Writing the First Draft

Okay, this is the fun part! Ready? Go.

Why aren’t you writing?

Oh, right. You came here to read stuff. Maybe you are getting ready to start drafting your novel. Maybe you’re a few pages in. Maybe you’re just procrastinating.

Is that you? Are you procrastinating? Yes, I’m talking directly to you, using the latest technology to scan your facial responses as you read and change the words around on this page for direct communication. Because I’m an evil scientist, and I do things like that.

No?

Okay, so here’s the beat. If you’ve already started on your novel draft and you are reading this before getting some daily words in, then STOP READING THIS!

You can leave your browser open, but open up your document too, and then scribble a couple lines, a couple paragraphs, a page or two, whatever. I’m serious. Go write something, anything. Add some stuff to your work-in-progress (henceforth known as WIP) and then come back and read the rest of this.

I’m waiting.

Okay, you’re back. For those of you who are ready to start your draft tonight, see above, and do likewise. If this is just a planning thing, or you already have some words down, then you may continue reading.

Alrighty, now that we’re here, I’m going to try to be brief on all of these points. I’ve been jamming them down the throats of new writers for years, and I’m so well versed in the techniques presented here that I could write a book on the topic. Oh wait, I did write a book on the topic. There’s a link to it over there in the sidebar.

I’ll try to be a bit kinder with my words here than I am in Finish the Damn Book! The principle is the same. If you want to finish a draft so that you can move onward to polishing a novel, it would behoove you to follow some or all of this advice.

Writers Block is a Load of Donkey Doodie

You’ve probably heard of writers block. At this point you might be so focused on it that you wonder whether to place an apostrophe before the s. Let’s not focus on that. Let us instead focus on what it is not.

Writers block is not real. It’s an imagined force given to those moments when we are not feeling inspired. Guess what. Writing isn’t something you are going to be inspired about 100% of the time. There are those wonderful times when you can crank out 80,000 words in a dedicated week, but that isn’t the norm.

We wear down as we write. Creativity lingers. We wonder if we’ll finish. We get stuck on fiddly issues through the draft and feel compelled not to write another word until we solve them. We try to go back to page one, making changes through the course of the text because we changed something. We get tired. We burn out.

It isn’t some mystical force that causes these things. They happen because you are human.

So what can we do? Stop blaming some intangible thing for our shortcomings, accept them, and then get back to work.

Writing is Work

If you live in some fictional place where writers are kissed by a muse, and that kiss provides enough inspiration to last through writing a novel, then you need to shatter that glass house right now. You’ll never finish your book.

Like any job, there are going to be easy tasks, enjoyable tasks, deplorable tasks, and grunt work that you’d rather not do. Sometimes you simply need to grab a pitch fork and shovel the shit so you can get on with your day, and this is true of writing as well.

Lock into a mindset right from day one that writing is work. Like any job, you need to perform every day. During the drafting process, this means writing every day. You can take holidays and weekends if you like; but schedule some business hours, show up on time, and be prepared to work. It’s actually better in large creative pursuits to at least work half-days rather than taking a whole day off, or so I’ve found.

Work means getting words down. They don’t need to be perfect, but they do need to be written.

Getting Stuck

It happens, even to the best of us, even if you follow all of the advice in this article or anywhere else. Sooner or later, the pacing slows and the story draws to a halt.

This is typically where the WB gets blamed. As I stated in the article on preparing to draft, having a compass is essential at these times. If you know where the story is headed, you can proceed forward.

Even with that, however, the middle of a novel can be a struggle. The odds are usually stacking up for the main character, the future is looking dark, and like you, they’re ready to toss in the towel. Even the best outlines in the world won’t always stop this from happening.

At moments like this, I “let the characters take the reigns.” I place myself directly in their shoes, get in their head, and write whatever they do next. This usually ends up being some of the slowest paced boring crap that was ever written, but I do it anyway. It keeps me writing, words are flowing, and I’m making a deeper connection with my character, even if I’ll delete the whole chapter or two later.

Ask yourself this question: “What does Bob do next?” (Bob in this case is the protagonist) Then let the little guy do it. I’ve written long sagas about characters taking a dump or a shower, staring into the mirror, talking to themselves, or whining about their situation. Little traces of this prose show up in my stories, as remnants of long battles with blockages that only I can see.

If you know what the next point on the road is, you’ll know when they get there, and you can guide them onward.

The other solution is to simply skip ahead to the next chapter and keep writing as if nothing is missing from the text. Filling it in on the second or third draft, when the general scope of the story is finished, is much easier.

You may find your own way, but whatever you do, don’t stop writing. The results of that will be much more devastating to your story than the worst words you could possibly jot down, even if you break the fourth wall or place a diary entry in place of that part of story (two more ideas, btw. You could also jot some notes about what needs to happen before skipping ahead).

Remove the Pedestal

Don’t prop your new novel up as if it is the end-all be-all of your existence. It’s a first draft. This section is mainly here for first-time novelists, so if you’ve already learned this point, you can skip ahead to the next section.

