Writing A Novel In One Draft

Reading & Writing

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Some books are written like butter melting in a frying pan – smooth, fast and easy. Others are stubborn and keep you awake at night for months. The book I’m just finishing this month (probably for 2016) has been through seven drafts, to the point where I can no longer read it objectively.

Does that mean it’s any better or worse than one that’s easy to write? Not really, although there is a correlation. In my experience, the ones that take longer never sell quite as well. Why would that be? My seven-drafts-and-counting novel is getting better, but putting it together is no stroll in the park. The Bryant & May books virtually write themselves; I have great fun with them, I welcome the characters back into my life and we all go off on a romp together. Writing a standalone novel is a fresh start and a new world has to be created from scratch. Producing a taut thriller is much harder than anyone realises because you don’t have time for scene setting and character backstories. I take my hat off to Lee Child for managing this book after book – he has the gift of streamlining.

Another novel that has been through a great many drafts is a mainstream thriller I’ve been quietly working on for ages, which is having a sudden title change at the eleventh hour because my publisher has taken on another book with a similar title. This affects the book’s perception (I had only ever written it under one title) and will necessitate another draft. A title change isn’t the end of the world; it’s a bigger problem when an editor recommends losing a character (as one did recently) which means you have to rejig everything and rewrite timelines.

Meanwhile, my Specsavers novella, ‘The Elimination Bureau’ (out as an e-book in a couple of weeks), was written in two evenings with no second draft at all, because I knew exactly what I was going to do, and had already planned the ending even though readers could vote on what the characters did. How did I do that? I hid a reference in the first section to the ending, and knew I could get to it whatever readers decided. It was a bit like a magician forcing a card onto an audience, but seems to have worked.

At the Cheltenham Literary Festival this week, Sophie Hannah, Kate Mosse, Henry Sutton and I discussed the most important ingredients for a mystery novel and all agreed that a strong main character was the key. And yet the world’s most successful mystery novelist, Agatha Christie, never had characters at all, just cyphers. But knowing what your main character will do eliminates the need for lots of drafts.

Supposedly James Hadley Chase wrote ‘No Orchids For Miss Blandish’ on a plane journey, but that’s something most of us can only fantasise about doing.

2 comments on “Writing A Novel In One Draft”

  1. Ralph Williams says:

    Yes, but which plane journey? And did he arrive at Manchester Airport, in which case he could have redrafted it twice waiting for the security checks and typed a final version waiting for the airport train to show up.

  2. Mark says:

    Christie’s plots were very mechanical and the supporting characters were almost always cyphers, but I think her main characters were usually quite strong and highly recognisable (e.g. Marple and Poirot.
    I fail to see how she disproves that a strong main character is the key for a successful murder mystery. Not sure I agree with that notion anyway, seems to me a strong mystery would be the key ingredient in a mystery novel, at least if we’re talking about traditional mysteries where the puzzle aspect is one of the main selling points.

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