Thursday, 27 October 2011

Top 10 Things I Learned Writing a First Draft

I've been busy plotting out the second draft of "Where Wolves Run Free", and a big part of the process is reading over what I covered in the first draft (Draft 0) and seeing where improvements can be made. The plot has undergone some extreme revisions, though funnily enough the core events still happen, just in a different way. I also thought about the things I've learned for the next time I do a first draft of a novel (or any story really) and thought I'd share my top ten lessons from completing my first draft ever;

1. Write an outline. Especially when you're going to take a year (or more) to finish Draft 1.
When I first started this happy merry-go-round of writing, and came up with the ludicrous notion of writing a book I had a lot of ideas. Those ideas got jotted down in notepads, word docs, the back of receipts, the walls and whatever other surface I could find. But I never sat down and put it all into a proper outline. I tried the "pantser" method of writing. Turns out I'm shit at pantsing. Really, really shit at it. The first few chapters meander about, and sort of head in the direction they're meant to. But it's like an old drunk heading home; two steps forward, one step back. You'll get there in the end but it's going to take a damn long time and you may well piss yourself on the way. So the numero uno lesson; write an outline. Even if it feels like pulling teeth, write a damned outline. E.L Doctorow said "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." I say, spare yourself the terror ride and build some roadside lamps before you go on your journey.

2. Don't take a year to write the first draft (even if you have a really good outline)
Okay, I put my hands up and admit it - I took far too long to get this first draft under my belt. The prime cause of that was not having a writing plan, and not sticking to one the few times I set one out. The temptation of going out, playing video games, watching films... it never stops! And they are harsh mistresses, that demand you to abandon your first love in the gutter, and laugh manically as it weeps for your return-- you get the drift. Make a plan, stick to it, and focus on getting that shit done.

3. Make a writing plan - and stick to it! (But don't be too harsh on yourself)
What is a writing plan I hear you ask. It is exactly what it says on the tin; a plan. A plan of when and how much you are going to write. I have a full time job and I think it's vital for anyone in that situation to have a plan. Work gets you down, you come home, you cry, "I don't wanna!" and curl up in front of the TV, your creativity dribbling out of your mouth as you eat those noodles. A plan may not stop you from doing this, but it definitely makes you feel a lot worse about it. If you have planned in the week to spend an hour and a half a day, dedicated to nothing else other than writing, you have a plan. Others make a word goal, for instance "this week I will write 500 words per day, for five days, with two days off". The beauty of that is it gives you a little flexibility; so if you 'accidentally' end up on a bender after work, downing way too much tequila, you can simply rearrange your writing time, so the 500 words will get done on another day. Be warned though: do not make your goals unrealistic ("This week I'm going to write 3000 words a day, even though I only have two hours at home a night"), and try your damnedest to stick to it. Tequila or no tequila.

4. Write out all your characters beforehand
This is why you need an outline. You need to work out who your players are, who your side characters are, and who's just hanging around in the background waiting for cake. You might be surprised to learn that your main protagonist's real motivations are a lot more selfish than you first imagined. Or that the antagonist really likes kittens. Play with your characters at this stage, go mad; it doesn't have to go in if you don't like it.

5. Don't read over what you just wrote.
Seriously, just don't do it. The biggest amount of time I lost to Draft 0 was in going over the last few paragraphs and making changes. Then the next day, going over the 1500 words I wrote the day before and making changes. Aside from the fact you never move forward, it's really confusing. You quickly get muddled and make a change that actually doesn't fit with something you wrote 10,000 words ago, or won't make sense in another 50,000 words time. It's tempting, like looking at an accident as you drive past. But it isn't helpful - just don't do it.

6. Don't beat yourself up if you don't hit your word goal.
I did this a lot at the start, I wasn't happy that I couldn't pull out the numbers that others seem to manage by doing nothing more than looking at their manuscripts, placing their fingers delicately on their keyboards, and *poof* 3000 words done. I'm a lot faster now but when I started I was lucky if I could get 1000 words down in an hour. Hell, I was lucky if I could get half that. But it doesn't matter. As long as you sit down with your story and get something done, whether it be a scene outline, a character profile, a landscape study, whatever; it's all still writing. And once I stopped worrying about my word count, that's when the little buggers flowed like pixies in wine. Pixies in ambrosia wine. Mmmmm. Pixies.