A great many people write their first book as if it is their only shot in the world. They bank everything on it, and that messes them up psychologically, causing blockages in their creative process. They think of their book as a queen, and queeny only gets the best. They focus on exacting turns of phrase and using fancy words, even though their writing hasn’t evolved to that point. They think of everything as being a contest.

To these people, I urge you. Go pick a random page out of any fiction book, start there, and read five pages. Is every word perfectly tuned? Does every sentence draw an emotional response. Is it so well laid out that you instantly want to post every single line as a quote on Twitter?

Don’t answer that. I’ll tell you. NO! In fact, if you have found such a book, shoot me an email, because I’m either going to be absolutely riveted, or I’m going to toss it in the trash before I finish the first chapter. In either case, I need to get a look at that sucker. No book does this.

Secondly, hardly any book you’ll ever read, even among indie titles, is published as a first draft. (There are exceptions, but I’m not talking about morons trying to make a quick buck here) Words are refined. The story itself is refined. I’ve done a lot of beta reading, and something always changes before the ARC copies are released. Stuff changes after that, too.

Let me solve this problem for you, and take the following words to heart, because some day you are going to realize that this is the best advice anyone ever gave you. Allow your writing to have faults. You aren’t perfect. Your story isn’t perfect. It isn’t even a story yet, it’s just a concept that you happen to like. It becomes a story after you finish it. It’ll never be perfect. There is no “great American novel,” or any counterpart in other places. Just accept that it isn’t going to be perfect, and keep moving forward. In the editing process, you will make changes to the story-line, the characters, the world details, etc. You’ll rip it up and sometimes completely re-write it. (I wrote the sequel to Incorporated First Strike seven times from five different perspectives and 3 different main characters) The cleanup edit is the LAST step in the process, and it’s there when your prose can become poetry, not before.

Your first draft isn’t a work of art, so don’t hang it up on the wall. Just get the story down, and push it toward “the end.” This brings me to another point.

Don’t Go Back and Edit

Until you finish the story, digging back through your work to make changes is self-defeating. Re-writing the first chapter three or four times might seem fine, until you are on chapter six and find yourself rewriting the entire manuscript every time you tweak the story.

Let mistakes exist, just as in the last section. I find it’s best to keep a notebook and outline the story as you go. You can also do this on a separate computer document. If you need to make a change, jot down the important point that changed and keep moving forward as if it has already been corrected. Don’t waste hours of writing time fixing previous chapters, or before you know it there will be no more writing time, and you will be devoting all of your time to editing an unfinished work. You’ll become exhausted, and your chances of quitting go up exponentially.

Don’t go back to page one. Ever. At least not until you finish the first draft.

If you insist on doing this anyways, at least finish your writing sessions for the day before you go tweaking and fiddling. Always get something new down first.

Why Daily Writing?

Why am I harping on this so much? Several reasons. Here’s a sample of them.

On average it takes a month or two to establish a habit. That means that your novel will likely be finished just as the writing habit is establishing itself. In other words, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle every time you sit down to write a novel. Seasoned authors know this, and they sometimes go to great lengths to ensure they’ll be left alone until they finish the drafting process. They’ll lock themselves up in a hotel room or on a deserted beach to ensure they can complete the draft without being bothered with day-to-day life details. At the least, we’ll all been know to tell our friends and family to piss off from time to time so we can write. That’s because we know how hard it is to complete this project, and how fragile our focus can get after two to six months (average times to finish a first draft for most, pulled directly from the sorted archives of cataloged data in my ass).

Skip a day, fine. Emergency the next day, okay. Just not feeling it the third day, destruction. It takes just one skipped day to lose the groove. Time spent away from your story starts the clock every time. As this clock skips forward through the minutes and hours, the details of your alternate universe are deteriorating. I’ve come back to drafts after a week and had no idea where I left off, or what was happening in the story. Your memory should be as good as your main character’s, at a minimum. That means living the story as they are. It means staying up to date on current happenings. It means you are right there with them, every step of the way. If you have to go back and re-read the story from page one, or even the previous chapter, then you are losing time, you’re losing momentum, and you are tiring yourself out, even if you do manage to ignore typos on the way through. You finish reading, and then put off writing till the next day, and you’ve added another 24 hours to that clock. You’ve created an uphill battle to get the creative juices flowing again, and you may have train-wrecked your novel attempt. If this happens, sometimes it’s best to scrap it and write a different story, or start over fresh from the very beginning at a later date. Either way, it sucks.

Endurance is the key to finishing any long-term project. Writing a book isn’t a sprint, it’s a year-long schedule of marathon after marathon with training between them. It’s a commitment. If you treat it as such, your morale and your writing will continually improve. Your habit will give you confidence. You’ll train yourself to never develop writers block, and you’ll know how to combat the early symptoms of it.

That’s It

When it comes to writing, there isn’t much to know. You don’t need to be an English professor or a word Nazi. There’s no instilled talent. As a species, human beings like telling stories and hearing stories. It’s a matter of putting the work forth to get the job done. If you are serious about telling your stories it shouldn’t be a problem. Just sit down and write the damn book.

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