The years between writing my books and having them published are quite far apart. The first draft of ‘Ida’ was written in 2011 and the book was published in 2017; ‘Highway Bodies’ was written in 2013 and has just been published. The writing of both first drafts was very similar, but the editing processes were very different.
When I was writing the first draft of ‘Ida’, I was working seven days a week at a fruit farm. Generally, I use NaNoWriMo to write a first draft. For those who aren’t familiar, NaNoWriMo is where you aim to write fifty thousand words in the month of November. I rewrote the manuscript a few times with only myself in mind: the idea of choices making parallel universes was something I just wanted to explore. Sure, I wanted to get something published one day, but this was for me. This was the third manuscript I’d completed and I was getting more confident in myself, and I thought that maybe one day I’d have a pretty good shot at being an author.
I wrote the first ‘Highway Bodies’ draft during NaNoWriMo as well. I had just finished a gruelling honours year at uni and was in the middle of developing depression (which would be diagnosed a couple of years later), and I remember how freeing it felt to write something that again, only had myself in mind. I had submitted ‘Ida’ to a few publishers and had been rejected, so I didn’t have anything out in the world except for a few short stories. I had only been writing coursework and my thesis during my honours year, so everything I had written had to be seen by my supervisor or my tutors. Writing ‘Highway Bodies’, something that would be frowned upon by my university (genre fiction was seen as a waste of time, especially in undergraduate studies), was incredibly liberating. This was something only for me, and I could do whatever I wanted. It could be written sloppily; it didn’t have to make sense.
Whenever I’m writing the first draft of anything, I can’t let the audience in. The story I’m writing is for myself first, because otherwise I get too caught up in worrying about what other people think. I have to care about the story first and foremost, because otherwise how can I ask other people to care about it?
My first drafts are really just me telling myself the story. I’m trying to figure out who the characters are exactly, and although I usually have the plot marked out roughly, this is where I figure out what I actually want and need to happen. So when I get to the second draft stage, I always know that something huge is missing. There’s usually more than one thing that I need to add, but with ‘Ida’ and ‘Highway Bodies’, there was a major component missing – something glaring out at me that I could see almost as soon as the first drafts were done.
‘Ida’ was in third person. I wanted the story to convey some of the vibe of the Dandenong Ranges: the closeness, the way the trees and the mist can hide anything. Having that step back from her narration didn’t convey the tone I wanted. After rewriting everything into first person, immediately the story was closer to what I wanted it to be.
‘Highway Bodies’ had two narrators in the first draft. The manuscript had started out as a 5000-word short story with an unnamed protagonist, and so her narrative was one. The other narrator was Dee, a girl who plays drums in a band. And while the two narrations worked well, once I added in Jojo’s, the story all came together much nicer. Jojo adds a humour and a lightness that the other narrators don’t have. The balance between the narrators felt much more natural once Jojo’s storyline was added and the novel as a whole was much brighter and hopeful than it was in the previous draft.
The editing process for the two books was quite different. For one, ‘Ida’ is 45,000 thousand words and ‘Highway Bodies’ is around 80,000. With ‘Ida’, keeping track of the different universes and timelines was tricky, but achievable. ‘Highway Bodies’ was a whole other beast. While the timelines of each narrator were pretty straight forward, whenever I had to change something in the plot I had to make sure the narrations were all in order. It was incredibly frustrating when something would work in one of the narrations, but then the chapters around it had to be shifted or deleted. Making changes but keeping everything else in order was trickier than with ‘Ida’, it was a balancing act that I felt would fall apart at any second.
The biggest changes in ‘Highway Bodies’ during the editing process with Echo were to do with finding an antagonist, and this was something that helped me balance everything. While there were several groups of miscellaneous scary people in previous drafts, I combined them all into a cultish group that is led by one man. By having a clear antagonist, I could then focus on what I wanted to say. Why is he the antagonist? Why do I disagree with what he’s saying?
I wanted to write a zombie story because I had been watching/reading a few zombie series, and none of them really spoke to my experience as a queer person, especially as a non-binary person. The antagonist group in ‘Highway Bodies’ is basically a cult, where men and women are separated into two distinct groups, no-one knows what a non-binary person is and heterosexuality and gender roles must be strictly adhered to.
By creating this one cult from the smaller miscellaneous groups I focused in on what I wanted to say. The three groups of teens that feature in the book are all queer, and in their pre-zombie lives had problems directly stemming from the systems the cult is trying to re-establish. By making this cult represent what the teens are trying to leave behind, I realised what I wanted for their future: a world where they can be who they are.
And really honing in on that, giving the ideas focus, makes the story stronger. My voice becomes more confident because I know what I am trying to achieve. And because you know what the characters want, readers care about the characters more – they can root for them. I’m sure this is true for a lot of people, but I do find my strength as a writer doesn’t lie in writing but in rewriting. The first draft is not so much a manuscript as it is a big glob of not-quite-understandable ideas. By redrafting and really figuring out what I want to say, the manuscript becomes legible, and eventually something to be proud of.
For me, writing is really just figuring out what I think, and publishing a book is making a statement. Sometimes the editing process is incredibly draining and difficult, but I find that rigourous edits are always worth it. While ‘Ida’ and ‘Highway Bodies’ are very different books, they are both vehicles for what I want to say and how I want to leave a positive impact on the world.
About Alison Evans
Alison Evans is a non-binary author from Melbourne. They are co-editor of ‘Concrete Queers’, a maker of zines and a lover of bad movies. Their work has been published in various Australian and international magazines, lit journals and zines, and their novel, ‘Ida’ (Echo), was the winner of the People’s Choice Award at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. You can find them on Twitter @_budgie or their website, alisonwritesthings.com.