Monday, 10 February 2014

Writing That Very First Draft

Are you starting to write a longer piece of work for the first time? A novel for young people? A novella or novel? A full-length piece of creative non-fiction?
An article in Writing Magazine this month suggests that writing ‘little and often’ rather than ‘spurge and purge’ is the most successful way to complete that important Draft 1. 
They recommend that you either:
    • Set an achievable number of words per day (say, 500) and write this without fail (even Christmas Day if possible!)
    • Make a resolution to write something ever day, even if it’s only a paragraph.

little and often or spluge and purge
This is good advice; advice that seems to conflict with the ethos of NaNoWriMo, an annual, international novel writing project that asks subscribers to write 2000 words per day for whole of  November. This is 60,000 words done and dusted, and for me, last year, it worked really well. It meant that by the end of January I had almost completed my third novel’s first scribblings; Draft 1. However, it’s not the entire picture, and NaNoWriMo’s theory of ‘spurge and purge’ isn’t all that far away from the far less rigorous suggestions in Writing Magazine. 
The crux of both methods is regularity. In the past, every novel I’ve written, both for children and adults, was attempted sporadically, and this, I now realize, is what puts the biggest handbrake on completing a project. Every time I returned to my slowly growing body of work, I discovered that I hadn’t touched for far longer a time than I’d realized. I had to get back in the grove everytime I started writing, yet again finding the right voice…remembering the plot…reading through enough past writing to get me going again…and that usually led me to unnecessarily edit what had already been drafted and tinker with sections that, later, I removed anyway, rather than battling on with the next part of the story.

For this new project, I’m writing as often as I can. I’m not letting the story slip out of my mind for more than 24 maximum at a time. Even a paragraph is better than a day with nothing done. 
If you commence a longer piece of writing, it is most likely to fail if you can’t write it regularly; every day if possible. With that fundamental in place, it then doesn’t matter much whether you attempt a socially crippling 2000+ words or a tiny little paragraph; the important thing, I’ve found, is to write as a routine. To think of that little daily task in the same way you think about cleaning your teeth.
I started with zero words and had 60,000 on month later; two months after that I’m so close to the end, it’s frightening. But even 250 words a day for a year will net you 90,000 words. That’s a novel, folks. Think about that for one moment. Just 250 words a day.
Of course, nothing is quite that simple. Those 90,000 words (which is the amount I’ve complete in 3 months of Draft 1 work) are not going to be perfect. What you do have (and where I am right now) is a first attempt that is a concrete foundation draft you can now work on. Mind you, ‘concrete’ is not the right word at all. A ‘plasticine draft’ is a better way of looking at it. Something you can mould into the novel of your choice.
My thoughts and written notes on my 90,000 words look like this;
    • Some of the words/paras/chapters will have to go
    • Some new words – ideas, enrichments, changes – will have to be accomplished
    • Some parts will have to be moved; juggled about
    • Some character profiles need alteration, or souping up
    • Some characters should be removed from the stage altogether
    • Some of the work needed will be very bitty; sentences taken out, conversations rearranged, names changed.
    • An overall view of the draft will point up the sagging sections and where further dramatic tension should be added - not to mention whether the overall thing works!
    • Although I thought I was writing things in the order I wanted them, I haven’t done so; this suggests that it’s not necessary to write things in the right order at all at Draft 1 stage.
These changes, taken from the beginning again, constitute Draft 2. Bear in mind, I haven’t written my ending. This is because, as I headed rapidly in the direction of the last 20 or so thousand words, I realized the ending I’d been visualizing was foggy, lacking in tension, and was probably unworkable. So I made the decision to stop at 90,000 words and start on Draft 2 without a resolution. This, I have to say, is proving a good decision; already my ideas are clearer and more dramatic; they continue to shape and change. In the meantime, as I work through the novel, adding new ideas, pumping up the drama, reshaping and fine-tuning characters and taking out the dull bits, I’m getting that ‘overview’ that was impossible during Draft 1, because I didn’t read backwards at all. 
Hopefully, when I reach in Draft 2 the point where I broke off after 90,000 words in Draft 1, I’ll find myself pummelling ahead towards the finishing line, now clear in my mind how my ending will work.
As I go, I do edit – to be honest, I can’t help it. In my opinion, if you see that a full stop is missing, you’d be daft not to put it in. But Draft 2 is not the editing draft. Don’t waste time thinking it needs to be perfect for delivery to an editor. There is going to be a mighty lot of work to do in drafts 3 and 4, before anyone other than your tutor or writing group sees a word. 
Don’t look forward to much at all, it will only lead you to despair. Just keep the small, direct task in mind – writing those tiny bits every day is what will get you there. If you haven’t written Draft 1, with its red herrings, blind alleys, stone walls, wild goose chases, 2-dimensional characters, creaking conversations and other imperfections, you effectively have nothing; you don’t have any plasticine to work with.

