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If a robotic voice reads to you, there is no escaping the glitches which will still exist in this draft, no matter how much it was cleaned and tidied during the previous one. Any missed or repeated words, sentimental or graceless phrasing, they will all stand out.

For the third draft of Instructions for the Working Day, I listened to my entire novel, using the Read Aloud option in Word. This voice told me the truth. If I had read it out myself, I would have failed to notice all the sentences with bad rhythm, the dreary sections, the poorly expressed dialogue.

Whenever I heard a problem, I paused the voice and made the necessary corrections, sometimes readdressing the entire scene or chapter.

Here is an invented example of how the flaws might be picked up during this listening draft:

'John used to be a ballet-shoe maker. Now Susan was no longer at home, he thought often of the last on his old workbench, the flour paste, the triangles of burlap that built the toe-box, and the sense of belonging.

People used to light up when he mentioned his job. It seemed quaint, almost whimsical, to them, he supposed. He saw himself as an ordinary artisan, but it put them in mind of The Elves and the Shoemaker. They didn’t realise well-crafted shoes didn’t appear overnight.

John knew how the materials arched and stretched. He understood the unique degrees of flexibility the individual dancers needed. Yes, he talked to his satin and burlap, which probably was a bit fanciful, but each dancer had her own clear-cut requirements and every pair he made was hard, rugged work. Some dancers ordered more than twenty-five pairs at once and some of those would last for one single performance.

He had begun as a young boy in the despatch depot, graduating after years to the bench where he learnt to make soft toes long before he began to master the hard kind, finding his own rhythm step by step. Speed only developed with time. Flawlessness came first.

He never thought about Swans or Nutcrackers. He didn’t know one end of an arabesque from another and was impervious to the gush of compliments from the prima ballerinas. It was not, he was fond of saying, the shoe which created the pointe. Only the dancer could do that.'

  • Some phrases here struck me as twee, awkward or even misleading—for example, ‘some of those’ in the third paragraph could refer to either the shoes or the dancers.

  • A few words—'didn’t’/'dancers’/‘used to’—were repeated too soon.

  • In the second paragraph, I objected to John saying that people ‘didn’t realise’. It made him seem condescending, which was not my intention for this character.

  • After eliminating the most obvious problems, I rearranged the piece for a smoother flow, better rhythm and greater clarity.

  • One of the most satisfying alterations I made was to add Susan again at the end. As her departure generated the memories of his old career, perhaps now we understand why:

'John used to be a ballet-shoe maker. People would light up when he mentioned his job. It reminded them of The Elves and the Shoemaker, how the well-crafted shoes appeared overnight.

Now Susan had left, he kept thinking about the wooden last on his worn workbench, the smooth flour paste, the triangles of burlap that built the toe-box, how he'd talk to the satin and hessian as he worked.

He had begun as a young boy in the despatch depot, eventually graduating to the bench, where he learnt to make soft toes long before mastering the hard kind. He gradually developed his own rhythm. Speed increased with time. Flawlessness came first. Over the years he learnt how the materials arched and stretched, understood the degree of flexibility each ballerina required. Many dancers ordered twenty or more pairs at once. When Susan took over the role of Giselle, her shoes lasted for a single performance.

John never thought about Swans or Nutcrackers and didn’t know one end of an arabesque from another. He was impervious to the gush of compliments from the prima ballerinas. It was not, he would tell them, the shoe which created the pointe. Only the dancer could do that.'

I think the revised piece is tighter and less rambling. It made me wish I were actually writing a novel about Susan and John, instead of making up their scenes as examples.

I didn’t rush through the listening stage with Instructions for the Working Day. I really lingered over this one. I felt closer to my novel then than at any other point. There was no part of the writing process I loved more than this third draft.

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The cutting process that followed my first draft readthrough didn’t reduce the novel to a few pages, as I’d feared. In fact, my second draft grew, because I couldn’t snip out a chunk and leave things there. Often a new scene was needed, or at least an additional paragraph, to deliver the impact the cut section had lacked.

Sometimes I needed to increase the tension, alter the pace, escalate the plot or develop the characters—occasionally all of these—in a way the excised scenes had failed to do. And if nothing else, the new scene was necessary to soften any jagged edges the cut scene had left behind.

It can be disconcerting to make a cut or a change which generates a knock-on effect for later sections of your novel. But never be afraid to alter or delete a scene on page 32 which subsequently disturbs a passage on page 109. Because when you rejig page 109, you might produce a brilliant scene which wouldn’t have existed without all your astute modifications and excisions. And it will emerge as the result of a new, improved knowledge and understanding of your novel.

Here's an invented example:

Page 32, first draft: ‘When Susan moved back into Richard’s house, he said they should take it one day at a time. She wasn’t sure how else it could be taken. How did other people ‘take it’? She felt as if she were on probation, but said nothing. She agreed that she shouldn’t unpack. He made space for her suitcase in a cupboard on the landing and she went there every morning to fetch her toothbrush and select her clothes for the day. At night she went back there to put her washing in a plastic bag. She didn’t touch his coffee grinder, his dimmer switches, his remote control. She waited patiently for the day her suitcase would emerge and her belongings would actually belong.’

