I have so much to say on this topic that I wrote a book dedicated to it. Today, I’ll distill the best of it into a single blog post.
Start – Right Now
Probably the most difficult part of the entire process, at least at the beginning, is knowing where and when to start. If you’ve been following along with this blog series, then you should have an outline ready to go, and plenty of story ideas to mix in as you go. You are likely staring down a blank page, and trying to come up with a solid opening line.
This happens to everyone. Here’s the trick. Forget about hooking the reader with an attention grabbing sentence. I know that this sounds counter-intuitive, because every writing book you have ever read will tell you that this is the most important sentence of the entire book.
Here’s where they lead you astray. The first sentence of a finished book is incredibly important, but a draft is not a finished book. In many ways, the first sentence is a forecast for what is to come. It sets the stage for the whole book. It catches the reader’s attention and sucks them into the story. But there’s one problem. You don’t have a story yet. You have a blank page.
So skip it. Don’t worry about it. Don’t even think about it. Look at your outline. Where does your story begin? Now take off and start writing it. Your goal with a first draft isn’t to crank out a final product, it’s to get the first iteration of your story out of your head and on paper. Don’t hang up on the first sentence, the first paragraph, or even the first chapter. Don’t try to set a precedent for your novel. Just start writing the story. When you come back to do your editing passes, you will know much better the flow and tempo of your story, and you’ll be in a better position to formulate these crucial words.
What’s more, you won’t be looking at a blank page when you do it. You will be looking at a minimum viable product, which we call a first draft. It’s much easier to form these wonderful words if you already know what to say.
Here’s the other thing. If you hang up on page one until you have something that you think is perfect, then you are going to go through the whole process over again when you come back for the first revision, and the second, and the third. Don’t waste time beating your head against the keyboard. Just start writing.
Don’t Edit While Writing
Don’t do this to yourself. There’s no need to obsess endlessly over how the words flow, or where to put commas and other punctuation marks. I recommend not even reading over what you have written. Let yourself make mistakes. If you can’t find the right verb, then choose any verb that works and drop it in. Make your sentences sloppy.
I’m not suggesting that you intentionally churn out crap, far from it. But I am suggesting that you allow yourself to make mistakes. Again, this is a first draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to tell the story. Thinking about it like this will stop you from running back to page one every half-hour to fix something that you feel differently about after cranking out a couple more paragraphs. This should be a reinforcement of why the words on page one aren’t that important right now.
When you finish chapter one, don’t go back and read it over. Start on chapter two. When you finish chapter two, then start on chapter three. Anything that isn’t absolutely essential to telling your story doesn’t matter, so don’t think about it. Just keep the story moving, always forward, never back.
A Word On Word Count
Fuck word count! Don’t worry about how long your book is, or how long your chapters are. Complete a section of story, and then start a new scene or chapter. You can track word counts for progress purposes only. I like to log my words at the end of each writing session, subtract off yesterday’s total, and mark down how many words I have added to my story. This is fine, and perfectly normal. It’s a good way to keep yourself on track, and perfect for setting daily writing goals. Word count will keep you on track.
When I say, “don’t worry about the word count,” I’m referring to the total word count versus how long you think the book should be. Depending on genre, you will probably be concerned with making a manuscript that is the proper length for an agent to consider the book. For a romance or young adult novel, this might be 50,000 to 70,000 words. For adult and science fiction genres, this could be 70,000-90,000 words. For fantasy, or particularly involved space operas, this could run up to 110,000 or higher. Those are final word counts that agents will respond to, but you aren’t there yet. Just like page one, we aren’t talking about a finished book. We’re talking about a first draft.
When you go back to edit, you will have between 50-100,000 new words written, and your skill at writing will have improved. The first editing pass is as much a wake-up call as it is a fix. Your skill at storytelling will improve also. You are going to be making some huge changes to your manuscript, and these changes will reflect themselves in your word count. My little monster book started at a 25,000 word draft, and expanded into a full-size novel as the story went on (a small novel, but still twice the size of the original manuscript). This wasn’t by “padding words” or other novel-writing trickery, it was because my original story came out thin. I wasn’t sure about some parts, and skipped around quite a bit. I’ve had other stories that ran long, and later condensed into novella lengths. The moral of this story: the total length of your first draft doesn’t matter.
The same goes for chapter lengths. And I am probably the worst in this particular area. I generally shoot for 2000 word chapters, as both a type of progress marker (I try to finish at least a chapter per day) and my ideal chapter length. 2000 words is enough to give the reader a good chunk of story without them flipping ahead to see how many pages they have left to read. Short chapters just work, as long as they aren’t jarring, a point I’ve noted in many books that I’ve read. The ones with short, focused chapters tend to get finished more quickly, where it could take me months to get through a Patrick O’Brian novel. (Come to think of it, I’m in the middle of one, and I’ll probably have to start over when I get back to it).
But here’s the rub. No matter how much I want to make my chapters fit into this mold, I try to let the story dictate my chapter lengths. The wise words of the novel sages are to write the chapter as long as it needs to be, and they’re right. It can be intoxicating to try and squeeze your chapters into some kind of mold. I know. I have that struggle with everything that I write. But you have to try to ignore it, otherwise you will find yourself struggling to stretch your chapters to a certain word count, or worse, cut a chapter short because it’s getting too long.
Remember, first draft, just write it. Then log your word counts and pick up again the next day.
