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First Draft – Hitting the Target

TypewriterOn 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.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


41 thoughts on “First Draft – Hitting the Target

  1. Hi Isabel, great post. I’m not yet written to a writing deadline but think punching out a first draft in quick time is probably a good thing given the amount of time that need to be spent in editing. As you wrote, you are “immersed in the story and felt a real connection with my characters much earlier this time”, which is obviously advantageous. As you know though, the down time is important: the magic happens during the thinking time, when you’re actually away from the novel. No doubt this will come out during editing. Did you sketch out the plot and major events beforehand, or write by headlights at Doctorow would say?

    Posted by fromtheplasticpen | November 26, 2014, 13:14
    • Hi Pete and thanks for reading. I’m certainly looking forward to at least a month away from the ms over the holidays before I dive back in (with the benefit of Kristin’s comments!) To answer your question, yes, I had ‘dissected’ the short story and identified the 8 or so major events and turning points (which bizarrely appeared in completely mixed-up order) , most of which have remained (in the right order). What’s happened during this draft is in writing the links – which is to say the main body of the book – I’ve had to change some of the fundamental details because what I had originally was adequate when I was only alluding to it in passing but didn’t have the mileage needed to sustain a whole novel. I owe a lot to your compatriots for what they’ve shown me about dramatic structure!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 26, 2014, 15:45
  2. Just read your summer post & this one Isabel… Both so helpful and insightful… Well done for reaching your target. I’m definitely more productive with structure & deadlines. After a six month break from studying… and an awful lot of wobbling & faffing… I’m dedicating December to compiling a schedule for 2015 to read, write and launch my first blog.

    Posted by poppypeacockpens | November 26, 2014, 13:58
    • Thanks, Poppy, so pleased you found the posts useful. Good luck with your new blog – it’s fantastic writing practice! (I’ve written several guest posts on blogging if you’re interested – look under the ‘Elsewhere’ tab above).

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 26, 2014, 15:47
      • Oh that’s brilliant, thank you. Will certainly look them up 🙂

        Posted by poppypeacockpens | November 26, 2014, 17:45
      • Also, is your first novel published & released – would love to read it 🙂

        Posted by poppypeacockpens | November 26, 2014, 17:47
      • That’s very sweet of you, thanks. Something tells me you haven’t yet read ‘My first year as an agented writer’ – see sidebar or home page!

        Posted by Isabel Costello | November 26, 2014, 20:23
      • Oops, I read that last week, week before… hadn’t realised that was you too as came in via email alert on mobile… Wandering through all these literary blogs is like running through rabbit warrens. Must find a way to keep track more effectively!😶

        Posted by poppypeacockpens | November 26, 2014, 20:43
      • No problem! I get anonymous literary blogs and their owners very mixed up. If you’re looking to stand out, put your name and face to it! People like to know who’s behind a blog I think (none of which reflects on the quality of those which don’t, obviously, and its their choice).

        Posted by Isabel Costello | November 26, 2014, 20:56
      • Thanks… I’ll bare that in mind *eek! Books hairdo & facial*

        Posted by poppypeacockpens | November 26, 2014, 21:14
  3. Great post. Lots of luck with the next stage. X

    Sent from my iPhone


    Posted by Jo Bloom | November 26, 2014, 14:12
  4. Really enjoying your blog Isabel – I’m also coming to the end of a first draft, partly written via #NaNo in my case, & can’t wait to get stuck in and edit out some of the drivel I wrote on a few (read lots of) off days!

    Posted by chloehome | November 26, 2014, 14:53
    • Thanks, Chloe, so nice to hear from one of the many new readers who’ve discovered the Sofa lately! So true, rewriting is something to look forward to. I’m quite relishing the prospect of fiddling around with this draft and getting it to publishable standard. Good luck with yours.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 26, 2014, 15:53
  5. Weird isn’t it when you break down a target of 80,000 words in six months or so and it turns out to be 600 a day (and that’s accounting for time off)? Seems so manageable (in theory!). I’d guess that, as you hint, your 600 words are not as Hemingway might describe the typical first draft. I’d be interested to know how much time as a proportion of what you’ve spent so far you anticipate in revising and rewriting the MS into a form that you’d be happy to submit (50%, 100%,150%?).

