Friday 18 May 2018

Don’t Look Down!

By Nick Cross

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

I’m a month and a half away from my (self-imposed) deadline to complete the first full draft of my novel. This isn’t a finish-it-and-put-it-in-a-drawer situation, because people are lined up and apparently eager to read it. As a result, I feel like I’m up on a high wire, inching my way through the book and desperately trying not to look down!

The novel is not the only high wire situation, because I’m trying to write this blog post at the same time. Normally, I’d take several days out of my usual schedule to write and format a Slushpile blog post, but there simply isn’t time. So if I randomly start typing dialogue, I’m sure you’ll forgive me.

I like and need deadlines - they’re the only reason I ever get anything finished. But they’re also a source of significant stress. When I set this deadline - back in early January - it seemed like plenty of time to get the job done. And I have worked steadily since then - researching, replotting and writing. The thing I really, really want to do is illustrate and lay out the story, but I have to keep telling myself it’s no good doing that until I have a story to illustrate!

So, I edge along the high wire, day by day, word by word, focusing my attention just in front of my feet. But as much as I try to keep everything on schedule, unexpected stuff happens. Sometimes, I’ll get to a certain point in the story and discover the next few metres of wire are missing because I haven’t planned in enough detail. Other times, I’ll think “Gee, wouldn’t it be cool if...” and weigh up whether it’s worth stepping across to a different tightrope entirely. Occasionally, I stretch a metaphor so far past breaking point that I wonder if my reader will notice...

Photo by Tom A La Rue

Hemingway famously said that all first drafts are shit. Mine aren’t. I’d love to say that’s because I’m the most amazing genius writer the world has ever seen, but it’s mostly because they aren’t first drafts at all. Where other writers splurge with their words, mine are delicately placed. Where other writers start with simple characterisations that they deepen in later drafts, I find my characters as I go, often looping back to add detail to previous scenes or even altering earlier plot to better shape their arc. Frequently, I will scrap a whole draft that isn’t working and go back to the start (I am technically on version 5 of my current novel).

Is this a good way to work, or madness? Would I be happier taking the NaNoWriMo approach of blitzing my first draft and fixing it in the edit? I certainly see myself as less productive than other writers and get frustrated often, but I’m pleased with the quality of what I eventually produce. I felt a little less crazy recently when I read Kelly McCaughrain’s blog post - her technique, which I will sum up as “Don’t panic and fix problems early” spoke to my own way of working.

Experience is definitely a factor - I’ve written enough novels now that I know the kinds of problems I’m likely to have and how to head them off. Conversely, I also know that every novel throws up its own unique issues, and I’ll have to develop coping techniques for that. Writing is a bit like life in that respect!

Photo by Fred Marie

I guess I'll just keep tiptoeing along the wire, balancing as best I can and trying not to think of the yawning chasm beneath me. Because, it’s only a book, right? What could possibly go wrong?


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.


  1. Wow, good luck, Nick! I think I'm a bit like you ... but I'm trying to go faster.

  2. I hear ya, Nick. I am now a planner of story and like to have a thought through way forwards because for me it's definitely quicker and less frustrating in the long run. Good luck!

  3. I bow down in awe at your productivity! Are you keeping up with illustrating sticky notes too? Kinda hope that's on the back boiler or I'll really feel like a dullard - I'm still finding illustrating slower without the forced Wednesday evening deadline - not to mention the helpful crits from you and Korky! Good luck and thanks for doing all this blog work for us!!! BTW I love the reference illustrations for this blog. Sorry this has come up as anon - it's really Erica Wood

  4. This blog post really got me thinking. So much so that I have just been Googling articles on how to tghtrope walk/slackline. Apparently, 'You can mount the slackline at any point, but starting in the middle is generally safer, since it is usually away from obstacles you might hit when falling.' This definitely applies to my method of writing. Happy Friday!

  5. My first drafts are so bad I call them Zero Drafts - we all have to find our way don't we?!


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