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On Writing: The Filthy Japanese Novel 2

July 24, 2014

The City of Neon Ghosts

Recently I’ve been posting and tweeting about fiction writing on my current WIPs, the “Filthy Japanese Novel” and its follow-on, the “Filthy Japanese Novel 2”. The FJN-1 is now doing the rounds after a hefty rewrite and edit, and I’m well into the rough draft of the FJN-2. I thought I’d blog about it this week as there’s more to say than would fit into a tweet or post.

The Filthy Japanese Novel 2 is a “follow-on” sequel rather than a “part two” of an ongoing story. FJN-1 is most definitely a self-contained and standalone tale, but on finishing I found there was more I wanted to say about at least a couple of the main characters – and the second novel is what comes out of that. It should more accurately be called the “Filthy London Novel” as that’s (mostly) where it’s set, but, hey – if I ever get to write FJN-3 (which is set back in Tokyo), they’ll form a kind of unity, so why not?

I thought I’d blog some thoughts about the process of writing. Or, rather, my process – doubtless your mileage will vary. On the pantser/plotter spectrum, I sit somewhere in the middle (like most writers, I suspect). I like to have a good idea of what happens before I start – where the story opens, where it ends, and most of what happens in the middle – as well as a good idea of the characters and the paths of development and change they’re going to follow. Theme and stuff – well, that comes out of the writing, and you probably don’t twig actually what you’ve been writing about thematically until some time later.

As far as the “plot” goes, mine develops like this: I know I want to write about some characters, what happens to them. I know the characters well, and I know what’s happened to them immediately beforehand, and I know in detail the situation I’m putting them in at the beginning of the story. Then, I press “play”, and write down what happens. In the very early stages, that “writing down what happens” bit can take a number of forms; it can be rough notes, bullet points, crazy mind maps, or even pages of spontaneously written scenes, with interjections and “[???]” type question marks all over the place. I’m throwing paint (or mud…) at the canvas (or wall…) and seeing what sticks, and what the picture starts to look like.

Sometime during this chaotic process I start to see a thread – the elements of a storyline. And, at some point, I glimpse what looks like an ending. I jot it all down; in particular, I pencil in that ending – it’s a provisional conclusion to the story, where the whole thing might end up, if my chaos-born storyline actually turns out to make sense.

This process can take time. Perhaps months; sometimes less. A very skeletal structure can be much quicker – maybe even a day or three – but the stress-testing and crossing-out and finally coming up with a writing plan you feel confident enough to start working with can easily take 2-3 months, especially if there’s research involved. A lot of that time involves just letting everything brew – doing something else, reading round the subject, waiting for your unconscious and conscious selves to negotiate a mutually acceptable way forward.

With the Filthy Japanese Novel 2, I reached the end of those 2-3 months about 2-3 weeks ago. In fact, it took longer; the embyro of the novel took hold several years ago, but its gestation was slow – I realised from the start it was going to be quite ambitious in scope, something I didn’t want to start upon if I didn’t think I had a chance at finishing. Also, some jejune approaches I was taking needed to work themselves to exhaustion in my head so I could move on, before putting pencil to paper. But the actual plotting and planning – probably 3 months. By the end of that period, I had almost 50,000 words, a plan for 35-40 chapters, and an eyeball on somewhere around 100,000 words as my target. By comparison, Mindjammer is 125K, the FJN-1 is half that. So, middle length for me.

At that point, I told myself I was starting on the rough draft. A lot was already down on paper, but I knew most of it was going to get thrown away as I “wrote through”, starting at the beginning of the tale and filling out each chapter in sequence. Some chapters were almost fully formed, but needed rewriting with point-of-view corrections, massive editing, repurposing, and wholesale plot changes; some chapters were little more than one-line notes of “This needs to happen here!” type exhortation. Thanks, me, that’s a great help…

I’m currently 12 chapters into that process. At the moment, it’s looking like the FJN-2 is going to fall into 4 parts, each of 10 chapters: “thesis”, “antithesis”, “synthesis”, “paradigm shift”. We’ll see. I’m currently writing through one chapter a day, sometimes a bit less, never more. At that rate it should take about another month; it’ll probably take longer. At the end of that process I should have my first rough draft. That’s not anything any other human is going to see – not even the BDC, my alpha reader. My first rough draft is me vomiting my story onto the paper – just getting it down there, bludgeoning the story into submission, splurging it out messily and horribly. At the end I have something I can at least work with – there’ll be some good stuff in there, some poetry, but basically it’ll all need rewriting, probably some hefty restructuring, and probably at least 2-3 months work.

During that first rewrite of the first rough draft, I’ll start to glimpse themes – what my story is actually about (rather than what I think it’s about). That’ll necessitate a “recursive rewrite” – ie my first rewrite will actually be a “two steps forward, one step back” affair where I’m constantly going back and re-rewriting sections I thought I was done with. The closer you get to the end, the further it seems to be away.

By the end of that process, I’ll have my alpha draft. I may do a quick editing pass to chop out some of the excess verbiage (there’ll be loads – I usually overwrite by 10-15%). But, then, I think I’ll have something to show to the BDC, my alpha reader. He (May the Universe Bless and Smile Upon Him) will read diligently through this early malformed draft and tell me if it’s crap – which bits he can’t understand, which bits are cheesy or suck big time, and which bits make him cry. By the end, I’ll have enough feedback to start my second rewrite – again, a few months – which will take me to the beta draft.

And, at that point, it goes to beta readers. And that’s a whole other story…

Next up I think I’ll be talking about that whole “writing what you know” thing. Having written SF, fantasy, and now something gritty and modern day, “writing what you know” has taken on whole new levels of meaning.


Sarah 🙂 x

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