What I’ve Learned About the First Draft of a Novel

“What if we entertained the possibility that we did not need to even understand where our story was taking us?”
— Alan Watt, The 90-Day Novel

It can be daunting, this writing business.

For years, I procrastinated getting started on the first draft of a science-fiction novel.  Oh, I did my research in a disorganized way, kept copious notes and agonized over how to organize them usefully, and read widely about novel-writing and the nature of story.  It often amounted to not much more than pencil sharpening, without finding the motivation to put that point down on the paper and get going.

But now, I’m happy to say, I’m almost 45,000 words in on the first draft.  I’m told a typical book length manuscript might be 90,000 words, so that makes almost half-way.  My plan is to overwrite by quite a bit, because I’m quite sure I’ll be paring and trimming extensively during revision.  And that makes sense that I will have to in this case, because the story has only barely got up on its feet and begun to stroll forward.

Why did it take me so long to get on with it?  It was sheer procrastination, fear of failure and lack of imagination about the satisfaction of it, really, rather than some deep-seated writer’s block rooted in the psychology of my relationship with my mother. Or father. Or crazy aunt from Argentina.

What Finally Got Me Going

I wanted to share what finally tipped me into the role of novel-writer (even if it never goes anywhere finally).  That tipping is, of course, about actually writing almost every day versus just thinking about it.  But I hope describing some of what helped me it might help others of my procrastinating brethren and sistren.

First of all I have to give a lot of credit to Chuck Wendig.  He’s a novelist, and comic-book writer of all things, who manages to convey with sparkling crudeness the need to stop with the excuses already on his blog Terribleminds.  After I read his post How To Push Past the Bullshit And Write That Goddamn Novel: A Very Simple No-Fuckery Writing Plan To Get Shit Done I had no place to run.  It was either do it or don’t.

The main point of his “simple plan” is to pick a relatively small chunk of words to do every day and commit to writing them on a schedule that you keep.  It will add up, but it has got to be done almost every day.

One of my difficulties in the past was trying to do too much writing in one sit-down, and then getting frustrated and blocked. Now I do a little more than Wendig’s recommended 350 words, but not a lot more.  As he says, you can sneeze that much at one go….

Another very useful thing that I did in preparation was writing a rough 30 page story treatment.  Not really an outline, because strict outlines always seem to shut down my imagination, but a scene sequence that would take me to the major points of my story.  I was guided in this very much by John Truby’s insightful book, The Anatomy of Story.  As a result of that effort I have a web of characters, a “reveals” sequence, and the main points of my plot laid out as a rough road map.  I’ve already gone off the rails with much of the scene sequence but that’s alright.  I don’t feel lost.  I may not be on the exact road I imagined but I can see the high points off in the distance.

On Not Having Any Faith in What You’re Doing

But you may be sitting at your computer, or dipping your quill into the inkwell, and yet even with that sneezable amount of writing to do, you’re still feeling a little stuck or fretful.  You lack faith.  I find that having an inspirational book on writing beside you to browse for a minute or two is good at these times.

For me, it has been Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within.  There’s a few of these kinds of books around: write a novel in a month, or on the weekends, or in this case, in 90 days.  I’m not following Watt’s schedule of writing, or even his thoughts on structure, which go on about the typical three acts.  (There’s nothing about stories or novels that dictates three acts; it seems to be just a way of talking about the beginning, middle and end of a work of fiction.)

But what is so inspiring are his thoughts about discovering the story we’re struggling to get down, the story that’s in us.

“The fear that we are doing this wrong is bound to arise, but it is often tied up with the idea that we are supposed to know how to do it.  Our story is bigger than we are…. Our job is to inquire.  When we put our curiosity before our fears, we will get to the end.”  And:

“You don’t need to force anything.  We allow the truth to be told, even if it seems, at times, temporarily at odds with our idea of the story. Sometimes it may seem that we’re off course, but as we stay with it, we discover a deeper truth.  As our hero moves toward his goal, he encounters obstacles, and we might be surprised that he’s not doing what we thought he would.  This doesn’t mean we’re doing it wrong.”

A Nice Cup of Green Tea

So this is what I do on every day I write:

— Make a cup of green tea.  This signals to me I’m now ready to write.  It serves as a way of declaring, to me and my subconscious, that the surgeon is approaching the patient, for better or worse.  The signal could be anything really: playing a certain piece of music, spraying oil of patchouli around the place, or making a series of elaborate arcane gestures over the computer.

— Open the congenial, straightforward writing application I’m choosing to use.  Once upon a time, I wanted to get too complicated with software that helps you sort out scenes, lists characters, manages structure, etc.  I’ve forgotten all that.  I use RoughDraft, which is an old free word processor that produces files in the common .rtf format. It allows you to attach separate notes to each chapter file, has a word counter and a back-up function built in.  But anything you’re comfortable with will do, I’m sure.

— Use a calculator, virtual or real, to have at the ready a display of my word goal for this session.  I often go past the number of words it sets, but I find it so helpful to have that mark in front of me.  With RoughDraft I have a running tally of how many words I’ve written, so I just add to that figure to get my day’s goal.

— Start to write.  Cause and effect.  Enquire and discover the truth of the characters, the best I can discern at this stage anyway.  See where it goes.  Sometimes I’m rewarded with a byway that is surprisingly appropriate and that I hadn’t planned on.

— Don’t go back and rework what you’ve written (following Alan Watt’s advice).  I don’t know for sure where I’m going yet, so how do I know what to revise?  Just write, trust in the exploratory nature of the process, and the words add up.

— Back up everything.

A couple of useful online resources I’ve found: Power Thesaurus, when you’re looking for a better word that you haven’t used three times already; and another that I will use and adapt from more, The Online Slang Dictionary.

There’s also my copy of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression which is useful for showing not telling the reader something of your character’s state of mind.

There are many more sources of both inspiration and craft that I could mention.  But these are working for me, so far.

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