I’m pleased to welcome crime writer Dave Sivers back to the blog to talk about his revision process.
During a civil service career that took him to exotic locations like Northern Norway, Newport in Rhode Island, and Sutton Coldfield, Dave Sivers variously moonlighted as a bookmakers clerk, nightclub bouncer and freelance writer. Early retirement gave him more time to concentrate on his writing passion, and he has to date produced six books, notably the popular Archer and Baines crime series, set in Buckinghamshire’s Aylesbury Vale, where he lives with his wife, Chris.
You can find his First Draft process Here.
Your first draft has been completed, what state is it generally in?
Well, it’s a complete book, with a beginning, middle and end! And it will be about the right length. But at this point I’ll have no real idea how good it actually is. Usually I don’t even fully understand what it’s ‘about’ until I’m well into the first draft. Sometimes 80-90%! So I’ll know there is some reworking to be done to bring out the themes I’ve discovered and make the whole thing hang together.
I also leave a lot of the research until the first draft is done, so it’ll be littered with notes to self in capitals and in square brackets e.g. [IS THIS FEASIBLE?] or [CHECK THIS].
What is the first thing do before you start to revise?
I put the manuscript away for a couple of weeks and do something else. Ideally it would be months, but I rarely allow myself that luxury, because I don’t want a massive gap between books and neither do readers – they will soon be asking when the next one’s coming (if they’re not already).
How do you assess the damage that needs working on?
It’s a mixture. Some things you just know need fixing by the time you get to the end. Some you can only find as you re-read the first draft. That’s why a bit of time away from it is so important.
Do you allow anyone to read that very first draft before revisions or can you assess it objectively yourself?
To be honest, although I’ve never shown the first draft to anyone else, it’s sometimes a seductive thought – because I know I’m not always the best person to see the flaws. By the time the book’s as good as I can make it without feedback, my objectivity tends to be moaning in a darkened room, and I really do need some fresh eyes. But that first draft is a long way from that stage. You have enough problems with that inner voice whispering negative vibes in your ear, without anything else sapping your confidence in the work!
What do you initially focus on, when approaching the completed first draft of the manuscript?
Lots of things. I read it through on screen, changing things that jar as I go along, tweaking things like inconsistent character voice, and also looking out for things that are rubbish or have obvious plot holes. I will also have hoovered up the research issues when I put the first draft aside and will be slipping in the details as I go along. By the time I’ve done that, there will be even more notes to self than there were when I started.
Do you have any rituals, writing or real-world, when revising a manuscript?
Not really. One thing I do most days is get up before 7pm, make tea, have a quick faff around with email, social media alerts etc and then do about an hour on my writing project before breakfast. I’ll do this at any stage in the process, from first draft to final polish.
In what format do you revise, paper or computer?
Mostly on-screen, but at some point I’ll print on paper and go through it with a pen in my hand. Maybe twice. Never at the same point.
How messy is the revision process – can you go in and repair areas or does the whole manuscript get decimated?
It depends on how good the first draft is! Sometimes they come out in better shape than others. I’ll decimate if I have to.
Is revision an overhaul of the story or is it minor editing?
A bit of a mix of the two. There will always be bits that need major re-working, but also tons of tweaking and polishing. However sure I am that I’ve made the book the best it can be, my beta readers will always find things that need fixing. I get to the point where I can’t see the wood for the trees and need fresh eyes on the work. It can hurt sometimes, but I trust them to be 100% honest.
What’s the biggest change you’ve made to a story during this process?
Er… deleting the whole thing and writing a different story! There was one book I knew in my heart was unsalvageable rubbish, but I pressed on to the bitter end, kidding myself everything was fixable. In the end I had to recognise that no amount of surgery would save it, and that it was simply the wrong story. So I gritted my teeth and started writing the right one.
When first drafting, many writers keep track of progress by counting words in a day. How do you make sure you’re progressing as you’re revising?
I keep an eye on the word count, because chunks will come out or get moved. I need to know the book is still going to be the right sort of length.
Do you prefer to write the first draft or do you prefer the revision process?
The first draft is the hopeful bit when it’s all fresh and I’m discovering what makes the story tick and also getting comfortable with any new supporting characters. I have a real love-hate relationship with revision. The new bits of writing – new scenes, major reworkings, that sort of thing – are like the first draft – fresh and exciting. Some of it’s a bit of a grind, and it sometimes tests my patience; but there’s a satisfaction in knowing you’re improving the work.
What do you drink while you’re working?
Tea, when I remember (a) to make it and (b) to drink it!
How long does this process take and what shape is the book now in?
Typically five-six months. It’ll be more polished and coherent than the first draft, and I’ll be at the point when I need other people to read it and give me feedback. Once I have that, I need to go through the process at least one more time, taking on board what they have said. At least 95% of that feedback I’ll take through into the book. There might be a few comments where I take an executive decision not to change it, but only if I’m sure of my reasons for sticking to my guns.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your revision process.
EVEN THE DEAD HAVE THEIR SECRETS
A reformed teenage gang leader is gunned down in cold blood and an angry DS Dan Baines, who knew the victim well, reckons he knows who is responsible. But his boss, DI Lizzie Archer, wants to know the identity of the mystery man who died with him – and whether he was intended victim or innocent bystander.
When an officer from the National Crime Agency turns up and declares the case off limits to Archer and her team, its clear that there is more going on than meets the eye. Several conflicting agendas are in play and the body count is rising.
And Archer and Baines realise that the only people they can truly trust are each other.