5 Things I Discovered Writing the First Draft of my Short Story

At the start of the year I set aside my novel to focus on writing short stories*. This decision was based on a three-pronged approach:

  1. To complete the process start-to-finish on a micro level
  2. To prove to myself that I can do this
  3. To aid world building

I’ve now finished the first draft of my first short story**. Along the way I discovered a lot about myself as a writer.

*When I say short story, I really mean novelette: the intended final word count is around 17,000 words.

**When I say first short story, I really mean the first short story which explores the same world as my work-in-progress novel. (Since working on the novel I haven’t practiced much short story writing since my MA.)

1. I AM A DISCOVERY WRITER

I have no title, no real plot idea, but I have the opening pages in mind. I hope to get them down soon, and see what emerges after that.

–Lee Child on Make Me

Since I started working on my novel I’ve flittered between the two writing camps, the plotters and the discovery writers. As the names suggest, the former relies upon fleshing out a story with a plan before setting pen to page, or fingers to keyboard, while the latter skips straight to the blank page (possibly with a pecked-clean skeletal plan at most).

Through writing the first draft of my short story I’ve come to realise I work best as a discovery writer. I like to have a handful of ideas and a sense of where the story might go to get me started, but that’s all. Any more and it kills the story.

I enjoy being the first reader and discovering the story as it unfolds on the computer screen. The story growing feels organic and I get that sense of this is right. I believe working in this way creates a much stronger story than if I’d planned it beforehand, since I am constantly trying to surprise the reader in me. Hopefully this will extend to the eventual reader.

I find it much harder to get the words down if I already know what has to happen. My excitement for the story wilts, unlike when the plink of a sudden idea can spur me into a day’s (or, on the rare occasion, a week’s) writing.

2. TRUST THE PROCESS AND DON’T. YOU. DARE. GIVE. UP. 

“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

—Kurt Vonnegut

That’s not to say discovery writing makes it easier to get the words down when I don’t know what’s going to happen next (if only). Those ideas aren’t always sudden, either.

Having to wait (and wait) for ideas to arrive is incredibly frustrating and it often results in a generous scattering of fertile soil in which my doubt readily takes root.

However, I’ve learnt to trust the process. I’m still learning to weed out the doubt (but I’m getting much better at covering it over, at least temporarily).

Experience has taught me that no two writing days are the same. A writer is entitled to both good and bad days, and one can’t be had without the other. But, as long as you persevere, those days will average out and you will reach the end of your draft. It’s all part of the process.

On the days when the words won’t flow, when I can feel a blockage somewhere between my thoughts and the tips of my fingers but don’t have even the slightest clue of how to clear it, when I feel like stopping early for the day, I say to myself Don’t. You. Dare. Give. Up. Then, more gently, I tell myself that as long as I keep on writing the slow trickle will flow once more, furious as a fountain.

And it always does. The time it takes varies, but the result is always the same.

It’s important to remember that the main objective of the first draft is to finish the story. The words that get you over the line don’t matter as much as getting there. And there’s only one way you’re ever going to do that.

3. SWITCH OFF YOUR INTERNAL EDITOR

“Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or even using the right words. If you can’t find the right words in the moment, go ahead and move on to get your story out.

—Brandon Sanderson

If there’s a golden rule to writing the first draft, this is it.

Unfortunately, this is also a bad habit of mine. One I’ve been aware of (and unable to properly correct) for a while. I’m certain it stems from the too-fertile soil of my doubt (hence the difficulty in overcoming it).

When I’m working on a first draft I can become too focused on the wording and I start to revise what I’ve just written. This no doubt results from the combination of needing reassurance that I can write (I can) and a naive hope of wanting to avoid too many future drafts. In other words, I let my insecurities obscure my judgement of what a first draft ought to look like.

There’s little point in pruning a sentence, a paragraph or a scene until it’s perfect when, come the second draft, I realise it no longer belongs in the story. This will only make it harder to make the right decision: taking it out.

It also means I produce less words than I would like and makes my time feel less productive. Naturally, my go-to response is a furious, keyboard-clacking blur of fingers, but this poor attempt to compensate is equally counterproductive—unless it’s to finish a scene I know I just can’t write, in order to move onto the next.

