The Gracekeepers: From First Draft to Finished Book
1st Dec 2020 in News
Happy end of NaNoWriMo! Congratulations to everyone who finished, everyone who thought about starting, and everyone who landed somewhere in between. I’ve finished NaNo six times, and I’ve loved it every time – and the most important thing I learned from it was that, for me, a finished NaNovel is absolutely nothing like a finished novel. It’s not even like a finished first draft.
The time will come for you to edit, rewrite and polish. Right now it might seem like an impossible task (if you don’t know where to start, this step-by-step guide on how to edit your own writing might help). So I want to give you a small example of how much a novel can change from first draft to finished book.
First up is the prologue of my first novel, The Gracekeepers, as I originally wrote it. This was the version that was sent to my agent and then my editor – I had already done a few passes to tidy up the prose and imagery.
The first you know of the Circus Excalibur is the bright silk of their sails against the grey sky. They approach your tiny island in convoy: the main yacht with its bobbing trail of canvas-covered coracles following like ducklings, chained in an obedient line. Ships arrive a dozen a day in the archipelagos, and despite the excitement they promise to bring, the circus folk will not expect a fuss. They must fight for their place on your island, for tomorrow their dock will be needed for a library, or a crime crew, or a school. In a world that is almost entirely sea, placing your feet on land is a privilege that must be earned.
Perhaps on your island the convoy will not be welcome. The circus folk will not be allowed onto land, and must turn their sails into a big top to perform with waves lapping at their ankles. But the circus needs time, needs the glamour of night. It will not look good in the grey light of daytime: its colours will fade against the clouds, spitty rain will threaten the fire-jugglers, the acrobats’ sodden feet will make them shiver so much they miss their catches. On those unwelcome days, dusk will fall and no one will drop payment into the ringmaster’s hat, and for dinner they will have seaweed and crisped fish-skin. On the worst days, they will barely make it to shore before having to cast off again, hastened by shouts and thrown objects. Subversion is not for everyone.
But you are lucky, and on your island the circus is a glad sight. It is a good day for you and for the circus – and good days lead to glorious nights. For you, the day fades, the night closes in, and the big tent lights up. You join the crowd huddling under canvas, ready, eager. The circus bursts into colours, lights, the death-mocking glory of twists and catches and bright gleams of skin, more daring than secrets, more vivid than memory, and your eyes open wide as eggs and even the adults in the crowd gasp, and the ringmaster’s hat fills with lumps of gold and coal and quartz and charcoal until he can’t lift it.
For dinner the circus folk feast on cheese and pork and roasted potatoes bigger than their fists, and then they drink until the stars blur. Thanks to you, they can feel that it’s not so awful, this living they make; and they’re glad to have been born into it.
Even on those days, they cannot stay with you for long. The circus has never had a permanent home, and a circus on a boat is more transitory still. Every single person on your island will have come to the show, and won’t need to repeat it for a long while. It will replay in your dreams, barely fading, every night for a whole year. Which is just as well, for the earth is not that big: one trip around takes exactly one year. Who needs calendars when there are shipping timetables?
Don’t worry, though – the circus will return. You will see other shows in that year, but you can be sure that you’ll know the Circus Excalibur again when you see it. Because this circus is different.
Next up is the rewritten prologue as it appears in the final, finished book. This is after an edit (on the whole book, not just the prologue!) for my agent, another for my editor, another for the line editor, and finally one for the copy-editor.
As you can see, the phrasing and imagery of the original are there in the opening lines, and some of the phrases and ideas from the original appear, but overall it’s very different.
Instead of the second-person address (‘you’) it introduces a character for us to experience the world through; it dramatises the landlockers’ opinions through action and dialogue rather than just stating them (you might have heard the advice ‘show, don’t tell’); it introduces some of the circus characters; and it brings the reader into the present, experiencing the performance rather than just being told about it.
The first Callanish knew of the Circus Excalibur was the striped silk of their sails against the grey sky. They approached her tiny island in convoy: the main boat with its bobbing trail of canvas-covered coracles following like ducklings, chained in an obedient line. Ships arrived a dozen a day in the archipelagos, and Callanish knew that the circus folk would have to fight for their place on her island. Tomorrow the dock would be needed for a messenger boat, or a crime crew, or a medic. In a world that is almost entirely sea, placing your feet on land was a privilege that must be earned.
As dusk fell, Callanish loitered at the blackshore, her slippered feet restless on the wooden slats. She watched as the circus crew spilled ashore: a red-faced barrel of a man, trailed by a bird-delicate boy; a trio of tattooed ladies, hair bright as petals; two gleaming horses left to gum at the seaweed. To a chorus of shouts – hoist! hoist! hoist! – the crew pulled ropes in unison, their limbs slick with saltwater.
