Welcome to the second of my 3 part series, “So You Want to Write a Novel”. I’m back to discuss more tips and tricks for cranking out that first draft quickly. Last week we covered brainstorming, the all important hook, and characters. This week we’ll look at plot, time management, and the actual writing of the first draft.
Just for reference, these are the writing steps this series will be covering:
- Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm
- Hook: the main story arc
- Time management
- Write, write, write, write, write
- The little things
- 1st Draft! Throw a party!
Today, I’ll talk about 4, 5, and 6. So without wasting anymore time wasting, I’ll get started…
Everyone does outlining differently, and a lot of the ideas covered in brainstorming come back here. For complicated 3rd person plots with a lot of POV shifts, having some method, whether post-its, whiteboard, or index cards, is probably good for outlining scenes because you can move things around to help you figure out which parts should go where.
Some people outline as much as possible, trying to nail down every little detail before they start writing. When I tried my first novel a couple years ago, I was strongly against doing that. I thought it took away from the spontaneity of the work. An outline that is nearly as long as your novel might run into the issue of characters being dragged into plots that don’t come naturally to the character’s personality, and crafty dialog isn’t going to fix it. Your novel can read like it’s on rails if you aren’t careful. As if there is some unseen force steering your characters instead of taking control of their own lives.
As I grow and find more mistakes with my writing, I notice myself outlining more and more. Doing the research and getting the important points of your story secure before you start writing a draft can be a great way to increase daily word counts. This is the plot technique I’m using for my current novel:
My brainstorming gets me to a general plot idea. Then I take that idea and tinker with it, adding little twists and turns, basically writing a short one or two paragraph synopsis of the novel I wish to write. Trim that down to a hook, discussed in last weeks post. Next I hash out some characters. When I get to plot development and outlining, I don’t even look at my synopsis till I’ve got a couple major scenes representing the major plot points. All of the stuff I talked about last week feeds directly into outlining my plot in this way.
I add little sub-plots and issues that the MC will face along the way, basically making a bunch of way-points along the arc of the story. A quick glance at the synopsis to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything important, and I try to expand it out into a chapter framework. This is where you take all of your scenes and plot ideas and arrange them into a structure, noting the key story ideas that need to be presented or resolved in each chapter, and do any research necessary to fill in blanks that show up. If I need a nuclear missile in a scene, I want to know how big to make it and what it should look like. If I have a car that’s important, I learn as much as I can about it. This takes place in Washington DC? Pull up a map and print it out. If you can visit. Look for little details that might be important to your story, know what shops are on which corners.
You might think that outlining should just give you a layout of the story arc, but I’ve found fleshing your outline is just as important as fleshing out the characters. You don’t want to be writing and have to stop to research where the nearest Starbucks is to your character. You shouldn’t have to stop and look for what types of flowers and plants grow wild around your nuclear reactor site. You want to keep the story moving forward, so try to figure out what research you need to do an get it done ahead of time.
This is my blueprint for the novel, and I can fit 2-3 chapters on each page of my black+red notebook for that novel to make a nice little finished outline, which my characters will no doubt thrash the second they get a chance. Doing things this way allows me to work out all the major story issues ahead of time so that when I start writing, I can keep my daily word counts high and get the 1st draft done quickly (Last one took me 2 weeks). And I can also just follow my characters through the story instead of wasting precious writing time doing research or figuring out where I should go next.
Above all, start on this before you put pen to paper, drag out the heavy typewriter, or fire up the word processor. You need to have a realistic idea of how much time you will be able to devote EVERY DAY to writing. I would say that minimum time goals should be 30 minutes to an hour. This means every day. Don’t think of this as a target goal, it’s a requirement. Find the time and force yourself to use that time every day to sit down and write. This isn’t for brainstorming, plotting, planning, or researching, it’s for writing and moving the story forward. For instance, you might think you will have 3 hours every day to write, but life concerns might come up restricting you to an hour, then set your minimum time at an hour.
Okay, you have your minimum time down. Now set some time for those other things, at least 15 minutes, preferably 30. I think you’re getting the point. You really need at least an hour everyday to dedicate to writing stuff, and you should plan for more, but if that hour is all you can squeeze in on a given day, you should still have it. If you happen upon some relaxed days that will present you more time, by all means use it. There is no maximum limit to how long your muse can hang around. She doesn’t have a curfew. There should be a minimum limit though. These fifteen minutes or so are for brainstorming your next chapter, doing some follow-up research that you missed while planning, or just talking to yourself, erm, your characters for a little while. You can do this when you wake up or before you go to sleep. But in any case, it’s time devoted to the story, even if it’s not necessarily writing. This is NOT editing time. None of this allotted time should be spent rummaging through chapters that are already written. More on that in a moment.
