On 26 May I began the first draft of a new novel, aiming to complete it by Christmas. Coincidentally, exactly six months later, I’ll reach my target of 80,000 words today. I am slightly cheating because it’s not quite finished (another week will do it) but I’m so close that I’m already feeling the relief and satisfaction – and looking forward to celebrating. I won’t do that until it really is finished.
This is a follow-up to the Story of a Second Novel post I wrote in the summer around the halfway mark. As many new people are now reading the blog, I’ll reiterate that my writing posts are never a HOW TO… I hate those things! If anything, this is about the opposite – the importance of finding what works for you as a writer.
As NaNoWriMo draws to a close, lots of people will be celebrating the achievement of writing 50,000 words in November alone. I take my hat off to them – that shows an enormous degree of commitment. For reasons that will shortly become apparent, I couldn’t do it.
But that’s OK. I’ve stopped beating myself up because other people’s output is greater than mine. The right way to write a novel one is the one that works. When I read a book I honestly couldn’t care less how long it took to write or how the author went about it if it’s a well written, engaging story.
Six months ago, as you’ll know if you’ve read recent posts, I was on a major downer. Only in desperate times do I sit down and voluntarily do some maths. Taking 80,000 as my target I worked out how long it would take to produce a new first draft and both the sums and the experience proved surprising.
I only needed to write 600 words a day or 3,000 a week for it to be done by mid December. This morning I looked over my records (I got quite hung up on numbers, whilst knowing from experience they mean nothing) and discovered I have actually reached the target in a total of 112 writing days. For the sake of my family and my sanity I took a decent break in the summer and three separate weeks off, one of which was a research trip to Paris. The breaks are very important and so are the days off. A designated day off is a treat. A day in which I procrastinate, wallow in guilt and frustration and end up writing nothing has no beneficial effect whatsoever!
Writing a first draft you don’t share with anyone is probably the most common approach but I hadn’t done it like this before. I wondered if I’d miss the feedback and the motivational effect of a workshop. In fact, going it alone has worked better for this story which has a completely different, almost confessional feel to it. It’s also in the first person which I am unexpectedly loving (I never thought I could keep that up for a whole novel) but which would make it quite uncomfortable to read aloud. Don’t worry, if the book gets published I’m sure I’ll cope…
It’s normal to feel protective – AKA terrified – about new work. We all know what Hemingway said about first drafts. But when my American critique partner Kristin Celms was keen to see what I was doing, I decided to let her read the first 40,000 words while I was on my summer holiday. Kristin is still the only person who’s seen anything of this manuscript (she’s getting it again over Christmas) and her intelligent, sensitive feedback – often in the form of questions – has made the most enormous difference to this draft, helping me to get deeper into character than I would have otherwise at this early stage. Thank you, Kristin!
My outline, based on the original short story, has proven more of a comfort blanket than anything. Only the basic arc has survived. When I looked back at it the other day I was amazed how many significant factors have had to change and no doubt the final version will be different again.
One writing aphorism which is hard to dispute is that writing is rewriting. This doesn’t faze me at all – I’m such a rewriter that I even do it when I’m not ‘supposed’ to. I have a huge list of things that need fixing in the next draft even before I get any feedback but the time I’ve spent editing as I went along has been a good investment and may save me work in the long run. It’s also how I get into it each day and I’ve come to accept slashing the previous day’s wordcount as a necessary evil. Writing against the clock is a great counterbalance – I’m a real convert.
There are lots of advantages to writing a first draft in a relatively short timeframe. I am immersed in the story and felt a real connection with my characters much earlier this time. It’s easier to keep a handle on the shape and pace of the narrative when you’re with it almost every day. The more I write, the more I want to write (the opposite is also true and a lot less fun). Even at a modest 600 words a day, the thousand counter edges up every couple of days.
The main downside is the squeeze on thinking time in between sessions. It took me a while to realise this was why I couldn’t seem to write in the mornings. I need my walk or swim away from distractions to mull over the plot – both the next scene and as a whole. If I know what’s happening in a scene, writing it is the good part. If I don’t, it’s agony. The other downside is that I’ve let a lot of other things slide due to lack of mental space as much as time.
When friends have said they’re impressed that I’ve done this I’m very grateful but I also feel a bit of a fraud. Yes, it requires discipline but no more than turning up for work, which you also do whether or not you feel like it. Writing a good novel is never going to be easy, in fact I often feel a sense of total dread about going back to the manuscript, tormented by my vision of what the book could be and the fear that I’m not equal to the task. And then I remember that there is no secret – you sit down, you write. You read it back. You look for ways to strengthen it and repeat for as long as it takes, hopefully becoming a better writer along the way. I aim to have something worth reading to show my agent by the spring. Well, that’s the plan.
Would love to hear your experiences of first drafts, writing deadlines, etc!
Exciting times ahead on the Literary Sofa! Next week, not yet published author Ben Blackman returns by popular demand with a guest post on the festive season. On 8 December I’ll be sharing my Top Books of 2014 and on 12 December, my Hot Picks 2015.