it’s never happened. I expect the worst, from typos to clunky writing, to embarrassing dialogue and logic holes the size of that asteroid in Armageddon.
  3. Lock the door and turn off the phone. I’m only going to get the chance to read the novel from beginning to end for the first time once. For me, this has to be done in one day. It’s one very long day, but that way I can see the flow of the story in one hit.
  4. The first paragraph isn’t needed. This has been consistent for all my books. I spend hours crafting that first paragraph to perfection like a fine artist in the first draft, only to come by a couple of months later with a red pen and kick it out of the novel. First paragraphs in first drafts are almost always never needed.
  5. Cut ten thousand words, at least. If that sounds like a lot, it is. Ten thousand words is roughly forty to fifty pages and probably a week’s worth of work. Right now this novel is on the fat side and I want it lean and mean and precise. Every single word needs to earn its place, every cliff hanger, every joke and every single word needs to earn its place if I want the reader to turn the page. There’s no room for useless words.

What if what I read is bad? See point number 2. IT IS BAD! But don’t cry. Have a beer. Get up tomorrow and rewrite that bastard.

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DAY ? of ‘THE ADVENTURES OF ABIGAIL STORM’

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After 10 weeks, 3 bags of coffee, 2 sets of guitar strings, 5 neighbourly complaints about noise, 4 bottles of Wild Turkey, 566 pages, and over one hundred thousand words, the first draft of The Adventures of Abigail Storm is finished.

There’s always a bit of tradition and ritual when finishing a book. Some people get out of town for a week, others don’t leave their room for a week. For me, it’s whiskey and Van Morrison. I wait until I’m typing the very last page, I pour myself a glass, put on the rare Van Morrison live in Japan, 1974 and hammer away at the typer.

Now the choice of whiskey is a very important one. You don’t just go and drink any run of the mill whiskey that you would drink any old day of the week, because what would be so special about that? You have to pull out the big guns for finishing a book, no Jamisons or Makers Mark. So for the past couple of months I’ve had an unopened bottle of Writer’s Tears sitting on my desk taunting me, begging to be opened and enjoyed. I have resisted the urge to crack it open and now the day has finally come.

2014-12-21 14.14.10With Van Morrison in the air, and those words ‘THE END’ not far from my fingertips, I poured myself a glass. And it was the best damn glass of whiskey I had ever tasted. I even dragged out writing the last page so I could knock off a third of the bottle.

So now what? Pop it in the mail and send it straight to the agent and publisher? Hell, no. This monster is full of typos and bad writing. I’m going to let it sit on it for a couple of weeks while I go and finish off that bottle of Writer’s Tears and forget about the entire thing. I’ve got a movie or two to write, some Playstation to play and guitars to annoy the neighbours with. Then, when I’ve just about forgotten about the entire thing, I’ll turn over page one and rewrite the entire thing.

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DAY 65 of ‘THE ADVENTURES OF ABIGAIL STORM’

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What happens when you realise that your 80,000 word science fiction novel is going to be more like a 150,000 word science fiction monster?

I can tell you exactly what happens. First comes the disbelief. Maybe I calculated the words incorrectly? Which in my case could be very likely considering I can’t even remember a phone number. Nope, I crunch them numbers again and it still rolls in at 150,000 words. In the next stage, comes the panic. And I’m not talking about a little internal flutter of panic. I’m talking about ‘the someone has just told you there’s a spider on your back and you run around the house yelling. “is it gone, is it gone”‘ type of panic.

So after I stopped running around the house yelling ‘is it gone, is it gone,’ I sat down at the typer pulled up my outline and poured myself a drink (and left the bottle on the desk). Now, the only really editing tool I possess, is being able to go through a story and working out exactly what is not needed. I try to work out how to tell as much story in as little words as possible.

Half a bottle of whiskey and three hours later, I managed to trim this behemoth of a story back from the 150,000 word nightmare to a more reasonable 100,000 words. That number is still not exactly a walk in the park, but it’s much easier to achieve. How did I pull off such a task you may ask, or you may not, but I’m going to tell you anyways. It was simple, I deleted all the nouns… I’m kidding, that would be crazy talk. I went back to basics and deleted absolutely every sequence, chapter, or scene that didn’t do one of two things:

1) Advance the plot or,

2) Reveal something new about character.

In other words, I trimmed all the fat. Now I still have another 30,000 words to write to reach that 100,000 word target (which is the most of anything I’ve ever written), and I’m sure there’s going to be other obstacles from now until then, but at least for the time being the crisis has been adverted and the spider my back type panic has subsided.

DAY 35 OF ‘THE ADVENTURES OF ABIGAIL STORM’

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The Writing Schedule

Time to put away the Playstation and hide the booze – this shit just got real. I have to write 50,000 words in five weeks to meet the deadline on the first draft of ‘The Adventures of Abigail Storm’. 