Preperation counts for a lot
I must say one thing about preparation, though. We’ve just sacked our decorators, here at Rhos Hill, because they failed to do the preparation necessary and their coat of emulsion peeled off the walls (still internally damp from external continual rain!). Preparation is everything, whatever the task. Before you start to ‘write a tiny bit each day’ or take the challenge of 2000 word-a-day splurge, be sure to resolve that you have some sort of pathway to tread. 
It is my strong advice that you don’t start with the notion that ‘the ideas will come if I write’. What will come is a brick wall. Even if your plan for the story could be written on the back of a till receipt, or pitched in a 20 second elevator ride, make sure you have that plan. Before I started NaNoWriMo, I talked the ideas I had through with my husband and with other writers. I started a notebook, filling it with disparate thoughts. I created a rough timeline and pinned it up. I named my main characters and did little sketches about them. This was partly to create stronger characterizations, but also successfully to see where they’d fit into the prototype plot and where they might move it along. The best ideas spring out of who the characters are and what they’re doing to enrich the story. After all, that’s how our real-life stories work; they work via the people we know, love, like, hate, or tolerate.

A word to my students – all writing students, really. When your tutor or mentor reads and assesses your submitted pieces of work, they set up a paradox for my neat little template of writing a novel by not stopping and not looking back. The tutor will mark your work and suggest changes in the understanding that you’ll deal with their feedback. This is a dilemma; do you spend precious writing time sorting out the little redrafts of 3000 or so words, trying to bring Draft 1 work to Draft 2 level before you've finished your first draft? Or do you ignore the feedback and battle on with the novel? 
The obvious best plan of action is to keep to your resolution of writing every day; on…and on and on…until you have your entire Draft 1. Stopping to work on little snippets the tutor returns will only hold up your progress and might even curtail it altogether. You can only take this plan of action, however if your tutor isn’t expecting to see ‘set homework’. And if you’re an OCA student, intent on being assessed for your work then you simply must stop and deal with the feedback as it comes, or at least towards the end of the course. 
The happy medium solution is to put aside a certain number of hours for redrafting, utilizing the suggestions you like. As an example, I would suggest that every time you have some writing space, you return to some of the tutor’s comments, find the relevant sections and work on them. But do this after you’ve written your daily new lot of words. That way you’ll make even faster progress, because what you learn from redrafting completed assignments, using tutors’ comments, will be of value when you write on. 

I wish you luck with your long-term writing endeavour; I do hope you wish me luck with mine. 


  1. I can't fathom how people can charge into NaNo without any sort of outline. There are so few days in which to complete the work that one small block in plot could derail you.
    I know some people go through without outlines but, based on their admissions, say it requires more editing/time.

  2. Wise words Nina and very timely, thank you.

  3. to respond to Jennifer's point, this is not only true of NaNo. It is also true of level 3 creative writing at the OCA. There six assignment's work, but only five of them are 'writing the book'. When students start ass one with no idea of how they'll progress...well, they don't!

  4. Very timely. Was feeling crushed by my inability to get some forward momentum and now I have some very wise advice to follow...