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How to push past a first draft (or, how I finally managed to write a book!)

Ok, confession. The title above is slightly misleading. When I say I managed to write a book I don’t mean that I am publishing said book or that it’s in any state to be read by other humans. I mean that, after years and years of trying and several failed attempts, for the first time in my life I have a completed draft of a book that contains a definite beginning, middle, and end. Quality notwithstanding, if someone stumbled upon it tomorrow they would recognize it as being recognizably book-shaped. That might not sound like much but for me, it’s a huge accomplishment.

My problems started early

Like basically every aspiring author who ever lived, I started writing from an early age, typing up stories “inspired by” (read: plagiarized from) my favourite books on my mother’s typewriter. I would fold them up, and place them in sealed envelopes that I would never again read but would instead destroy several months later in a fit of artistic despair (I particularly regret destroying a series of Babysitter Club fan-fics I wrote when I was 10).

When I was 11 or 12, I managed to write a “novel” (I say novel, but it was probably 12 typewritten pages long). I was reading a lot of WWII stories (think Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian and The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier) so naturally what resulted was a very melodramatic story called War of the Heart about a Nazi fighter pilot who got lost in a storm and crashed into a field in Ireland and was later discovered by a 12 year old girl. That novel was another casualty of my need to destroy everything I ever created so I no longer have a copy but I’m pretty sure it was resolved by the girl telling her parents and the fighter pilot being sent to prison. A thrilling tale indeed.

This pattern of creation and destruction continued until my early 20s when I decided that I was going to take writing seriously for once and finally write a damn novel. I had not one, but two English degrees under my belt and a whole bucketful of ideas. Surely it would be a breeze.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.

When you can’t even finish the first draft

I want to jump into the stuff that might actually be helpful so I’m going to make a long story short. I didn’t finish a novel in my 20s and I truly believe that the reason it took me 10+ years to finally do it comes down to two simple things—crippling self-doubt and a need to make everything perfect. 

crippling-self-doubt-impostor-syndrome-recent-creative-accomplishments-fear-of-not-27358022
Basically

It worked like this: I would get an idea for a book and cheerfully start writing it. I would hit maybe 15-20,000 words when suddenly, I would realize how far I have to go—probably 50-70,000 more words. That’s a lot of writing. I would be hit by a crushing wave of despair and doubt. Did I have it in me to write that much? Was the idea good enough to sustain interest for that long?

I would then go back and reread what I’d written, tweaking a few words here and there (“I’ll just work on this chapter a bit more”) until eventually, I got caught in a cycle of reworking the same chapters over and over, never moving on and never satisfied with what was on the page.

I think that we can all agree that this is not the most effective way to write a book.

The worst part is that I’m actually an editor too. I’ve coached several people through early drafts of their work and whenever they got stuck I would always give the same advice: keep going, you can’t fix a blank page.

Sick and tired of being a hypocrite, I decided to finally heed my own advice.

Step 1: Drafting

You’ve probably all heard that there are two types of writers—plotters and pantsers. According to The Write Practice:

Simply put, a plotter is someone who plans out their novel before they write it. A pantser is someone who, “flies by the seat of their pants,” meaning they don’t plan out anything, or plan very little. Some people, like me, call themselves “plantsers,” which means they’re in a little of both.

As you might have guessed, for years I was a pantser. I would think of an idea, open a Word or Google doc and simply…go.

Typically, I knew what the start of the story was and roughly where I wanted to end, but the middle? That was a mystery to be unveiled as I went along.

This method worked for me…until it didn’t. As I said above, I would invariably hit the 1/4 mark of a novel and realize that it had completely fallen off the rails and I had no idea how to course-correct.

I knew I needed a guide, but chafed at the idea of a strict outline—I still liked learning about my world and my characters as I went. In the end, I decided to find a happy medium and try the plantsing approach. Here’s what I did:

I knew I wanted to write a scary story for children like the books I devoured as a youngster so I spent some time with a good old-fashioned pen and paper brainstorming some ideas. The premise came to me pretty quickly. In fact, here’s the original “pitch” I wrote (it’s changed quite a bit since then but this will give you a rough idea of what it’s about):

It’s almost Samhain and the walls between worlds grow thin. That means one thing – the trooping fairies have come to town. All the children of Clonbridge know three things: If you hear the music of the sídhe, block your ears, if you hear a scratching at your window, do not look out, and once the sun has dipped below the horizon, do not go outside. Cat knows this better than most—she has inherited her grandmother’s gift of the sight—but when her baby brother is stolen away she knows she only has one chance to save him because, when dawn breaks on November 1st, he’ll be lost forever.

