6 Things I Learned While Writing the First Draft

July 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

writers tearsAccording to the date stamp on the first outline I created for my novel, I began writing it on December 13, 2012. I began writing the first draft the following February. And on July 6 (i.e., about a week and a half ago), I finished the first draft. It’s 78,403 words (according to Word) and 406 pages typed, double-spaced. I think that’s a pretty good length for a first draft; previous first drafts have weighed in around the 50,000-word mark, so this one feels beefy.

Anyway, if we take December 13, 2012 as the start date, that means I’ve been working on this for a year and a half. I didn’t think it would take that long, to be honest. At the beginning of last December, I thought I’d finish before the end of the year. At the beginning of February, I thought I’d finish it by the end of that month. And here we are. Best laid plans, and all that. I learned a few things along the way—some of it from others, some from the experience of doing it. I thought I’d share in case any of it helps you, but if I’m being honest, it’s really so I can come back and remind myself of all this before I begin my next book.

1. Have a ritual.

I picked this up somewhere, but now I can’t remember where. Basically, the point of having a ritual is kind of a Pavlovian response thing. You’re telling your brain that it’s time to forget about work, the news, your various and sundry problems, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Switch into creative mode. It’s time to write.

My ritual involves location (the office), scent (a eucalyptus spearmint candle; I don’t light it (don’t need to) but just remove the lid), and sound—or rather, the lack of it, since I like it quiet when I write.

My ritual also involves companionship, if my cat feels like it. Most of the time, he’ll sit on my lap while I write, but sometimes he’s a dickhead and wants to do his own thing. Adorable little bastard. Sitting down in the office and taking a big sniff of the candle is usually enough to get my brain into writing mode.

2. Do the fun stuff first (or whenever you feel like it).

I got this one from Joss Whedon. I learned it pretty late in the draft, but it came at a time when I was stuck on a scene and had been for a week or so. I knew what had to happen in the scene, and I knew what came after it, but I just couldn’t get through it for some reason. Fortunately, that’s when I stumbled on the Whedon interview.

Around that same time, I also read something Paolo Bacigalupi said about his latest book, Zombie Baseball Beatdown. He got some flak for writing a silly kids book instead of another The Windup Girl or Ship Breaker, and he said that what his critics didn’t realize is that if he hadn’t written Zombie Baseball Beatdown, there probably wouldn’t be another “serious” book. He was burned out, blocked, worn down to the nub. Writing a silly kids book took the pressure off and led him back to his creativity. It made writing fun again. (All of that is paraphrasing from my shoddy memory, but what he actually said should be pretty close to that.)

So I stopped trying to write it and went back to add an earlier scene that was fun to write. Will that scene survive to the final draft? Maybe, maybe not. But it got me unstuck, and I was able to go back after I wrote the fun scene and power through the not-fun scene.

3. Try to see the second draft.

As I got toward the end of my first draft, I started to lose faith in the book. It began to feel tedious and boring, like my characters hadn’t done anything but talk a lot. It had taken me a long time to get to that point, and all the earlier scenes were a little hazy—again, shoddy memory, plus it had been months since I’d written those earlier scenes.

As luck had it, I needed to look something up that happened early on. Going back and finding that scene reminded me of all the other scenes and the action that happened in them, and the fact that my characters had actually done a lot more than just talked. They’d fought and romanced and escaped and died (some of them). It made me see what the second draft could be, and that motivated me to finish the first draft.

4. Fill the tanks.

This is another tip that I got from Joss Whedon, even though I was already doing it. The idea is to read new things, watch new things, experience new things. Get out of your comfort zone. You never know where tweaks and inspiration will come from.

My novel began when an opera and a classic movie from the 40s collided in my brain. It won’t resemble either of those things in the end (but there are nods to both, if you squint and look at it sideways). Some of the big inspirations came from news articles about medical technology, a photo essay on  victims of acid attacks, a sizzle reel for a TV show that hasn’t been made yet (and may never get made, sadly), and other movies and books and articles that I’ve already forgotten.

You never know what will spark an idea or collide with something else you’ve read or seen before and become something new and awesome. Fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks. You won’t get far running on empty.

5. Keep the faith.

When you start to doubt that the book is any good, remember that all writers hit that point — even Neil Gaiman. He talked about it at some point, describing a conversation he had with his agent while in the middle of writing (I think) The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He called his agent and told her it was hopeless, the book was crap, no one would like it, etc. And she said, “Oh, you’re at that point again.” He asked what she meant and she told him he always felt like that about every book when he got to a certain point. He never realized it, but he had. And she reassured him that this book, just like all the others, would be wonderful. And it was.

As I said above, I started to feel like my book was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad pile of dung towards the end. Once I remembered everything that had happened up to that point (and especially now, when I’m reading it at faster than the snail’s pace I took to write it), I realized that it wasn’t too bad, and with some rewriting, it could actually be very good.

Remember, every first draft is terrible. Nothing springs fully formed from the forehead of the writer, and anyone who tells you different is a liar. The first draft is just to get the whole story down on paper, warts and all. Once you do that, you can go back and grind and polish until it’s incredible. Granted, you will probably never think it’s incredible—writers always see the flaws in their own books—but others will. Keep the faith.

(Okay, that’s basically saying the same thing as #3, but screw it. It’s important enough to say twice.)

6. Reward yourself.

As Whedon says, reward yourself early and often. To which I add, reward yourself for all the little things. Don’t save it for when you finish a chapter; have a little reward when you finish a page. Or when you hit your writing goal each day. My writing goal was 300 words, and if I hit that, I got to have a beer or some ice cream or something. (Okay, Joss said all that, too. Oh well, steal from the best.)

But I also had a big reward, too. I saved the DLC for BioShock Infinite (Burial at Sea, parts 1 and 2, if you’re familiar with the game) and refused to play them until the first draft was complete. I loved the main game, and the DLC sounded really, really cool, so it was hard for me to wait to play it. Foolishly, I thought I wouldn’t have to wait long—the draft should have been done at the end of December, remember? But one month turned into eight, and it got harder and harder not to give in. I stuck to it, though, and it made playing the DLC more fun knowing what I’d accomplished to allow myself the reward.

I’m not sure what I’ll set as a reward for finishing the second draft. Maybe a bottle of Writers Tears

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