Writing this first draft has taught me to settle into a speed that is somewhere in the middle, where I’m able to produce a decent enough quality*** of writing that isn’t laboured over, doesn’t stall the progression of the story and won’t be immediately destined for the delete button. Once there, all I need to do is get the words down.

***Or a quality which I don’t question as much.

Being more focused on the words means I’m less focused on the story, along with my ability to tell it. Writing a first draft requires writing without restraint (and constant pruning). I can worry about my prose later on, when I come to redraft the story. This, too, is all part of the process.

4. SWITCH EVERYTHING ELSE OFF

“The first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up.”

—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

To help develop my craft I read (and re-read) a wide range of fiction (last year I managed eighty-two books); I watch Brandon Sanderson’s YouTube lectures; I listen to the Writing Excuses podcast; I tend events like Gollanczfest; I read non-fiction such as The Elements of Fiction Writing series, The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr, Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, Reacher Said Nothing by Andy Martin, and On Writing by Stephen King (the list goes on); and I keep up-to-date with book-related news via various author and publisher websites, blogs and social media channels, and news sites like The Bookseller, Book Riot and The Guardian’s Book section.

During the first draft of my short story, I learnt to switch off everything I know about writing.

While it’s important to understand, say, structure, it’s better to keep what I have learnt in mind for when I’m on the second draft.

The first draft isn’t the time to worry that, among a thousand other things, my inciting incident hasn’t occurred soon enough, or my opening scene is three pages too long and is infested with clunky exposition, or whether the scene I’m currently on will serve as the second pinch point. By trying to keep what I’ve learnt in mind only makes writing the first draft much harder.

My focus becomes fractured, my writing restricted. I begin to question, doubt and over-analyse what I’m doing.

It’s far more important to focus on telling the story as organically as possible. None of that other stuff matters yet. It’ll be much easier to work out how to apply all that knowledge once the first draft is written, not as it is being written.

By switching off your editor and everything you know about writing, you’re removing restrictions that prevent you from writing naturally and, above all, freely.

5. WRITE WHAT YOU DON’T NEED (TO DISCOVER WHAT YOU DO)

“Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”

—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I was slowly becoming aware of this myself, but when I read Anne Lamott’s advice the realisation shone as bright as fresh snow.

If I hadn’t learnt to write the first draft in this way—if I’d left my internal editor in charge and my writer’s toolbox open with the tools that don’t come naturally spread across the top—then the first draft would still be unfinished. When I became stuck, the only way to free myself was by writing in this way.

The story’s ending was one of the hardest parts to write. It was a long four days. It was the final proverbial hurdle I couldn’t seem to get even one lanky leg over. The scenes I had in mind were defective and at no point did I have that sense of this is right.

On the final day a new idea occurred to me, one I loved and that would reshape the ending. However, I didn’t know how to incorporate it and I didn’t feel any less stuck.

Eventually, I realised the only way I was going to finish the story before the deadline was by writing the wrong ending. Counterproductive? Far from it. I knew writing the wrong ending would help me to work out the right one.

I wrote those defective scenes, safe in the knowledge I would likely scrap them or, at most, salvage the odd sentence. I did my best to incorporate that new idea but I could tell it was clumsily executed. It didn’t feel good. This wasn’t the triumphant climax I’d envisioned (finishing the short story, not the actual ending). Even so I kept my internal editor incarcerated and my toolbox closed, and I carried on writing. 

It felt a bit like I was cheating. That the words I was putting down weren’t part of the real ending and the story was going to be left unfinished. When I finally closed my laptop, it undermined the sense of joy and accomplishment I’d been anticipating all week.

I knew I had made the right decision but it took me the next few days to feel it. The idea that had come to me on the final day returned to me unbidden and began to snowball. Soon I began to understand what the right ending for my story would look like and how I might go about writing it. (I will leave it alone for now, to give any other new ideas the chance to form.)

This approach of writing what you don’t need in order to discover what you do is the essence of what the first draft is: you produce more words than you need in order to discover those that make the story. Unlike with the ending, I don’t always have the advantage of knowing whether what I’m working on is right or wrong. Fortunately, the first draft isn’t the place to discover that.

IMG-20200404-WA0011[The Bishop’s Palace Gardens and Chichester cathedral make for a perfect lockdown walk.]

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