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How to write a novel: how to cut your work

Month 5: Award-winning novelist, Lucy Atkins, says this month’s task is to let that initial draft flow freely, but be ready to hack it back when the time comes

by Psychologies

When I wrote my debut novel, I spent at least nine months finessing the first three chapters. I obsessed over every word and description until they were as brilliant as I could possibly make them. When I finished the book, I sent it to a literary agent. She replied quickly, saying she wanted to take me on, but the novel needed a bit of work. Her main suggestion? ‘Lose the opening three chapters; you don’t need them.’

This was my first lesson in ‘kill your darlings’. I gritted my teeth and slashed these three chapters – and the book came alive. What I’d been doing in that early section, was working out who my characters were, where they lived, and how they spoke. This was an invaluable process, because it brought them to life for me, but the reader didn’t need to be led gently to the story. The reader wanted to be grabbed by the throat and yanked in.

Crap but crucial

Writing, for me, is a process of (often brutal) editing. Much of my time is spent rethinking and reshaping. But before any of this can be done, I need raw material to work with. And this is where the Crap First Draft (CFD) comes in. The CFD is the initial clumsy, intense, wild attempt at getting about 70-80,000 words down on the page. Not every writer does a CFD. Some craft their books meticulously, sentence by perfect sentence. But, for me, the CFD is the vital step that turns my vague ideas into something resembling a story.

Forget about rules

If you have some ideas, research, characters and settings, yet feel stuck, the CFD may be for you. The key is to adopt an attitude of recklessness. Ignore the voice that’s hissing, ‘This isn’t a novel.’ 70,000 words may sound like a lot, but if you aren’t crouched on your own shoulder criticising every sentence you type, it can be surprisingly doable. As you write, tell yourself that you don’t give a hoot whether your prose is elegant, or your plot hangs together. Forget about ‘rules’. Vow never to show it to anyone. You may end up with something clumsy, implausible and chaotic, but you will be a big step closer to your goal. Your CFD will contain moments that quicken your heart and characters that feel alive. These are the bits you’ll develop.

The CFD is the path from the buttoned-up conscious mind into the fertile subconscious where my story is hiding. Most of what I write in that first draft won’t see the light of day. I’ll probably ‘kill my darlings’. But without the CFD, there wouldn’t be any to kill.

Lucy Atkins is author of ‘The Missing One’ (£7.99), ‘The Other Child’ (£7.99) and ‘The Night Visitor’ (£14.99, all Quercus). lucyatkins.com; @lucyatkins

Photograph: iStock