Happy Saturday! It’s the weekend again!
Last week, I started us down the road of preparing to write our first novel. Today, we’ll talk about the actual drafting.
You probably already realize that every writer has their own process. But before you’ve actually undertaken a novel (or maybe five) it’s pretty hard to know what that process is. Whatever it is, knowing how you write novels is an important bit of self-awareness. So I encourage you, as you go through this process, to be mindful of what things do and don’t work for you. Because there are a lot of different approaches to it. And keep trying things out — sometimes what didn’t work for you before will work for you under slightly different circumstances.
So, you’ve committed to the task, you’ve done some research into writing novels and into the specific novel you’re going to write. You have a workspace and time carved out. You have a rough idea of how many words you want to write per day and how many days it will be before you finish your first draft.
Now, to quote Christopher Moore, “go write like a god!”
If you are an outliner, you’ll have that to consult each day when you sit down to your work…if you need to. With Lamentation and Antiphon, I had no outline. With Canticle, I did. But I also found that after saving and closing the file when I initially sketched that outline, I never looked at it again. So I don’t think I’m an outliner, but I’m always open to new tools and ways of doing things so I’ll sit down with whatever my next project is and outline it as an experiment.
If you’re not outlining, you’re figuring things out as you go and cleaning up after you finish the draft. I found parts of this grueling and emotional, especially on my first novel, probably because it was all so new to me. I also put a lot of pressure on myself to stay on task, meet my wordcount goals each day, because I had a hard deadline that was imposed through the dare that Jay Lake and my wife dared me with. I needed this first draft by the end of October and I sat down to start drafting in early September.
Yikes, right? Well, there was a good reason. Jay was wise enough to see that my fear and trembling around novels was getting in my way and that moving fast, with a big carrot dangling in front of me, was a way to get around that fear. His dare, of course, wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t committed to it and forced myself, each day, to sit down for my words.
I’m a big fan of daily production. Or at least six days per week. Once you get away from that habit, you lose the habit and you also risk losing the continuity and momentum of your story by becoming too distant from it. If you have to go back each time you sit down to write and read everything you’ve previously written in order to find your misplaced groove…well, imagine the time you’re spending doing that instead of writing.
So for the next 50 or 100 days you’re going to be sitting down and finding your words. Ideally at the same time each day, though your process may work differently. Drafting my first novel, working with a seven week deadline, meant that I was writing in every gap of time I could find. In the lunch room at my dayjob. In the wee hours of the morning. In the evening and on weekends. Even in the backseat of the car when we went anywhere more than 30 minutes from home. It worked for me, but I don’t recommend it for everyone.
Just write. Write like a god.
As your drafting, you’re going to be presented with a hundred reasons to quit. Or to take a day off…which sometimes threatens to stretch into a week. Be a good boss to yourself but do be a boss. As the senior manager of your writing career, you call the shots. If you’re too sick to write, do something else writing related that isn’t impacted by the illness. If you have a family event, flex your writing schedule and your daily wordcounts around it. Bank some extra words against those things that come up, but again, avoid losing days.
You see, it takes 21 days to build a habit. If you’re writing 2k words per day, that means you’re nearly halfway finished by the time your body and brain are in the daily groove. Depending on the kind of career you want, you’re probably going to want to produce at least one novel per year. I know a lot of writers who produce three or four. Each book is more practice and, eventually, more money once you start selling. You have to train to run a marathon and the writing life is definitely a marathon, not a sprint.
As you’re laying down that first draft you’ll be learning a lot. Don’t be afraid to play with your process to find out what works with you. I know some writers who just lay down first draft, no corrections or revisions as they go, and they swear by it. Turning off the internal editor, they say, is a key to getting the first draft complete. I know other writers who review the previous day’s words, do some minor tweaking, as a way of settling into their current day’s words. Both of these work. What doesn’t work is falling into the loop of continuous revision to the point where you have three of the most polished, exciting chapters ever and nothing else. I can’t stress this enough: You have to push forward. It is hard work and the brain will find lots of ways to trick you into not writing.
When I’m drafting, I try to minimize how often I go back to my previous work. But at the same time, I do polish and make minor corrections as I go. It slows me down some but I still hit 1k per hour on most days. And for major things, like information that needs to show up earlier or a change to someone’s scene, I leave a bracket and a brief note right where I’m at. It looks like this:
[rudolfo needs to know this in chapter 3
That way, when I’m in revision mode later, I can search for those brackets in the document and make the fixes. So minor fixes along the way, major fixes marked with some kind of searchable symbol.
The benefit? I have ridiculously clean first drafts and do very little major revision after the draft. That works for me. It wouldn’t work for everyone. The idea of having to go back and gut 30k words from my novel in revision makes me shudder. But I already know about myself that I’m a putter-inner rather than a taker-outer and the wordcount of my final manuscript is usually not more than a few thousand words different from the wordcount at the end of my first draft. So figure out what works for you and do it.
As your drafting, there may be places you find yourself stuck…even if you’re using an outline. Learn the tricks that work to get you unstuck. For me, it’s pausing to think, finding some protein, getting some fresh air or finding some hot water — a hottub is preferred but a shower or tub will work in a pinch. I’m not sure why, but it loosens up my brain a bit. And as you move forward, you’ll figure out the places you stick and what helps get you unstuck.
For me, I struggle more (and move more slowly) with my first act. I also slow down during the transition between the second and third acts. But on the tail end of it, when I’m solidly into the last act, my wordcount per day shoots up. I literally race to the finish, sometimes with 25k words drafted in the final week.
When I’m writing, even without an outline, I know exactly how the story ends typically and reverse engineer that ending back to the beginning of the book. It’s a bit like that Stephen Covey habit of beginning with the end in mind. I usually also have the bones of the story in my head and I find the meat and muscle as I go. But when I get stuck, it’s time to find a sandwich or a shower or pause to think in my Thinking Chair. So far, leaning into that stuckness by taking a brief break to think it out, has always served me well. The danger is…yes, you guessed it…taking too long a break.
A lot of writers also bog down in the middle. It’s so prevalent that they have a term for it — “the muddle in the middle.” For me, the muddle middle is usually a product of the story having played out in my head and me having spent so much time with it that the idea feels flat and boring. My Chattering Head Monkeys get loud. And the trick? Just keep pushing forward. Put your characters into new trees and throw bigger rocks at them until they either learn to catch ’em and hurl ’em back or until they’ve been knocked from their perch. Tell the monkeys to shut the frak up and keep going.
Because here is the biggest secret, I think, to finishing your first draft. Make it your mantra. Practice it now.
It doesn’t have to be good; it just has to be done.
There will be time enough for fixing it later and since you’re the worst judge of the quality of your work, especially at this stage in the process, just let go of that internal editor as much as you can with promises that her turn is coming later.
So there you go. Stay hydrated. Get up and stretch. Take care of your wrists.
Write like a god!
Next week, we’ll talk about post-draft. Trailer Boy out.