Next, figure out how many words you think you can average per day with just the minimum invested time. Set a word count goal for your first draft, say 60,000 for middle grade, 70,000 for young adult fiction and 90,000 for adult fiction. Now divide that goal by your daily word count target to figure out how many days this is going to take. Add 2 days to that number and and mark it on your calendar. This is your “soft deadline.” Look at it everyday and try to keep yourself on track. It might need a little adjustment once you start, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind. I do this just to make sure that I make writing every day a priority. You can also mark your daily word counts on your calendar as a ritual at the end of each writing session.
Know yourself. If you have any tricks that you find help to keep you on task, use them. Make writing a priority, and just like a job, keep a schedule. Because writing is a job, and if you treat it like one you are more likely to meet your goals, whether they are simply writing a memoir for your family, self publishing for your friends, entertaining strangers with your books, or turning this into a lifestyle. If you do stuff better when you jot down what you need to do each day, then do it. If a planner helps you finish things, use it. Break out every tool in your productivity toolbox, and plan on using them.
On a final note, once you start the draft writing, try not to change any habbits while working on it. Put yourself in the same mental state every time you sit down. Sometimes triggers can help. A certain flavor of incense, a bite of chocolate before you begin, a glass of milk while you are writing. These things are mental triggers, and if you are going to use them, you need to be consistent. I also recommend buying a notebook for your novel notes if you don’t already have one. You can use it to jot down little reminders as you write, like “Henry left his suitcase at the office, so don’t mention the suitcase until he goes back to get it.” You’d be surprised how often little details like that cause continuity errors.
Here’s the easy part. You’ve plotted, planned, and blueprinted your story. You’ve got some interesting three dimensional characters. Throw them on the page and let them do the work. Easy, right?
But this is the hardest part for most first-time novelists, and where they fail. Why? Writing is supposed to be fun! Start having fun!
I talked to a friend recently who was working on a first draft and had 20,000 words written after more than a year. I told him to find whatever time he needed to find and start forcing himself to sit down and write everyday. Since then he’s put out 500+ words a day. There’s no trick to this. You just have to do it. People run into issues, most of the time, not because they don’t know how they want the story to progress, but simply because they are over-thinking it. One page at a time gets it done. By the middle of a novel you should know your characters well enough to see how they handle things, making the words flow easier. But we can let ourselves get distracted by tiny non-issues. Here are some examples.
Trying to make your first draft a final copy- Don’t get hung up on making every sentence perfect. Get them written. You can spend all the time you want editing later, just get the idea down.
I need to go back and fix something- Biggest writing killer of all time. Forget about whatever continuity issue you have because your MC threw a kink in your plans. You can fix it later. Pretend that it’s already fixed and keep moving forward. Do not, under any circumstance, go back to fix something in chapter one. Leave it be.
Spelling and grammar errors- I’m guilty of this. Forget them. One of the reasons typewriters can be so helpful is that it’s not easy to go fix these things, and the machine forcing you to type a little slower makes you focus on the details. I’m not saying you have to buy a typewriter. Heaven knows I’m not lugging one to the job-site with me. But try not to worry about little grammar issues, or if you spelled so-and-so’s name right when you were writing the last chapter, or you need to change a city or street name, or… There’s a million things to fix, and if you indulge them they serve only to kill your momentum.
Keep your story moving forward- and write daily. I will continue beating this dead horse till it comes back to life. This isn’t a task to be done when you feel like it, or when you get a dose of inspiration. Every, single, day, write something. 1000 words, 500, a paragraph, a sentence, something to move the plot forward. This can be the hardest thing some days, but skipping even one day can ruin your odds of making it to 1st draft. That’s a fact. “For want of a nail.” Once you start on your draft, don’t let yourself break the routine till it’s finished, if possible. If you do miss a day, make an extra effort the following few days. This is another spot where a soft deadline can be a motivator.
Some more advice, things that have helped me. If you come to a spot where you aren’t sure how the scene is going to flow exactly, skip it. That’s right, put a note in there, highlight it, then pretend the scene has already been written and move on. You can do the same if you are struggling to find the right word. If a quick thesaurus look-up can’t fix it, plop any word in there that works and move on. You will have all the time in the world once you start editing, so don’t worry about these little fiddly bits.
I covered a lot of stuff today. Any questions or comments, as always, are more than welcome. Let me know what you think about this article or what you’d like to see in future articles 🙂 And keep those WIPs moving. I want to see all of you become accomplished writers! Go ahead and layout your plot, come up with a plan, start writing, and don’t stop until you’re done.