I finished the first draft of a new novel yesterday. And before you ask, no, I’m not set on a title yet.
In case you might be wondering just what it is I do to get a first draft done, I’ve tried to write as good a description of my “process” as I could manage below. Maybe you’ll recognize some of your own “process.”
In my mind, I have a workbench. When I get an idea, I bring it over to the workbench and see if there’s anything to it. I tinker, get a piece or two together, then I walk away.
Later, I’ll wander over to the bench again and see what’s there. I have lots of projects on it, all at various stages. I’ll pick one up, turn it over, tinker with it, then walk away again. I keep up with this almost-idle tinkering until I notice myself keep going back to the same project, over and over again, and not working on anything else between sessions.
That’s how I know what I want to write.
There are elements of this novel which have been hanging around on my workbench for years, but it was only in the last few months that it really started coming together. I kept rolling the central ideas around in my head and reached a point where it was the only thing I wanted to work on.
Imagine a rugged explorer following a map to buried treasure. He finds the “X,” digs up the spot, and unearths an ancient chest. But when he opens the chest, he finds just another map. It’s similar to the one he was following, but just different enough that he has to go back to the beginning in order to discover where his treasure hunt will really lead.
That’s how first drafts are for me.
I’ll go in with an idea, write, and see what I unearth. Sometimes I get what I expected, but most of the time I’m surprised, and find the real story buried under the one I was playing with. Then it’s back to the beginning I go.
The draft I just finished was the result of Attempt #3. I have two other, partial drafts for the same idea, which I wrote and set aside before starting the one I just wrapped up. Each of those false starts is a little more than 20,000 words long.
What? Me Funny?
When I write, I like to push myself in some way. I want to do something I’ve never tried before, or work at something I don’t think I’m good at.
For instance, let’s say you don’t think you’re very good at writing love scenes. Let’s further say that, as you’re working on a story, you notice there’s an opportunity for a romantic subplot which could work really well–if you could pull it off. I say go for it, challenge yourself.
If it doesn’t work, you can always take it out and pretend it never happened. But what if it does work?
In my case, I’ve never written much in the way of comedy. Sure, I’ve written some humorous essays and tossed a funny line or scene into my fiction from time to time, but I’ve never written fiction where humor is omnipresent.
When I got to know the characters in this book, and saw they had some real, comedic potential, I decided let them have at it instead of trying to rein them in.
I think it worked out pretty well, or at least well enough to give me hope. We’ll see what happens once the second draft is done.
It’s a Process
Everything I know about writing a first draft was best summed up by Yogi Berra years ago: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
I fiddle with an idea, put it aside, pick it up, rework it, start writing, set it aside, start again from the beginning…It’s a work in progress and I’m never convinced I’ll pull it off until I’ve written the final sentence. And even then, I know there’s a second draft, waiting just around the corner, ready to knock everything apart.
I’ve written somewhere around 500,000 words since I started taking my writing seriously a year and a half ago, and less than half of them managed to escape into the wild. The rest? They’re sitting in files on my hard drive, like Oregon-Trail-esque headstones marking my journey–including a novel I “finished” last year, and a 67,000-word false start on another.
Getting a first draft done is less about being able to write than it’s about being able to throw away what I’ve already written. That’s what works for me, anyway. What works for you?