    Because I’ve largely written my novel during MA (and similar) courses I’ve had to write in 3,000 or 5,000 word sections that I’ve then gone back and revised and reworked — both before and after receiving feedback — so I’ve not been able to write the whole thing as a first draft and then go back and rework from start to finish. Some sections of what I’ve written have probably been revised upwards of fifty times.

    However, I think my preference would be to write very quickly and then go back as I can write very quickly when given a deadline — I wrote a 1,200 word piece in about 2 hours at the weekend. But then I can spend forever revising things without a deadline to work to.

    You also make Interesting points about thinking time away from the page. I absolutely agree with you about the benefit of reflection while engaging in other activities (running works for me, when I’m not injured) and I push myself to walk around new places, visit galleries and museums and so on to try and seed ideas, which I hope will ferment in my subconscious. Having said that, when I sit down to write and JFDI then I’m surprised at the connections and ideas that seem to spontaneously occur as I type. It seems there’s two distinct types of thinking at work — maybe along the lines of the Thinking Fast and Slow book that came out a couple of years ago?

    Posted by Mike Clarke | November 26, 2014, 14:55
    • Hi Mike, yes, it is surprisingly manageable – when I pull my finger out I can produce 600 words in an hour and a half, or two. In fact it’s reassuring to know that I could still make a stab at it if I’return to work’, which I will have to do at some point. I dread to think what Hemingway or anyone else would make of my first draft but if you’re asking do I think it’s in better shape than if I hadn’t edited at all going along, then yes, definitely. I find it really useful to read over large chunks to look at at the flow, pace, think where to take it next etc and for me there’s no point doing that if it’s all over the place. (I know the writing without editing works perfectly well for other people – they are probably braver than I am!)

      Finally, that’s a very difficult question you asked about how much time I expect to have to invest relative to what’s gone before. It very much depends if my agent thinks it’s working when she sees it and the extent of the work we agree needs to be done. Having discussed it together at length before I began, I am hopeful it won’t be years! I don’t think I could bear it.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 26, 2014, 16:07
      • Fascinating answer you give to that last question and it’s obviously quite a different answer to that you may have given at the same point on your first novel. I guess it backs up all the positive comments you made in the previous post about the support given by your agent so far. If she can say ‘Stop revising and rewriting. It’s good to go’ then that must be a very reassuring feeling (or indeed if she tells you to keep going). Anyway, it’s great that book two is so well progressed.

        Posted by Mike Clarke | November 26, 2014, 23:33
      • As you know, I feel incredibly fortunate to have Diana on my side. It does all feel very different this time – sadly a lot of novels are being written that are unlikely to make it through, often on commercial grounds. So having the benefit of expert advice upfront is brilliant.

        Posted by Isabel Costello | November 27, 2014, 07:12
  6. I did the same thing with my first draft. Bogged down with the story I was in the middle of not-managing-to-write, I roughed out a different story, divided 70,000 by the number of chapters and treated each chapter like a short. When I knew exactly where I wanted to go the words were relatively easy to find. When I didn’t it was brutal, but forcing myself to sit down and write it anyway was really interesting. Okay, I had to scrap a few pages but it invariably showed me where I should have started each time.

    Fingers crossed your agent will find a place for it when it’s done!

    Posted by Van Demal | November 26, 2014, 15:38
  7. Well done! Total respect. You’ve really inspired me to pull the finger out and get going again. As you know, I took a break over the summer but that break stretched into months not weeks and I’m only just getting back into my new project. I think giving yourself a deadline does help to motivate so I’m off to try and use my ‘day job’ maths teaching to figure out a reasonable timescale for me. Have a well deserved break over Christmas – you’ve earned it!

    Posted by helenmackinven | November 26, 2014, 17:13
    • Hi Helen, really pleased to hear my post has got you setting a deadline. It’s so easy to end up drifting and not writing much without one. Your book deal must be a great motivator too – you’ll have a ready made audience for this next one!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 27, 2014, 06:54
  8. Really interesting post Isabel. It sounds like we’re at very similar stages (I will hopefully be able to write The End on the first draft of my second book in a few days) and we write in a similar way. I can’t bear to just chuck stuff down and keep going, my inner editor won’t let me. So I write and then edit a bit, write and edit a bit, and then when the first draft is done I’ll edit, edit, edit. It is such a lovely feeling to finally reach that end – best of luck.

