It was very much likely doubt that made me type when to share your first draft into my phone’s search engine. Within seconds, countless webpages of advice appeared. I opened half-a-dozen-or-so and quickly came to realise that I’d been going about writing my first draft the wrong way.
Apparently. (With art, it’s hard to say there’s a “right” and “wrong”, but a lot of what I read rang true.) But that’s OK. I’ve said it many times: everything I do is by trail and error. Like anything in life, when writing you learn just as much from the things that go well as you do from the things that don’t.
To sum-up the general consensus, the webpages, which included quotes from published authors, said the following:
Write. Write. Write. Get the first draft done as quickly as possible, without looking back. Whether it’s good or bad, keep on going. Focus on story: that’s the main thing. Characters, metaphor, details—they all come later. Only edit once you have a full first draft. Otherwise it will lead to despair. [No words ever felt truer!] Don’t interrupt the flow, it will impede your natural voice; let that GROW, it’s super important. If you don’t know a detail, mark it TK and come back to it later.
So I had been doing the opposite of nearly all of the above.
Honestly, reading that premature editing could lead to despair was a comfort. (After all, it made so much sense. I never edited an essay or assignment during uni until I had the whole first draft done. Why should that be any different for a novel, just because it’s vastly longer?) For the past month, that’s exactly how I’ve been feeling. [My last two blog posts are a testament to that, here and here.] I was getting all knotted up by focusing too small scale: I was trying to make sure every sentence was perfect, every character well-established, every detail precise. I would finish a chapter only to come back to it the next day with more ideas to add. This wouldn’t just happen once, it would happen over and over. It became almost a cyclical struggle, much like Sisyphus perpetually pushing his boulder up the hill, only to watch it roll back down and to begin all over again.
The reason for my most recent doubt-bout was I’d actually finished the first fifteen chapters of Everborne and I was questioning the quality of the first draft. It was a relief to finally get it done, but it was more of a relief to discover I’d been working the wrong way. It’s allowed me to think of how I’m going to move ahead—hopefully the right way.
As I went to Prague for a long weekend, Week 30 consisted of seven-ish days of work. I spent the majority of them revisiting my plan and establishing an updated one for the whole of Part One [of two] of the novel. I’ve found that characters and ideas have developed and come out of the story as I’ve been writing it, and taking a pause to re-plan is allowing me to incorporate these.
I’ve learnt that some of the chapters I’d been struggling with whilst editing were because I was trying to tell too much story in them—that the character(s) they involved were actually more important than I’d first considered and perhaps needed more story.
I’ve had a lot of ideas and my Plot Doc. that I’ve been religiously using has become over-crowded, verging on the point of confusion. Instead, I’m now taking each narrative and drawing a line on an A2 sheets of paper and writing down the most essential ideas, keeping to the bare-minimum, until I’m left with something that looks like a plucked fish skeleton.
I’m working almost entirely by hand, writing on various sheets of paper, drawing spider-diagrams, jotting down notes, asking myself questions and following them with ideas etc. This is a much more visual way of working and it’s very freeing. I am putting the more-important ideas in a new, sleeker document; naturally, the more paper I have, the more disorganised the planning.
This, so far, is working very well for me. I don’t want to over-plan my work—which is why I’m only focusing on Part One for now—as I enjoy discovering how and why things happen through writing, which George R.R. Martin describes as the gardener technique. Instead, I’m only including the essentials: for example, X and Y meet, discover Z. I will leave the how and why for the writing—they have no place in my new plan.
I’m also discovering that some narratives perhaps have too many characters, and I’m wondering if I could merge one or two together to see if that would make the story more interesting by creating new relationships and connections between characters. Going back to the planning at this stage is really allowing me to sift through my ideas and condense them into their best forms.
Another problem I was having was that I didn’t know how long the editing would take. A couple of months of not being about to measure my progress definitely added to my despair. Now I’ve managed to work out how long each Narrative in Part One ought to be—both chapters and word count—as well as their combined length: 133,500 words. That ought to take me between three to four months to write, all being well.
I’ve currently planned five of six narratives. The remaining narrative is a little trickier as it perhaps has the most ideas and characters. I’m now working out how to condense those ideas and get the best story from them. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun. I’m also questioning which event should begin the narrative, and from whose perspective. (I have about five options). Before, I’d been writing by trying to make every word count. Now, I’m prepared to write five different openings and see which one is best—perhaps by giving them to my readers and asking which one hooked them the quickest (if at all).
Something else that I learnt from taking a new perspective was by reformatting my first draft into a style similar to that of a printed book. A chapter didn’t seem long at 5,000 words, but that would change when it suddenly became 14 pages. (This may not sound long, but it would depending on the content.) Descriptions, too, appeared overly long, particularly when they began to spill from one page to the next. When I continue writing, I think I will actually write in this format—it’s hard to gauge how something will look on the printed page when it is A4 with double spacing.
This discovery came about when I was working out how to present the print-outs of the first draft to my readers. However, I’m now undecided if I will actually show this to them or not. I’m keeping half of the work as it is, though likely separated into smaller chapters: I’ve come to realise they each contain natural breaks. As for the other half, I’m likely to rewrite those chapters from a different perspective. As they are, they may include redundant ideas or spoilers for remaining ones. I’m also wondering if it would be best to wait and show my readers a draft in a couple of month’s time. This, too, I’m unsure about.
When I resume writing, I’m going to write the narratives in their Part One entirety. As much as I enjoyed flitting between narratives, it was hard to resume a character after a month’s absence. (Sometimes even longer!) I think writing narratives separately will, for the meantime, be a more natural way of writing as the flow will be less fragmented. This leads to the problem of when do I show the new draft to my readers: in smaller, separate narrative chunks, which will for the most part be self-contained but also include broken links to other narratives, or do I wait until I can order the narratives together and present them in quarters or fifths?
For now, I’m not going to worry. The decision may arise naturally from further planning, which at the moment is my main focus. It has already restored—even elevated—my confidence significantly.
[A view from the Clock Tower in Prague. Not too shabby.]