In April of this year Stav Sherez wrote about his first draft process for this blog – you can find the post Here. But that post only took us up to the end of his ‘zero’ draft. When crime writer Helen Giltrow – already a fan of Stav’s Carrigan and Miller series – read it, she immediately wanted to know how he approached the task of redrafting, once that first draft was finished. So she tracked him down at a launch party in London. Helen writes, ‘I’d never met Stav before, but I couldn’t ignore the chance to find out how Eleven Days came to be written – it’s a twisty, clever, disturbing and ambitious book which operates on so many different levels and pushes so many boundaries. Stav had talked about how he wrote a first draft; I wanted to know what happened next.’
Stav’s kindly agreed to come back to the blog, to answer Helen’s questions.
When you’ve finished that first draft (your ‘zero’ draft), how much do you know about the book you’re going to write? Is the story fixed at that point? The theme? The characters?
All I know when I finish the zero draft is that this is the wrong way to write the book. It’s a series of failures that, hopefully, will lead to later understanding of what needs to be done. It normally takes me about 5 drafts and nearly a year to really get an idea of what the book is going to be. The theme and setting are the things that come first and probably do assert themselves in the zero draft but the story I’m still working on and changing radically in the 10th draft. Writing, for me, is a process of exploration – what works, what’s interesting, what style to use – and the luxury of drafts is that books can grow organically and unexpectedly.
Do you redraft the whole manuscript from beginning to end with each pass? Or do you find you’re focusing mainly on one aspect or element per draft – for instance a specific viewpoint, or the way a theme develops through the book?
Yes, beginning to end, takes about a month. Ten of those. Going from beginning to end is the only way I can keep it all in my head and it means every sentence gets about 30 or 40 run-throughs. Each draft does add another layer however, whether it’s personal life, themes, character, plot or language. Every time you see more holes to plug, a better way to say something, a more interesting plot twist.
How systematic is your redrafting process? Do you take a set approach each time, or is the process shaped by the demands of the particular book you’re working on?
Pretty systematic in that I always have exactly the same process: Morning: Type up the previous day’s revisions.
Afternoon: Print out 40 pages, 5 hours of close editing with red pen.
Evening: Sofa. Darkness. Think about the chapters I’ve just edited, making notes and snatches of dialogue and new ideas etc.
Repeat. For two years.
Have you ever found yourself contemplating radical changes to the book you’re working on at a very late stage? And if so, what did you do?
Almost every time! And it’s incredibly depressing and frustrating but you always know deep down that the book needs it and so that’s what I do. In the end, the book, once it’s out there, has to be as good as it can be and I always think you’re only cheating yourself by shirking the hard work of restructuring a novel that isn’t working.
I find when I’ve been through multiple passes, one of my biggest battles is to maintain a sense of how a reader might feel when they read that text for the first time. Is that ever an issue for you, and if so how do you deal with it?
No. I’m way too close to it like you to have any idea what a reader may feel. Plus, every reader feels differently, so it’s impossible to second guess. I can only judge by my own reaction – if the book is boring me, then something’s wrong.
Have you always worked this way? Or has your drafting process changed over time? And is it still changing?
More or less. But I’ve got much better at being more systemized and working harder. I used to be lazier but as you get older you have to start speeding up because life does.
If you get stuck during a draft – for whatever reason – what do you do?
Cry. Wail. Eat chocolate.
At what point in the drafting process (if any) do you call in other readers?
About 18 months to 2 years in, I’m normally happy to show it to my agent. She always makes important comments that then make the book much better. Then, my editor gets it. Other than that, there are no other readers.
Do you know instinctively when a book is finished?
Yes, I think so. In the first few drafts, the page is literally covered in red ink, 50-70 corrections per page – when I’m only correcting commas and hyphens then the book is done (for now – after a few weeks, I always want to change it, and even edit old books before readings.) No novel is perfect. You can always make it better.
What do you think is the most common problem new writers face with the drafting process? What advice would you give them?
The problem I faced when I was starting out was I didn’t realise how hard it would be! You have to put in the hours, and to do it every day and to draft and redraft and redraft until something decent comes out. You have to be rigorous with yourself, never be content with something you’ve written, always strive to work harder and produce better books.
Stav is published by Faber & Faber. His debut, The Devil’s Playground (2004), was described by James Sallis as ‘altogether extraordinary, it introduces a major new talent’, and was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasy Dagger Award. His second novel The Black Monastery (2009) was described as ‘dynamite fiction’ in the Independent and ‘spectacular’ by Laura Wilson in the Guardian.
Eleven Days by Stav Sherez
A fire rages through a sleepy West London square, engulfing a small convent hidden away among the residential houses. When DI Jack Carrigan and DS Geneva Miller arrive at the scene they discover eleven bodies, yet there were only supposed to be ten nuns in residence.
It’s eleven days before Christmas, and despite their superiors wanting the case solved before the holidays, Carrigan and Miller start to suspect that the nuns were not who they were made out to be. Why did they make no move to escape the fire? Who is the eleventh victim, whose body was found separate to the others? And where is the convent’s priest, the one man who can answer their questions?
Fighting both internal politics and the church hierarchy, Carrigan and Miller unravel the threads of a case which reaches back to the early 1970s, and the upsurge of radical Liberation Theology in South America – with echoes of the Shining Path, and contemporary battles over oil, land and welfare. Meanwhile, closer to home, there’s a new threat in the air, one the police are entirely unprepared for…
Helen Giltrow is a former bookseller and editor whose writing has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award and the Daily Telegraph’s Novel in a Year competition. Her debut novel The Distance – a dark suspense thriller set in the world of criminal espionage, with a strong female lead – sold on the eve of the 2012 London Book Fair after a five-way UK auction; US and Canadian auctions followed. Translation rights have since been sold in nine territories including Germany, the Netherlands and Japan. She lives in Oxford.
The Distance by Helen Giltrow
Charlotte Alton has put her old life behind her. The life where she bought and sold information, unearthing secrets buried too deep for anyone else to find, or fabricating new identities for people who need their histories erased.
But now she has been offered one more job. To get a hit-man in to an experimental new prison and take out someone who according to the records isn’t there at all.
It’s impossible. A suicide mission. And quite possibly a set-up.
So why can’t she say no?