Writing a Novel - Finishing a First Draft


"To write it, it took three months; to conceive it three minutes; to collect the data in it all my life." - F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Whenever I write the first draft of anything, I work by three simple rules:

1. Get the right sentiment, not the right sentence.

What often stops most writers from writing is the fear that their work is not good enough. That the verbs are weak. The characters, flat. Or, every sentences begins with "He", "She" or "I". Forget all about that. Seriously. Forget it. What your aim should be for your first draft is to just to say what you want to say, even if it's not the way you want to say it. It is highly unlikely that the way you write your words the first time will be perfect and beautiful and unchangeable. Focusing on the sentiment is much easier because once the story is working you can then go back and refine on a micro-level to your heart's content.

"Jim was in his apartment." Okay, that's fine, it's good to know where Jim is. Move on. Don't languish. Perhaps when you come back you can change it to "Jim paced around his apartment." Action, that's good, some questions are raised why he's pacing. Then to: "Jim paced around the blood stain in his apartment." Whoa, what? Tell me more...

2. You can't work on something until you have something to work with.

I very strongly believe in this. When you have your whole story, or sentence, or poem down you can view it in a larger context and see what you actually need. These details are invisible when you're working word to word; you need a bird's eye view. You also need actual content to work on. Until you write it... there's nothing to improve. The simple sentences you thought you wanted to flower up with description might flow just fine. Then again, maybe you do need a new way to say "suddenly." When you're working on a first draft you're down in the trenches taking gunfire from all directions and really can't think straight. However, once the story is all put together, you can view it as a whole work and act much more like a reader than a writer to figure out what truly needs to be changed.

Why this works for me is that although re-writing a novel is a lot of work, writing the first draft is infinitely harder. Part of that is mental. "It's taking forever to write this book, I'll never finish it," you say to yourself, but once it is finished that changes to "Well, it's written, now I just need to re-write it!" Somehow, that is far less daunting because, hey, you've written a whole book. You're a novelist now.

3. No matter how well you write a first draft, it will always be just a first draft.

First drafts are shitty. If your first draft is not shitty, you are not human. My first drafts hardly read like a book at all. Instead, they feel much more like a script: lots of dialogue and descriptive action, not much depth of prose. I do this because I know the first draft is going to be terrible but due to points 1 and 2 when I come back later I can make it better. There is some strange magic in knowing that what you're writing is not what you want it to be. I find it freeing. Remember, it's not your final draft.  It's just a first attempt. Who ever does anything right the first time? Except those aforementioned inhumans. The first draft is about finding your story. Building it. Following the twists and turns. You will write bad sentences. There will be clichés. That is totally normal. This early draft is just the skeleton onto which you will grow muscles, skin and a full head of shiny hair (and better analogies).

So, dare mighty things and finish that first draft.