How can I help you write the first draft of your novel? Well, I’m going to offer you some practical advice and explain the creative processes which have helped me over the years. I’ve been honing my craft writing short stories for the past ten years and although I may not yet be a published author, I have just completed my debut novel. So, to reiterate, this article isn’t about becoming the next Stephen King or Ernest Hemingway. Far from it. This article is simply about the craft and breaking down the mystique behind the novel writing process so that you, too, might find some encouragement and believe it is obtainable.
Writing is the prize
“Writing is its own reward”– Henry Miller
First you need to ask yourself this simple question : Are you sure you want to do this?
Writing a novel will undoubtedly consume your life; force you to neglect your closest relationships, devour your social life, and prevent you from ever seeing a beautiful summer’s day in the same way again. You will spend long hours in isolation and contemplation in a tiny study staring at a wall, often doubting your sanity and dreaming of rolling naked in the long summer grass outside, without a care in the world.
Mystique often surrounds the life of a writer with celebrity status, film franchises, and press interviews, but this is all too rare. For many, a writer’s life is poverty stricken with a lot of hard work for little return. But don’t get me wrong, writing is also a hell of a lot of fun! So why write? Well, if you’re like me, then writing is a passion.
Writing IS the prize. Everything else is just a bonus.
So if writing isn’t already an addiction for you, then you may have chosen the wrong vice, or hope that writing may fund your current one. It won’t. Writing a novel is without a doubt one of the hardest things you can do; with the exception of childbirth. It will take years of endurance, focus and persistence to complete a novel. So I salute anyone who finishes their first draft, second or third draft of a novel, however poorly written or however many copies it eventually sells.
Now ask yourself that same question : Are you sure you want to do this?
Good choice. Take a deep breath and read on.
I’m Going To Tell You A Secret
“The problem is once you’ve written the opening paragraph and worked out how the rest of the story will go in your head, there’s nothing in it for you.”– Colm Toibin
The first thing you need to know is this: There is no single, perfect way to write a novel, whatever anyone tells you. Every author has their own processes and the best thing to do is to find your own path and trust in that journey. What kind of answer is that, you may ask? A sensible one because there’s already world of information on how to accomplish this, and most of it borders on unhelpful platitudes and generic encouragement, which only fuels the mystique of writing.
Instead, I’m just going to let you into a secret, and tell you what worked for me.
It’s a well known fact that there are two types of writers – Pantsers (who fly by the seat of their pants, trusting their muse with complete abandon) and then there are Planners (who meticulously plan every scene, plot twist, and character DNA). But sticking to rigidly to either method can leave the Planner uninspired or the Pantser straying from the plot. So the truth is that most people are a combination of both.
Personally, that’s my approach and its worked for me.
When I wrote my first novel, Consider Him Human, I had the germ of an idea and sketched out the first few chapters with basic guidelines for the inciting event (Planner), then let the story grow organically from there (Pantser). This gave the story an initial trajectory for the first few chapters which led to, you guessed it, further guidelines for more chapters (Planner), which were elaborated on (Pantser), and so on, until the process repeated itself.
So by combining the traits of a Pantser and a Planner you can maintain the momentum of the novel, keep the narrative on track, and remain inspired to write it. When I first I started writing short stories I planned every minute detail and found the act of writing joyless because I already knew what was going to happen. But when I trusted my instincts and let the stories flow intuitively, they became alive with ideas and started to write themselves.
Using this combination I trusted my instincts writing my first novel and often came to the end of a chapter excited by what I had written and confused about what this meant to the overall plot, but found 99% of the time it was to the benefit of the story. Personally, I loved discovering the story, especially when a minor character would outstay their welcome, like an uninvited party guest stealing everyone else’s drinks, and refusing to leave until their sub plot was told! This meant the character and the narrative took on a life of its own.
So this is what I mean by finding your own way.
What Is The Purpose Of The First Draft?
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”– Stephen King
Stephen King wrote this phrase in his excellent book on creative writing called A Memoir Of The Craft. So to put it bluntly, the first draft’s purpose is to tell yourself the PLOT. Yes, you may have already planned and mapped it out, but once you start writing your novel it may take on a life of its own.
When this happens, you’re on the right path. You’re mining gold.
Now for some practical advice. A good first draft starting point, as boring and pragmatic as it sounds, is to get organised because it will save you a hell of a lot of time later when you piece your sprawling inky behemoth together. So first create a new folder on your computer with your novel’s working title, then add numbered chapters in sub folders to break down the narrative into roughly manageable sections. Now follow the method I detailed earlier: Using your first chapter’s guidelines, simply write and enjoy the adventure until you’re satisfied with your chapter. Then plan one or more chapters ahead, and repeat, letting the novel take you where it needs to go.
I think it was Jeff Noon, the author of spectacular speculative fiction like Vurt and Pollen, who once said that he never plans more than one chapter ahead.
So, don’t sweat it, you’re in good company.
Don’t Get It Right, Get It Written
“The purpose of the first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written.”– John Dufresne
There is no better advice I can offer you than to, at some point, stop seeking advice. Ironic, isn’t it? Eventually, however much you read, study, or analyse, you are simply avoiding the act of writing. So stop wasting your time and everyone else’s time by reading and talking about it.
Take that first keyboard stab into the unknown, and start writing.
Put pen to paper. Fingers to keyboard. Bottom to chair. Write the first sentence that comes into your head and keep writing until your fingers bleed. Write each chapter until you are satisfied with it, then move on to the next, and so on. Repeat until the end. But on no account stop to look back at your work until you have completed a first draft. Appraising your work at this stage will only cause paralysis and insecurity. George R R Martin famously likes to perfect each chapter until he moves on to the next, but you are not George R. R. Martin. Only George R. R. Martin is.
As the old saying goes, Don’t Get It Right, Get It Written.
Maintaining Momentum And Avoiding Paralysis When Writing The First Draft
“It is good to have an end to journey toward. But it is the journey that matters in the end.”– Ursula K. Le Guin
It’s hard to maintain momentum when writing in long form. After that initial rush of excitement you may reach the midpoint and feel like you are finally getting somewhere, that the end is in sight, the goal is drawing near. It is not. Instead the adrenaline that carried you forward will wane and you may lose hope that of ever completing it. But you will, if you keep up the momentum.
It’s always good to remember that most people never complete their first draft and falter at this hurdle. But don’t give up. You can be one of the exceptions. Write, even when you feel uninspired, because persistence is the key.
Once you reach the final few climatic chapters and start to feel an ache of regret or sadness that you soon have to leave your characters and their stories behind, then you can be assured you have given your best; truly felt affection for your characters, grown with them, nurtured them, or even killed them. So savour the ending, and enjoy it – don’t rush to the end. Only then will you finally finish the first draft with contentment and satisfaction.
Down Your Tools And Rejoice
“Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It’s one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period.”– Nicholas Sparks
Congratulations! You have completed the first draft of your novel.
Now give yourself a well deserved break from writing, take one last look at your manuscript and place it in a drawer for a minimum of 3 to 6 months. Do not look at the drawer, and under no circumstances, open the drawer and show it to anyone. The first draft will only disappoint you because it is the raw ingredients of your manuscript. It can only be fairly judged months later when you can see beyond the obvious mistakes, and vastly improve it in the second draft. But that is a topic for another day.
Until next time…when we learn How To (Re)Write The Second Draft Of Your Novel.