It’s an interesting thing, redrafting a book you’ve already written. Interesting, and complicated. You’d think it should be easy, wouldn’t you – working on something you’ve already done? But no. Not so much.
You’ll already know that ‘Emmeline’ is with my agent, getting its (hopefully final) polish before it goes out into the world, and that I’ve been working on Eldritch for the past number of weeks. I’ve entirely lost count of which ‘draft’ this is; I don’t know, even, if I can still call what I’m doing ‘drafts’, as essentially I’m recreating the entire book. The structure, broadly speaking, is similar to what I’ve done before, and the characters are all the same (though some of them have been renamed), but besides that it’s a whole new thing. And that’s scary, because it makes me feel very close to the beginning of the process rather than the end, even though I’ve been thinking about this story for over two years.
The best part? I’m still learning.
I’ve been working on a scene near the third ‘corner’ of the book for a few days now, edging my way around the place where the narrative arc reaches its nadir. This happens right before a twist of fate flips everything on its head and sets the protagonist off on another last-second, madcap, grabbing-at-straws adventure, his last chance to ‘save the day’ and defeat the evil magician whose terrible plans threaten not only our hero’s life, but the fate of the world. So, as you can imagine, it’s a very important scene. I’ve been struggling with it, and wondering why it didn’t seem to be working, and I think I might have hit on the reason – or, one of them at least. It’s to do with the book’s dynamics.
When I studied music at school, we were taught that ‘dynamics’ were the core of any played piece. The relative loudness or softness of a note, the speed with which the music was played, the emotional intensity of a movement, the process of becoming – either going from loud to soft, or soft to loud – all of this was tied up in the idea of ‘dynamics’, and we ignored the instructions at our peril. A piece, lovely when played as the composer intended, could be shattered into discordant noise by a forte note when a piano one was intended, or the other way around. When it comes to writing, we need to be just as mindful of these movements in our work, as they are just as important.
I’ve already written the scene I’m having trouble with, but it belonged to a different story, then. I’ve already written and thought about my hero’s relationship with his enemies, and his bravery in facing them down, and the conflicted emotions he feels at his lowest point when he is being forced to take action he doesn’t want to take in order – he hopes – to effect the greater good. But the book those scenes belonged to was a lighter one than the one I’m currently writing. The emotional highs weren’t as high, and the lows certainly weren’t as low. As I’m reworking the whole thing, all the dynamics have to change this time around, and the emotional responses need to be deepened. The joys need to be more intense, and the sorrows darker; the triumphs more exciting and the setbacks more devastating. If this is neglected, what we end up with is a book which doesn’t seem honest, or where the characters are flat because their reactions and thought processes don’t reflect the reader’s expectations.
I think I had begun to find it hard to separate the ‘versions’ of Jeff, my protagonist, in my mind, and the earlier version, with his slightly more simplistic emotional palette, was having an undue influence on the newer, more nuanced version. I’ve also realised that a scene in the middle of the book, where Jeff faces down a terrifying threat, wasn’t nearly terrifying enough the first time around; I was falling into the same old trap I always fall into, which is keeping my protagonists too safe. Jeff wasn’t being tested enough, and his flippant attitude was no doubt as a result of the fact that he wasn’t the one in danger. In the redraft, he is smacked straight into the path of what he feels is certain death, and he faces it down with every scrap of courage he can find – and so, naturally enough, his reactions and his responses to this, and to everything that happens after it, need to be changed. His anger at the person who put him in this situation needs to be more intense; his relief at surviving needs to be palpable. His determination to succeed needs to deepen. All of this involves major work on my part, but it’s worth it – the story is reshaping, like a deformed piece of metal being straightened, and it’s all adding to the effect.
It’s very important to keep your eye on emotional authenticity when writing. It’s easy to get swept up in plot, and to plonk your characters around like they were puppets in front of a brightly painted backdrop, hoping that the spectacle will do the work for you – it won’t. If your characters aren’t thinking, feeling, and behaving exactly the way a ‘real’ person would in a similar situation, to the best of your ability to imagine it, then a reader won’t want to invest in them. It’s a hard line to tread, the one between melodrama (when an emotional reaction is too intense, or is such a mismatch for the event which caused it that it seems false) and unintended glibness (when a character seems as engaging as a plastic doll), and as well as that you need to be careful to maintain the overall ‘tone’ of your book. For instance, Eldritch is supposed to be funny, and I have to remember that at the most intense moments, so that they don’t become too intense and suck all the humour out of the plot and the characters. Luckily, if you have a good handle on your characters – including, in Jeff’s case, his black humour – this isn’t too tough.
Famous last words? I guess we’ll see! I’m off afresh into my emotional nadir; I hope I’ll see you all on the other side…