Callanish tugged at her white gloves as she watched the circus unfold. She saw how the boat’s sails would become the striped ceiling of the big top; how the wide, flat deck would be the stage. With each billow of sail or tightening of ropes, she inched further off the dock and onto the shore. It was only when the sun dipped below the horizon that she felt the damp chill in her toes and saw how her slippers had darkened with seawater. Oh, she would be in trouble now.
She ran home doing giant-steps, leaping high into the air like a circus acrobat, hoping the wind would dry her slippers before her mother saw.
That night Callanish huddled under the striped canopy, mouth open as she gazed up, gloved hands gripped between her knees. Not all the landlockers on her island found the circus a glad sight: there were enough people on the island to crowd out the big top twice over, but it was only half-full. Still, Callanish was excited enough for every single landlocker in the whole archipelago.
Her mother had scrubbed and scrubbed at the white silk slippers, muttering that Callanish would have to skip the performance. Callanish had shut herself in the wooden chest, hiding among the sealskins, until her mother relented. She promised that she would not fiddle with her gloves and slippers, and she would be silent and good and unnoticed, and it would all be worth it for the circus.
‘We shouldn’t welcome damplings like this,’ murmured Callanish’s mother, folding her bare hands on her lap. ‘And at night-time, too, when good people should be tucked up safe in their houses! What are those circus folk hiding in the dark, hmm?’ She patted Callanish’s hands, making sure the gloves were on. ‘Some islands don’t even let damplings come above the blackshore. If they want to perform, they can do it in the daytime with waves lapping at their ankles like they’re meant. Those people belong in the water. They’re dirtying the land.’
But Callanish knew that would never work. The circus would not look good in the bland, bright day: its colours would fade against the clouds, spitty rain would threaten the fire-breather, the acrobats’ sodden feet would make them shiver so much they missed their catches. What would be the point of an imperfect circus?
The red-faced barrel-man strode onstage, dressed in a ringmaster’s costume of an elaborate hat, black trousers, and a shirt covered in rows of paper ruffles. Even Callanish’s mother gasped at that: so much paper must have cost a fortune.
At the ringmaster’s urging the circus burst into colours, lights, the death-mocking glory of twists and catches and bright gleams of skin. To Callanish it felt more daring than secrets, more vivid than memory, and her eyes opened wide as eggs. After each act – acrobats! horses! fire-breathers! – the landlockers rushed to fill the ringmaster’s hat with lumps of gold and coal and quartz and copper. By the time he was introducing the final act, he had to drag his treasure-filled hat offstage.
Onstage stepped a family: a man and a woman with a girl of about Callanish’s age. They were all dark-haired and draped in fabric, pure white and shimmering. The woman held one end of a golden chain, the other end hidden behind a curtain. They bowed to the crowd, then the woman tugged the chain. An enormous shadow lumbered towards her.
‘A bear!’ cried out Callanish. ‘From the storybook! A bear and a baby bear!’ And sure enough, padding unsteadily in the big bear’s wake, came a bear no bigger than Callanish.
Offstage, a needle whined onto a record. Violins swooped around the big top. The man and woman began to dance. They waltzed around the golden-chained bear as it reached its heavy paws out for them, at first in play, then in frustration. The song eased into another rhythm, and the woman slipped away from the man and into the bear’s grasp. The crowd gasped, shrieked, stood as if to run – but the bear was turning and stepping gracefully, its paws clasping the woman’s hands. They were dancing. After a moment, the little girl and the little bear joined hands and danced too, a mirror in miniature. Callanish clapped with glee, and even her mother seemed charmed.
In the years that followed, Callanish tried many times to remember exactly what happened next. It did not help that as soon as the big bear roared, her mother wrapped her arms around Callanish’s head and pulled her close, the world instantly reduced to the earthy, floral smell of her mother’s skin and the scratchy wool of her dress. But Callanish could still hear the screams, the roars, the chaos of running feet. She felt herself lifted as her mother hefted her onto her hip and ran.
Jolting with movement, Callanish fought to peer back over her mother’s shoulder. She saw landlockers scrambling to the exits. She saw the dropped bodies of the man and woman, their white clothing stained dark, their skin sheened red. She saw the bright gleam of a blade in the woman’s motionless hand. She saw the big bear, belly sliced open, a shadow heaving its final breaths.
And in the centre of it all she saw two figures: one draped in white, one furred black; both with eyes open moon-round and empty. A small girl and a small bear, hands and paws still linked.
I hope this helps to show how much changes between first draft and final book – so don’t be discouraged if your NaNovel isn’t quite what you want yet. It will take a lot of time and a lot of work. But you’ll get there.
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