For the mathmactically challenged (me), that’s 10,000 words a week or more specficically, 2000 words a day.

Here’s how this God awful word count is going to be achieved:

8.00 am: Crawl out of bed,  brew a gallon of coffee and blast some rock ‘n roll.

8.30 am: Look up stuff on the internet. Others may refer to this as ‘procrastination’. A writer will always refer to it as ‘research.’

9.00 am: Write first sentence of the day.

9.10 am: Rewrite first sentence of the day.

9.30 am: Rewrite, the rewritten first sentence of the day.

9.40 am: Cry.

10.00 am: Make some more coffee.

12.00 pm: Head down to the local pub for some lunch.

1.00 pm: Back at the typer. Stare at the laptop.

2.00 pm: Play guitar.

2.30 pm: Stare at the laptop.

3.00 pm: Look at the clock and panic about all the words I haven’t written.

4.30 pm: Second guess every single word written to date.

5.00 pm: Make an Old Fashioned.

5.30 pm: Make another Old Fashioned.

6.00 pm: Put the ‘Closed’ sign up on the office door.

And somehow, if everything goes to plan I would have written 2000 words in-between all that.

This will be my schedule for the next 5 weeks. So nobody call or come around because I’ll be busy… (please call, please come around… please?)

DAY 25 OF ‘THE ADVENTURES OF ABIGAIL STORM’

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After almost two weeks of rewriting a screenplay and a few other such things, it’s time to get back to The Adventures of Abigail Storm and start pounding out those pages. I  had set myself a deadline of and 80,000 word, beast of a novel by November 9th… then I took two weeks off.

Now my daily word count went from 2000 words a day to 2683 (thanks to the wonderful world of mathematics for working that out). After much consideration I’ve come to the conclusion that is new word count is seriously going to impose on my Playstation time.

DAY EIGHT OF ‘THE ADVENTURES OF ABIGAIL STORM’

I wouldn’t write a shopping list with out an outline… and deep in outline territory is where I am. Something I’ve been doing in the past couple of years in the outline department is mind mapping (I know, I know, it’s a wanky term). So I look at the page and vomit words and plot at it, although I’m sure that’s not the technical term for mind mapping.

Below is one I did for the last book, ‘Out of Exile’. A lot of the story changed as it was developed, but it’s a good indication of what the Abigail Storm notebook is looking like right now.

WARNING: ‘OUT OF EXILE’ SPOILERS AHEAD!

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Why I Won’t Read Your Novel

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(This image is relevant, I swear)

A couple of months ago I’m at a 30th birthday party of a friend of a friend who I didn’t really know and besides feeling like an imposter during the intimate thank-you speeches I was having a pretty good time. Sometime after midnight the party began to thin leaving only the die hard drinkers and that’s when it happened. Every writer on the face of the planet has been, or will be in the following situation.

A skinny guy with a pony tail, who looked as if he owned every episode of Doctor Who and was of an age where that was weird, crossed the floor and made his way up to me. ‘You’re a writer,’ he said as if he were accusing me of something evil.

I confessed to the horrible truth that I was indeed a writer and a smile crossed his face as if he had been on some Hobbit-like adventure the entire night to find me and now here we were.

His name was Lawrence, and he had just finished writing his first novel. It was set in the future where for some undisclosed reason, domestic cats grew to be thirty feet tall and were now the main threat to humanity.

‘Will you read it?’

‘Oh, shit man, I’m real busy,’ I said.

‘You’re a really good writer. I can tell just by looking at you.’

In my experience good writers and bad writers look relatively similar but I was half drunk, half tired and wanting to get home to watch music videos on RAGE, so I handed him my card (yes, I have one) and told him to send me his manuscript.

‘No need,’ he said burying his hand into a dirty backpack by his feet. He pulled out a ream of paper and shoved it at me. It was nine hundred pages long and held by elastic bands and insecurity.

‘You carry it on you?’ I asked.

‘Of course.’

‘Isn’t it heavy?’

‘It’s the first in a series. I’ve got the other four at home.’

‘What if this one doesn’t sell?’

Confusion crossed his face. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Nothing, forget it,’ I said.

I carried the monster under my arm and made the trek out to the train station. Ten minutes later a carriage rolled up. I took a seat by the window with the big bastard next to me, took a sip of beer from a bottle I smuggled out of the party, lent my head against the window and drunkenly nodded off.

I woke to the not so gentle nudges of a police officer. ‘This train isn’t a hotel,’ he said.

Who was I to argue? It didn’t look like one. I climbed to my feet and looked to the empty seat next to me. ‘Shit, someone stole my manuscript.’