7. Expect your first draft to be a rough take on your idea
This is my polite way of saying; in all likelihood your first draft is going to stink worse that a tramp's armpit, after he's cleaned out an elephant enclosure for the pennies it will earn him to buy some tequila (I'm sensing I may want some tequila). Honest, Draft 1 (especially if you've never done it before) will probably be shit. Might not be, but it's best to have that assumption. Not in a "why bother" way, but in a "what have you got to lose" way. And the best part is; no one has to see it other than you. It will be your own dirty little secret you can take to your grave and beyond.

8. Treat the first draft as a learning experience - try new things!
Following on from point 7, as no one is going to see your first draft, take this as an opportunity to try different writing techniques. Write a scene twice, from two different perspectives and see which one works best. Move a character trait from one of your protagonists to another and see what happens. Throw in a random spider or, I dunno, a monkey with a laser of laughing who talks like Patrick Stewart. Seriously, go crazy with it; throw as much shit at the wall as you can and see what sticks. I used Scrivener to do my draft and put all the mad stuff into a separate folder, so I could add it or remove it as I liked. If you're using other writing programmes put that stuff on another file if it makes you feel better. But don't hesitate to experiment. That's what first drafts are for.

9. Don't rush to the end
This is a BIG problem of mine. I get caught up in what's going on, the characters all have knives at each other's throats, the big bad wizard is about to fry them all with his lightening sword of doom and I just can't wait to get it all down. But it means descriptions disappear, emotions and nuance are cast out, and the scene becomes a McDonalds burger; tasty at the time but leaving you empty and hungry afterwards. In the course of Draft 0 I wrote a plan for the next few chapters I was going to do at one point, and the tone totally changed. Experiences were described, the setting was clear and deeper sub-plots came through. So whether you be a pantser or a plotter, slow down. Take a breath. Scratch your bum. And write that scene the way it deserves to be written.

10. Don't be afraid, just write
The single most crippling thing when writing a book for the first time is the fear of being rubbish, of not being able to do it. Of being a bad writer. Don't let those voices in your head drown out the voices of your characters. For me there was a certain point (oh, around the 40,000 word mark) that I realised it didn't matter but I wish I'd got there sooner. What I was doing was valuable in and of itself, a learning experience. So even if this one didn't pan out, it meant the next attempt would be much better, and the one after that better still. I also discovered just how much fun it is to create worlds, characters and to see your kernel of an idea bloom into a full scale tale. Fear is the mind killer* - don't let it win.

*Direct quote from one of my all time favourite, and life changing, books; Dune by Frank Herbert.

I plan to apply all of the above to future projects, both big and small. But what about you? What techniques or methods (or drink) do you use to get the work done?


  1. Thanks! Wow, this is a great down to earth and realistic way to look at it. In addition I do ALL of those things, but I keep at it!

  2. Thanks for the comment - I wish I'd started out by doing all these things! Live and learn...

  3. Great tips, particularly #3, where most people don't start out with a plan, or start with a ridiculous word count goal. My plan is always write while my son naps, who cares if the house is messy, I've got a heaping pile of laundry to fold or Twitter is calling my name. I write for those two hours, and whatever my word count is at the end, I'll take it.

  4. I'm much more of a pantser (I've never written an outline yet), but everybody has to figure out what works for them. But I agree with your points in general, and particularly with not reading what you just wrote. Both because you never move forward, and because it's too soon to really evaluate it anyway. This was less of a problem back when we used typewriters. :-)

  5. All good advice that I also have learned over the years! The only one I do different is number 5: I've discovered that it helps me get back into the story if I start each new session by reading over the last one, and making minor changes along the way. But you can't spend too much time doing that, or you get stuck in the endless revision loop.

  6. Thanks for the great comments, it's really interesting to see what others have discovered on their own writing paths.

    Darian: that's a great system, and I bet it really helps the progress meter. The hardest thing sometimes can be to just sit down and get it done.

    Anthony: I am envious, having hoped I would be in the pantser category to only find I'm not. Well I am for a bit, but after a while I lose my pants and get lost in the woods... and those bears are damned dangerous when you have no pants. (note; I am talking the American pants, not British pants. That would just be wrong.)

    Ozma: I tried that and I failed miserably - my desire to tinker was too strong. So I only read the last sentence or two and have the rest in notes on my Scrivener files so I can see what I did and where to head next. Weirdly finishing mid-sentence seems to reboot my brain so I can just carry on where I left off.

  7. These are a lot of mistakes I think a lot of new writers make. Kudos to you for hashing it all out for people to look at and contemplate. Good luck!

  8. Thanks Jennifer. One of the things that's been the biggest help to me is seeing the lessons others have learned in their own story writing experience. So if I can add a useful voice to those out there already it's a win.

  9. Great post! Thank you for sharing. This was very helpful. Good luck on your second round!