    Posted by Claire Fuller | November 26, 2014, 17:16
    • Thanks, Claire. It’s interesting to hear we have a similar approach. You’re in a great position having finished the first draft of your second before the first appears – coping with a new release and trying to write a new book from square one seems tricky. I’m sure next year will be fantastic for you in many ways!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 27, 2014, 06:57
  9. Wonderful post as always, Isabel. I really admire your work ethic and the fact that you revise as you go, which is something I’ve only ever managed in fits and starts. Thank you so much for your thanks – as you know, you are at least as much help to me in the same ways, and I can’t wait to get you another installment of my WIP once I get past the halfway mark. I so look forward to reading your manuscript when it is complete and feel very fortunate to have the opportunity.

    Posted by Kristin | November 26, 2014, 17:35
  10. Another interesting post. I like your blog, it seems to attract real writers serious about writing. I think the writing process is the same but slightly different for everyone as it should be. I’m writing another novel while my other novel (I don’t want to call it my first) is now on submission to several publishers. Agent scenario now sorted.
    Writing a new one is taking my mind off my little baby now out in the big wide world.

    I like to write a first draft fairly quickly to the exclusion of everything else that is normal life and currently I’m able to do that, so I take about 2 to 3 months to get a 1st draft down. I feel comfortable with about 1,600 words a day which feels the right amount for me, enough so that I’m making progress but enough of a chunk that I go back and polish the next day before I carry on. Before I start a 1st draft I like to have gathered together the elements as far as possible before I start the 1st draft. A bit like doing plenty of rehearsals in my head before the performance. However, along the way writing the 1st draft things do change and develop.

    Then writing is rewriting I have a bit of a problem with. I don’t like to think of rewriting as such so I think of it more as a continuation of writing if that makes any sense! Then there is this other thing called editing – which for me is cutting, reshaping, writing new bits to make it all work better. That part seems to take about 9 months and involves gaps for thinking & standing back from the text to see it again fresh.

    I think word counts are really useful in the 1st draft stage for me then later on I never think about them but I agree that some sort of word count target helps you move forward. I also like to work out how many days it will take me to do 90,000 words, not that long really when you break it down! I’m 33k in with probably less than 60k to go. Do you always aim for 80k?

    Posted by Annette | November 26, 2014, 21:28
    • Thanks, Annette, you’re right, I am lucky to have lots of great people reading the blog who really care about writing and enjoy a good debate either about their work or about published fiction. Firstly, I’m glad you got things sorted with your agent. That must have been reassuring. Secondly, good luck with your submissions – such a nervewracking time but I hope you get a deal. Thirdly I am very impressed with your productivity!

      To answer your question, this is only the second book I’ve written. ( I have to call them first and second or my readers wouldn’t have a clue what I’m on about) In revising the first the wordcount fell from 107k to 88k, not just because it needed to but because my style tightened up a lot. 80 feels about right for this one (possibly less) – I have become less keen on long books as a reader in recent years. Anything over 400 pages is asking a lot of me!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 27, 2014, 07:09
      • Feel like a bit of a freak with my 1,600 words a day! It just seems to be my most comfortable word count. If the daily increments are too small I lose my sense of the overall structure then struggle the next day to get it back. How many pages is 80k or 90k for that matter. I like to read books of about 360 words that seems to be my favourite length for contemporary authors. Though for authors pre-millenium in can be anything from 180 pages to 500 pages.
        Are we not all being asked to write to a particular format in a way? Some stories should just be the length they’re supposed to be.
        Am now also pondering what these commercial needs are that publishers are looking for. What makes one book commercial and another book not commercial? Sometimes I think this means it should be like the last hit bestseller that everyone wishes they had edited or agented. Dunno – I’m probably about to find out!!!!

        Posted by Annette | November 27, 2014, 18:09
      • We’ve come full circle to my original point – if that’s what works for you, great!

        Posted by Isabel Costello | November 28, 2014, 10:37
  11. I always enjoy your musings on the writing process Isabel. This year, I set my writing aim at 500 words a day. It seemed ridiculously low, but if I achieve it I should be able to write one book a year. I never feel like writing when I sit down at my desk but when I tell myself ‘I only have to write 500 words’ it feels really manageable and it nearly always is.