Write Every Day
One page, one paragraph, one sentence, one word. Add something to your story. I don’t care who died, what life struggle you are battling with, who’s birthday party you are late for, or whatever else is going on in your life. Keep writing every day. I take my laptop with me just about everywhere, and I don’t allow myself to sleep until I get some words on my manuscript. This might sound harsh, but it’s an important habit to develop.
After doing this long enough, you will discover two things. Number one, a first draft doesn’t really take that long to crank out. Number two, writing will actually help you cope with what is happening in your life, and you will have your meditative time to sort some things out in your mind.
Writing daily also has the wonderful side effect of helping you to reinforce your resolve, and increase your writing endurance. When I started my first attempt at writing a novel (at least, the first attempt that concluded with a finished manuscript), I started with 200-500 words per day. Some days I only got a sentence. I just glanced at the word count on this blog post, and I’m at 1500. I’m writing it all in one sitting, and it’s nothing to crank out 1000 words now, after years of practice, and training my fingers to type faster and more precisely.
I also invoke the habit of keeping my fingers on the keyboard, no matter what else is going on. Every time I pull them away, my writing comes to a pause. If they are resting on the keys, then my brain zeros in on what I’m doing, and I’m able to shorten those breaks considerably. So write every day, and keep your fingers on the keys during your writing session. Focus, focus, focus.
Kick Writer’s Block in the Face
When you are reading writing blogs and storytelling advice, you are going to come across repeated mentions of this thing called “writer’s block.” Writer’s block is an excuse that some writers use when they don’t feel like working on their stories. Other excuses include “I’m too tired,” “I don’t feel inspired,” “I have too much going on today,” and the like. Rightly or wrongly, justified or not, these are excuses, and writer’s block is the biggest of them.
Conquering writer’s block is a simple thing. Writer’s block is actually a mythical monster that will show up and put all these silly ideas about why you can’t write into your head. The funny thing is, these excuses don’t come up when your fingers are actually on the keys. At least not as often. They come up when you are away from your writing utensil, whether that’s a laptop, or a notebook, or a tape recorder. When you are thinking about writing from a distance, writer’s block stops in for a visit.
This is what you do. Thank the little monster for being friendly enough to drop in and check on you, and tell him that you have work to do. Literally. Talk to him, or her, or whatever. Do the following mechanical process.
Sit down at your work area, or anything that will suffice for a work area. Open the laptop or notebook, or flick on the tape recorder. Put your pen on the page, or your fingers on the keyboard. Time a single word, any word. Then put another one behind it, preferably one that makes sense with the sentence. If you aren’t sure what to write, then just scribble down, “I hate writer’s block,” or “writer’s block is a myth.” Don’t bother erasing it. Go to a new line, and try again.
While this sounds stupid, or like some kind of sorcery, it actually works 99% of the time. The next thing that you need to do is focus on one singular goal. Add a single sentence to your story. Just one. Then, if you wish, you can go to bed, or take a nap, or meet up with friends or family. But write one sentence.
I often find that when I’m really stuck, this mechanical process of forcing words actually unglues my mind and frees up my creativity. Once that first sentence is down, then another flows easily behind it, and before I know it, I have a paragraph. Sometimes a flood of words follows, other times I lay down and go to sleep (even without logging my word count). But every single time that I go through this process, I add one sentence to my story, and the story itself refreshes in my brain.
There’s a Story On My Mind
The concept of keeping a story fresh leads me to this next point. You need to stay up to date with what is happening in your story. When I’m drafting, often the first thing I think about after my eyes open in the morning is my story. My main character and side characters, the antagonist, certain events that are brewing in the larger world of my story, these are the things I think about first thing in the morning.
I think about them again before I go to bed. I think about them during the day. I don’t simply wait until it’s time to start churning out words. I try to remember the last few lines of story that I jotted down the night before, and fixate on them for at least a few minutes. Sometimes, I can’t stop thinking about them, even while working on other projects, but that momentum isn’t always the case. That’s why it’s important to set aside a few minutes at regular intervals to play the story back through your head.
Think about where you left off, about where the story is headed, about how you are going to get to the next major plot point, the climax, or the conclusion. Think about things that you need to resolve, or certain features of the story that you might need to inject. When was the last time the main character ate? What were they wearing the last time that you mentioned their appearance. What are the other characters wearing or doing. What is the antagonist doing in the background while your main character is fixing her morning coffee.
Think about your story often, and think about it in depth. Don’t focus on the parts that the reader is going to see, focus on the whole story, the world, and everything in it.
This should be enough to get you started.
Work at it every day. Get at least one sentence (or even one word) added every single day. Think about your story every single day. These are the defining characteristics of a writer who will finish their first draft, as opposed to a writer who will skip a day or two, and end up forgetting about their story for a month. Don’t let yourself slack from a single day while you are drafting, or when you return to your manuscript, you will have forgotten so much that you have to read through the whole thing again before you can even consider writing more on it, which in turn will put other stumbling blocks in your way. The first draft is all about momentum. Even if the creek of story ideas is running a little slow, do not allow it to dry up completely. Keep going. Keep moving the story forward, every day, and you will be done before you know it.
Track your word counts and set daily goals and targets. Take advantage of days with more free time to get extra words down (perhaps two or three writing sessions instead of one). If you don’t meet your goals, but you still get some words down, then pat yourself on the back, and try again at your next writing session. You got this!
If you need an extra kick in the ass for motivation, check out “Finish the Damn Book!: An Inspirational Guide to Writing.” Available wherever e-books are sold.