Getting Through Your First Draft
From Idea to Novel
Two years ago I got an idea. That night was clichéd to the point of parody. I was lying in bed, unable to sleep, when suddenly my eyes widened. An idea! I had an idea! And not only that, but I had an idea that literally got me out of bed.
I sat at my kitchen table, opened my laptop, and began to type. After an hour or so I had a few pages.
I’d never felt so inspired. I’d finally experienced what “real” writers feel when they say they were just a conduit for the material. It just flowed out of me. I couldn’t resist.
In the morning I read over what I’d done.
I’d never seen a less inspiring lump of words. I’d rather have eaten a handful of broken glass than read another paragraph by someone as dumb as me.
What could I do?
The answer was simple if not glamorous.
I kept going.
I ignored the pages I’d already written and made the commitment not to revisit them until I’d finished writing.
I made a gigantic mess. I wrote every day. Parts of the story grew clearer, while others remained murky and obstinate. Many would eventually be deleted. New characters appeared. Others vanished and never returned.
One fine evening, I realized I had just finished the first draft. It was just over three hundred pages of... something? But now at least I had a mess to work with. I reworked it once over the next couple of months and sent it to my agent.
I thought I was done.
Ha! Nine drafts and nearly a year later, it was ready to submit to editors. It was a grind, but it was worth it.
Too many of my students never give themselves the chance to make the first initial mess, that hideous first draft. They assume that when it stops feeling fun or inspiring, or when it starts feeling like work, that their initial idea must have been bad, or that they’re not good enough writers.
Writing is work. It’s not always fun and inspiring. That’s true for any writer who takes his or her craft seriously.
When you’re starting out, you only have to be good enough--hell, not even good enough, just committed enough--to keep going. How? Keep the pen moving. Type. Do your work. You have to learn to trust the process, though the process might stink, and there are times you’ll want to quit. Don’t. If you want to be a writer, make more words appear on the page. If you really want to write, prove it.
When you get tired of the process or frustrated with it, here is some practical advice to experiment with.
- If you can, work at the same time each day. If you can develop a writing routine, it will become a habit, and a writing habit means consistent productivity.
- Create a clean, hospitable, well-lit place for your writing. Your subconscious will thank you and so will your muse.
- Take time to get up and move. Stretch. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Nothing will make you feel less creative than keyboard posture and back pain.
- Show up every day. Get some words down every day. Take the long view. Even at a paragraph a day, if enough days go by, one day you’re going to have a draft.
- Be kind to yourself. Find a way to interrupt the voice that tells you your writing wasn’t good, because that voice will appear some days. Think of it as collecting pages. Just get the words down. You’ll figure out if they go together later.
- If you work longhand, write a brief description of what happens on the page at the top. Even though you’re not revising as you go, when a draft gets long, you may still need to double check previous pages for plot or character details. Nothing is more cumbersome than writing longhand, needing to locate a specific passage, and not having the “find” function of a keyboard. This can be as simple as something like, “Dinner scene between character A and B,” or “Description of Sam.” You get it.
- When you think you’ve completed a draft of a chapter, place it in a different file, put it away, and keep going. You’ll get it back out later, and having it in a different document than the one you’re currently working in will keep you from revisiting it as often.
- Read Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It’s the notebook he kept while writing the masterpiece. You’ve never seen an artistic mind so, by turns, inspired, whiny, self-recriminating, swaggering, etc. He went through it all, but one thing never changed: he kept making words appear on the page. He felt sooooo sorry for himself through most of it, but he gave himself a chance to finish.
Bringing it All Together
The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
Start, then keep going. It won’t always be easy, but it will always be that simple. Trust the process, and one day you’ll hold in your hands a complete draft of your story.
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