    This month, I’ve been writer in residency at a writers centre in Western Australia, where I live. I began a brand new project and wrote 23000 words in 2 and a half weeks. It was a crazy pace compared to what I’m used to and now I’m stuck – I need thinking time – perhaps lots of it – before I can go any further. I realise a slow pace works better for me, though I’m pleased to have got a great start to a new book.

    Posted by annabelsmith | November 27, 2014, 02:07
    • Thanks, Annabel. The advantage of a modest daily target is precisely that it feels do-able and not too intimidating. You can fit it in even if it’s a busy day. And if you have to miss a day or two you don’t fall massively behind. I can believe you feel a bit dazed after writing 23,000 in under three weeks! But as you say, how wonderful to come away with such a solid foundation for your new book. Well done!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 27, 2014, 07:17
  12. It took me a long time to learn this – that a small, manageable daily word count is the best way for me to progress. It does mount up and I have also learned that just the act of engaging every day (save the weekends) with a longer work sometimes means you overshoot the smaller target.

    I am definitely all for rest days – it never fails to surprise me the ways in which the subconscious keeps on mulling over an idea and those quiet moments are often – for me in any case – the most productive ones.

    If I start out with 80,000 to 100,000 words on my mind however, then I become far too intimidated and daunted – 2 unfinished/unrealised novels are testament to that.

    Hope both your books find a really good home very soon. I for one will be one of the first down the bookshop to place an order.

    Posted by g2-b06cf1f7348bcf02f0e7639bb244d27f | November 27, 2014, 10:14
    • Thanks for your lovely comment, Jen! There seem to be quite a few advocates of the ‘little and often’ approach which is interesting because my impression was very much that other writers mostly prefer writing large sections. It’s lovely when readers show an interest in my books just from seeing me talk about them in vague terms – really appreciated!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 27, 2014, 17:45
      • I always thought it was written in stone – 2000 words a day or you’re not a writer. Learned the hard way to be patient – and lo! it’s 99% done now save a last nit pick edit.

        Posted by jenanneharvey | November 28, 2014, 16:24
      • Blimey, if that were the case not many of us would be writers at all! Good luck with the final phase.

        Posted by Isabel Costello | November 28, 2014, 16:33
  13. Isabel: congratulations! I have just finished the NaNoWriMo madness and I’m so glad to be “finished” but also understanding a heap of editing lay ahead of me. This year I discovered the necessary “pushing” mechanism I have lacked on previous drafts of novels. However, I am now thoroughly finished with writing like a madwoman and not worrying about which verbs I use, what world I’ve accurately created, etc… I have discovered I don’t like writing like that at all. However, once a year I can learn something from the exercise that NaNo is. It has taught me to speed up my writing process, not for myself, but in order to make use of the structure that’s clear in my brain before it disappears.

    Nevertheless, you make an excellent point about not getting too hung up on the numbers…there’s a happy ground all writers can I find, I believe, if we’re willing to explore our process, as you have done!!! (I can’t wait to read your WIP). Super super congrats to you from the land of the Vikings!

    Posted by brittajensen2013 | November 27, 2014, 16:34
  14. I can completely relate to your point about the manuscript not being as good as your vision of it – this is something I worry about all the time. I can picture my story as this shiny, moving piece of finished work, then I look at the draft and see only the gulf between the two. Reconciling them is something I find difficult, as I never feel like the changes I make during the editing process are big enough, perhaps because I also edit a lot as I write the initial draft. It can be disheartening to know your story has potential, but not be able to realise it without help.

    Posted by Amy | November 28, 2014, 12:37
    • Just to reassure you, that’s a very common feeling which I’ve heard even great writers express. The key I think is to use that ‘vision’ to motivate rather than torment yourself. I often felt this way during the rewriting of my first book (long and very complicated!) and in the end, I felt I did do justice to my story. It was a lot of work and I had to dig deep, for sure, but it was a satisfying feeling! If you need help, have you considered applying to the WoMentoring Project? Outside input really can make all the difference! Good luck and don’t let fear take over!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 28, 2014, 13:04

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