From there, I started to ask myself questions:

  • How did I want the story to start?
  • How did I want it to end?
  • How would Cat’s brother be stolen away (i.e. what was the inciting incident)?
  • Why does she go after him alone?
  • What are some obstacles she might encounter along the way?

Once I had answers to these questions, I began to list out all the major events and things that need to happen (e.g. how Cat discovers her brother has been swapped for a changeling) and all of the important information a reader needs to know (e.g. that Cat’s mother is a single, working mother and her granny takes care of her most of the time).  When I was relatively sure I had a comprehensive list, I began to order them into scenes and chapters.

I now had a roadmap that I could consult. It still had plenty of gaps to allow for random creative flourishes and bouts of inspiration but it gave me a direction to work towards.

Step 2: The Vomit Draft

With a plan in place, I set about writing my very first draft. For this, I employed the vomit-draft (sometimes called the zero-draft) approach.

What is a “vomit draft” you ask? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You sort of…vomit out words. The idea here is to just get the story down on the page. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done.

As I said above, you can’t edit a blank page and, for me, having something—anything— to work with is far easier than getting the story out of my brain in the first place.

The key to making this work is to not look back over what you’ve written until the draft is complete. Seriously, don’t do it. The minute you look at the word-soup you’ve created your inner-editor will rear her ugly head and want to start tinkering (“I’ll just fix up this one little bit…”). You must silence this voice by any means necessary.

I managed to quell my inner-editor in two ways:

  1. I gave myself a deadline: last year I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. Knowing I only had 30 days to write 50,000 words was extremely motivating for me. I really, really wanted to win and managed to bust out some epic wordcount days near the end.
  2. I summarized what I had just written: at the end of each writing session, I would summarize everything that just happened in my story. This way I could quickly remind myself of what I had already written without having to read back over the draft itself.

Step 3: Making it all make sense

I won’t lie, this step was daunting. Once the vomit-draft was finished I had a big pile of something that wasn’t quite a draft and wasn’t quite an outline but something mushy and in-between.

The first thing I did was pour myself a cup of tea (read: a glass of wine) and read through my summary, not my actual draft (it was too awful and I knew I would be disheartened). While I was happy with the story in general, I realized that I needed to add a few new scenes to up the tension and make some character changes. I also identified a few plot holes that needed filling in.

Then, I reworked my vomit-draft summary into an expanded and improved outline.

Now I knew with more certainty where I was going, I opened a new Scrivener file (more on my thoughts on Scrivener at a later date) and began work on my second draft.

For me, the key to getting through this draft was to take things one step at a time. I didn’t copy and paste everything over at once. Instead, I copied over one chapter at a time and worked through that, rewriting and tweaking as necessary. As I worked through the second draft and the story began to take on a more recognizable shape, I realized that there were other narrative and structural issues I needed to address. Instead of going back and fixing them in this draft, I decided to make note of them for next time—I had enough work to do adding in whole new scenes and creating brand new characters and I knew that if I went back at this point I would fall back into the endless self-editing loop.

By the end of the second draft I had two things: 1) a proper draft to work with and 2) a list of changes for next time.

Step 4: Polish, polish, polish

Now we reach the messy step. It’s the step I’m in now, the one that technically has no real end in sight.

I’ve written a third draft, using pretty much the same technique as I did for the second draft (one chapter at a time, rewrite/delete/write new scenes, make notes for next time). The difference is that now I feel like I have a really solid base to work from. I decided that for my next round of edits, I need to switch it up a little and make notes by hand. So, for the first time since I was 12 years old, I printed out a full copy of my novel.

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Title redacted because it’s a working title and I don’t know if I love it or hate it yet. Also, look carefully and you’ll spot my writing buddies—Quoth the Raven, Gnick the Gnome, and norse god Loki.

And that’s where I’m at now! The plan is to read through the novel, handwrite some notes, and prepare for draft 4.

What’s next?

That’s the question isn’t it? How do you know when it’s time to let go and let other people read and critique your work?

To be honest, I haven’t fully figured it out yet. I suspect that, for me, it’ll be after draft 5 (which will hopefully be more of a copy edit than a full revision), but that’s the sort of thing that every writer has to figure out for themselves. I’ll let you know when I get there.

TL;DR

So there you have it, how I finally pushed past the first draft and actually wrote a (workable draft of a) novel.

I hope this was helpful for some of you who might be struggling through the same kind of thing. Please keep in mind though that there is no right way to write a book. This was just the method that happened to work for me this one time.

If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this giant ramble it’s this—don’t be afraid to switch it up. If your method isn’t working for you then try something new. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even good, it just has to be finished. Revising brings its own difficulties but if you have the raw material to work with you can always make something better.

Are you working on a novel? How did you push through your first draft? I’d love to hear from you!

3 thoughts on “How to push past a first draft (or, how I finally managed to write a book!)”

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