During my initial readthrough, I might decide that Susan needs to be a less passive character:

Page 32, second draft: ‘When Susan moved back into Richard’s house, she insisted on unpacking. 'One day at a time’ shouldn’t curtail access to everyday essentials. Even so, she didn’t allow her possessions to encroach on his: her hairbrush lived on the corner of the chest-of-drawers, not beside his, in case the bristles might touch. Likewise her toothbrush, the head angled away from his in the mug on the bathroom sill. She bought a jute drawstring bag for her laundry, rather than use the flimsy carrier he’d provided. She kept most of her books on the shelf he had cleared for her, but had to wedge her Muriel Sparks on top of his Proust. Her economy tub of hand cream didn’t fit in the bathroom cabinet and was not allowed to sit on the corner of the bath. It had to stay in her suitcase. Not a defeat, but a single compromise.’

After making these changes, I would check all Susan’s scenes to ensure she was a little more active and spirited.

For example:

Page 109, first draft: ‘When she moved out, it didn’t take Susan long to pack. It took her no time at all. Only her hairbrush and pyjamas had eventually emerged on a permanent basis. The pyjamas would smell of this house. Last night she had extracted hair from his brush and wound it through her own. She thought about throwing them in his bin. In the end, she packed them. She might not want the memories, but maybe she needed the reminders.’

Page 109, second draft: ‘When she moved out, Susan packed her suitcase, then immediately unpacked it. She pushed her hairbrush and Richard’s together, interlocking the bristles—likewise their toothbrushes—and left them cradled in his washbasin. She inserted her books between his. She liberated her gigantic tub of hand cream and put it on his bedside table with the lid off. She left her clothes strewn under his bed. All she packed was his remote control. It would be of no use to her, and no use to him. Not a memory, but a reminder.’

I’m not suggesting these are good scenes, nor that the second drafts have improved them, but they are examples of how straightforward it can be to make alterations in small sections, taking account of other scenes which will need modifying as a result.

The best tip I can give for maintaining control of this modification process is to flag all the necessary changes in your novel plan first, rather than diving straight into the manuscript. I will talk about how I made my plan in a later post, but it might be helpful to mention here that when I was at the first draft stage, I made a note on the plan whenever I deviated from it. This meant I had an accurate summary of all the action and character development. When it was time to make cuts and alterations, I could see at a glance which sections, both earlier and later, those changes would affect. I highlighted them in the plan, then used this a reference guide to ensure no scenes were missed.

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It took five months to write the first draft of Instructions for the Working Day. I edited constantly to keep the manuscript reasonably tidy. If I leave gaps to fill in later, or scenes left unfinished, or notes-to-self, I can’t look at it again.

I don’t mean it was perfect in terms of plotting, pacing, character development or narrative tension. Far from it. I knew there would be plenty of issues to confront.

I printed out and read this first draft in a few sittings without making ANY alterations to the text or annotations in the margins.

At this stage, it wasn’t about fiddling with sentences. It was all about feeling the rhythm and pacing, the throbbing heart of the story. Tweaking a single word here and there would have led to other small distractions and the point of this first draft readthrough would have been lost. I wouldn't have detected large-scale plot problems or major issues with character development.

All I did was jot down the odd note on a separate piece of paper. These notes were brief and intimidating, such as: whole chapter horribly overwritten.

After this readthrough, the next stage for the first draft was CUTTING. Cutting all the unnecessary words, every bloated paragraph and inconsequential scene. The best advice I can give is CUT AND FORGET. You won’t regret it.

As well as the obvious horrors, I also removed some sentences I really liked. If they were not serving the novel, or were causing narrative clutter, or simply there to sound nice, rather than actually earning their keep within the story, they had to go.

Here is an invented example of how I might cut a paragraph:

‘John walked all the way down the grassy slope to the neglected pond at the end of the long, terraced garden. The surface of the water was clogged with old autumn leaves. The white plastic chair he’d bought in the sale at the garden centre and sat on all last summer had fallen on its side. It must have been blown over by the strong winds they’d had in November. Susan had left her russet cardigan down here in late August, which was the very last time she came. Now it was floating about on the water, almost indistinguishable from the leaves clustering round it. She always wore autumn colours; bronze, copper, burgundy, orange. It was drifting here and there with its sleeves stretched out in supplication, or as if it had finally given up waiting to be rescued.’

I might have changed this to:

‘John walked down the slope to the pond, its surface clogged with old leaves. The plastic chair he’d sat on last summer lay on its side, blown over by the wind. Susan had left her cardigan here the last time she came. Now it floated among the leaves, sleeves stretched out in supplication, or surrender.’

This paragraph is now half the length and has a more striking rhythm. I have shed the narrative clutter, which was guilty of diluting the melancholy atmosphere of John’s loneliness without Susan. The mood is is in starker relief now, which enhances the slightly disturbing image of the floating cardigan. Cutting has—hopefully—given the paragraph more tension and pace, greater clarity and vigour.

There is something satisfying about cutting. It’s a way of sharpening individual scenes and, most importantly, re-establishing the theme, or big picture, which can easily become muddied during construction of the first draft. The cutting process clarifies the way ahead, like clearing a path through a forest.

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