‘A what?’

‘Before a novel is published it’s called a…’ I gave up. He didn’t care and after I gave it some thought, it didn’t much bother me either.

I made my way home thinking about the poor literary deprived bastard who took the nine hundred page beast, went to bed and forgot all about that Saturday night.

A few days later I was sitting in front of the typer, wrestling with a particularly troublesome sentence when the telephone rang. The number: BLOCKED.

‘Have you read my novel yet?’

It took a moment for my mind to catch up. ‘Lawrence, I’m not sure if I’m going to get to it.’

‘But you said you would read it?’

‘I said I would try to read it.’

‘I’ll call you back tomorrow after you’ve had some time.’ And he hung up.

The next day rolled around and again, there I was staring at another string of bad words and the flashing cursor taunting me with each little blink.

And again, the phone rang. The number: BLOCKED.

This time I ignored it. In hindsight I should have just shown guts, picked up the phone and told this poor prick I had lost his Cat-ageddon story but I had this blinking bloody cursor to deal with. The phone rang out, there of was breath of silence and just as I was about to hammer away again at the keyboard it started back up. And over the next twenty four hours it rang another fifty something times. Then the paranoia set in.Maybe I should have read it? Maybe I should call him back? What if he’s found me? What if he’s hiding in my wardrobe right now? What if he’s dressed as a clown? What if he has a knife? And with that paranoid thought I headed down to the Prahran police station and dramatically slammed my phone on the bench and told my tale of woe to the cop who looked younger than the leather jacket I was wearing.

‘Who’s your telco provider?’ He asked.

‘Vodaphone.’

‘They don’t have very good coverage.’

‘They seem to be doing okay today.’

He told me the best thing to do is change my number and I walked out glad he wasn’t solving a homicide. A couple of steps later, the devil phone rang again but this time it was a buddy, Hugh. He was down at the Bush Inn which was conveniently, or not so conveniently for some, located half a block from the Prahran police station. I crossed the road and half a pint later I had told Hugh the events of the past few days.

Hugh took a sip of his beer. ‘How did all the cats get big?’

‘I didn’t read it!’

‘Why?’

‘Christ, have you not been listening?’ and before I could get any further my phone rang, again. ‘SHIT!’

Hugh snatched it off the bar, took two drunken steps back, smirked and answered it. ‘Detective Senior Sergeant Thomas Andrews.’

Now, I cannot lie, at this point, impersonating a police officer seemed like a worse idea than Justin Bieber playing live at Folsom Prison. Hugh even had the balls to give over a rank, badge number and the name of his commanding officer down at the Prahran Police Station. But if the Bush Inn Hotel gave out awards for best impromptu performance down at the TAB end of the bar, Hugh would have been a very strong contender. And after a few minutes, he hung up the phone and declared the case closed. And for about an hour it looked as if the world had returned to normal. We had a couple more beers, a couple of more bets, then I went to the bar and when I returned I had a missed call on the phone, only this time the caller had left a message. I pushed it into my ear to hear over the racket of the bar.

‘This is Constable Bernadette Collins from the Prahran police station calling in regard to a complaint about impersonating a police officer…’

My stomach dropped. I played Hugh the recording, told him he couldn’t act for shit, and as we headed off back down the road towards the cop shop to explain ourselves, I was rehearsing the explanation I was going to have to give to my girlfriend when I had to make the call for her to bail Hugh and I out of the clink. When I looked over to Hugh and for the first time noticed the Hawaiian shorts and filthy sneakers he was wearing. ‘This hurts us you son of a bitch.’

‘You’re drunk,’ he said. ‘Don’t fuck us in here.’

It sounded like a plan but as soon as I walked into the foyer of the station fear and panic had set in and I blurted out the words: ‘I AM NOT A COP!’

The young cop gave pause and sized me up, probably trying to gauge if I was the violent type or not. Christ, even Hugh looked at me sideways and he was one of my own kind. I drew a breath, flashed a smile and explained everything that had led up to the point where two half drunken fools were standing at the front desk of the Prahran police station explaining why they were impersonating police officers.

‘Why didn’t you read his book?’ the cop asked.

I sighed. ‘Because, it was probably bad.’

She shrugged. ‘So?’

We weren’t a threat. Nobody would ever believe either one of us were a cop. The Constable let us off with a warning and as we headed back to the Bush Inn for a celebratory drink, I thought about Lawrence and why he was so desperate for somebody to read his manuscript and then I realized something that I should have seen in his eyes the night he gave me his book… he had nobody else to read it.

I had another beer, watched Hugh win $182.50 on a dog called ‘Tank’ and then the next time my phone rang, I answered it and asked Lawrence if he could send me another copy of his manuscript.

First published at Momentumbooks.com.au