If sharks stop swimming they’ll die. Water cannot pass through their gills and they essentially drown. Your novel is a shark, and your words are the water; start paddling.
It takes 66 days to form a habit, according to Phillippa Lally. That isn’t a ton of time, but it’s short enough that most committed writers will not establish a writing habit through the first draft of a novel.
You have to Fight for it Every Single Day
It isn’t easy. At the start, it’s a bunch of questions. Where do I begin? How many pages in a book? How do I write a killer opening line?
All of these questions are irrelevant. Sit your but in a chair and get started, and when you do, you’ll soon hit the next hurdle.
All too often, the middle of the story has not been thought out well enough from the onset. We know the main character needs to do something, but it’s often unclear how he or she is to go about it. Word counts drop, morale fades, and the new writer is left feeling as if they simply don’t have what it takes.
Break through. Smash through if you must, but keep adding story every day. Some of your words are going to be crap, but as long as the story is moving forward, it’s easier to keep working on it. Like the shark, once it stagnates, it a matter of time before it’s dead and you’ve moved on to another creative project.
Then the ending. The horrible ending. Like running your first 5k, you’ll need to gut it out.
This is all assuming a close family member doesn’t kick the bucket, you don’t lose your job, your car doesn’t explode, etc. 66 days, or 100, or however long this process takes you, is a long time to have nothing go wrong in your life. You need to prepare to embrace some hardships during the drafting process. Not all of your days will alot you ample time to settle into your comfort zone, and you may need to negotiate for a seat at the writing nook.
Why Write Every Day?
I’ve found that any creative project I’ve started tends to endure when I work on it at regular intervals, and ends up in a deserted corner of my closet if it sits too long. I had one sketch piece I “worked” on for years. Every so often, I would take it out, fiddle with it, try to make it perfect, and then put it back on the shelf for another couple of months. Meanwhile I was churning out picture after picture on other projects.
You can’t be a perfectionist if you are writing as a job. You need to get your work in, the words down, and still get dinner on the table. Ask your local journalists or a professional blogger how they continue to churn out the good stuff nearly every day (some of them push 20,000 words plus per day). They do it, because that paycheck doesn’t come if they don’t. No calling in sick, no saying “I don’t feel like it today,” no excuses period.
In order to do that, however, you need to accept imperfection. This is especially hard for new writers, and there are a couple of hard-headed perfectionists out there who have had luck with a method that doesn’t work for everyone. Your new manuscript is not a gemstone, it’s a roughed out scrap of rock trying to free itself from a cave wall. Have you ever seen raw gemstones? They look like almost any other rock looks: a ball of compressed dirt. Yes, they have a few shiny flecks here or there, or perhaps a glassy face, but they’re rocks.
Think of your manuscript like a black chunk of kimberlite with a haphazard, roughly cubic looking bit of shiny buried inside. Perhaps a corner or rough facet is showing. The first draft is digging the hole, and smacking that sucker free with a pick-axe.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
It is fun. Smashing rocks is actually incredibly fun and I totally recommend giving it a shot, after you finish your draft. Wear your safety goggles, though.
Getting to the good stuff is a matter of slinging away. It can be exciting and fun. This is a new story under construction. The drafting process is essentially yanking a new idea from the ether and giving it form and shape. You are the creator of a whole world. In the beginning, there was you and your words, and everything that came after in your world is completely in your hands.
But it’s also a lot of work. Digging up crystal fragments all day gets tiring, and you get sweaty. It goes with the territory, which is why most of us probably don’t mine rocks by hand for a living.
With writing, you must persist. It doesn’t have to feel like work though. If you keep writing everyday, your story will hold central focus in your mind. Don’t prepare for the drudgery of figuring out how you’re going to get through some boring chapter, or link something together to get the story moving back toward the outline. Think of exciting new things that can happen to your character.
Fire Bullets at Your Characters
If things are getting slow, it’s time to turn up the volume. This is typically referred to as dropping safes. You’re character isn’t going the way they need to, then come at them with something off the wall. Cancer, car accident, rufies, whatever it takes. If they won’t find something for you to write about, then give yourself something to write about.
If things are getting too tense, or too dark, then your MC might need a little help. Give it to them. Let them find a magical amulet, or bring back their buddy from chapter two. Could be a winning lottery ticket, or perhaps just a free cup of coffee. Everyone gets a break from time to time.
Or maybe they just need a good swift kick, so burn their house down, mahah.
See how fun that is? If you need something to stir up the story, start provoking the characters.
Settling in Toward the End
As we draw closer to that fatal last page, we often carry with us a sense that the story just sucks. There’s not enough of this or too much of that, or whatever.
Don’t worry about it. It’s a first draft, and you may not have any idea how much it sucks, especially if it’s your first one. When you get to the editing part (painstakingly scraping the rough rock away from your diamond specimen) you will realize just how badly you’ve f-ed everything up. Then you can get down to the real work.
It is important to have a foundation though, and that means a complete story. Start, middle, end. Some stuff has to happen, and it needs to be documented (unless you can memorize a novel-sized chunk of words). Once it’s done, then you can start doing all those tweaks and fixes that are worrying you. Jot them down on a note pad, and get your butt all the way to “the end.
It Sucks! Told Ya
If this is the first time you’ve written a novel and it doesn’t suck on a read-thru, you’ve probably done something wrong. Yet another reason I always insist on never going back to chapter one until you’re finished. Writing a novel is developmental. Even if you have a Master’s in English Lit, your writing is going to change through the novel writing process, and when you go back and look at the way you used to write, you may be shocked.
Getting through the first draft is a transformational experience. Once it’s done, then you’ve made it. You’re on the other side, with all of those authors who finished their book rather than a few people in your NaNoWriMo group who seemed to be obsessed with NOT finishing their book (why do these people even show up for the meetings, for real? What the? Okay end of rant).
Anyway, when you look back, it’s gonna suck. The story is going to suck. Your sentences that you thought were so perfect are going to suck. The pacing is going to be all over the place and weird. The story is going to have some plot gaps and unnatural anomalies that seemed like a good idea when you penned them. That’s all okay. You simply need to remember: the reason you can see these things now is because you have gotten better at writing and storytelling.
Also, bonus: You should be well on your way to developing a writing habit. Keep it up. Write some poetry, short stories, fan fic, whatever. Keep a notebook and just spit some random thoughts out daily. Think of writing like going to the gym. Your storytelling needs practice to stay sharp, so keep writing stuff, even if it isn’t a novel. The more you practice, the better you will be. No amount of master class or night-school courses is going to substitute for actual writing time, even if they are helpful to the overall process. Skills are something that need practice, and writing is definitely a skill.
There’s Something Else I want to say here
But I can’t remember what it is! Imagine that. This whole site is still in first draft at the moment though, so I’ll allow myself to make mistakes. If you have any helpful tips for first-drafters, please leave them in a comment below.