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Masterclass

The first draft

The toughest part of the whole process is going from the outline to the first draft.

When you are writing the outline you can do anything from changing the gender of a character to reseting the whole thing in Egypt. You are all-powerful. After you have made those decisions, you come to the stage where each sentence in our outline has to be turned into four or five pages of prose. This is where the real imaginative work comes in. You have to take your ideas and you have to walk people in and out of the room, you have to describe the room and the clothes they are wearing and you have to make the reader share their anxieties, hopes, triumphs and their romantic feelings.

The First Draft

From The Hammer of Eden

Putting flesh on the bones is the hardest imaginative work in the whole process. It generally takes me about six months to produce a first draft typescript. I concentrate at that point very much on the mechanics of the story and getting all the ‘clockwork’ right. This is terribly important in a popular novel because something is happening all the time; popular novels are very closely plotted.

There is a rule which says that the story should turn about every four to six pages. A story turn is anything that changes the basic dramatic situation. It can change it in a little way or change it in a big way. Let’s say somebody is escaping. A small story turn would be that the escapee was hoping that the snow would have melted on this side of the mountain and they find it hasn’t. It’s not going to stop them. They are going to go on but they have to stop and think, “oh my God, how are we going to do it?” They may think, “we’ll have to get snowshoes,” or, “it will take us twice as long, but we can do it.” Either way, they’ll have some solution immediately.

A big story turn would be if there are three people in the party and one dies and he’s the guide and the only one who knows the way. Now, that is a big change and they are really in trouble. A big story change forces a total change in direction. A little story turn has notched up the tension and in a suspense novel, you generally want the story turns to increase the tension all the time. However, they may not all be challenges. Some will be triumphs. For example, the detective may discover the villain’s first name and think, “damn. I haven’t got a second name – but its Jim, Jim somebody, that doesn’t help much but it’s better than nothing.”

You can’t go longer than about six pages without a story turn, otherwise the reader will get bored. Although that is a rule that people have invented in modern times about best-sellers, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, follows the same rule. In Dickens it’s the same; something happens about every four to six pages. Be careful though. If you’ve got two story turns in four pages, you are going too fast and are not drawing the full drama and emotion out of each scene. Above all, the most important rule when writing the first draft is to pace the action right. Do this, and the story will always develop at about the right speed.