In this series I describe my writing process as a “pantser.” We’ve already talked about Step 1: Inspiration, Step 2: First Lines, and Step 3: Plot Points. All of these steps are pre-writing, and now we’re finally onto the step where the real writing happens!
The Rough Draft
I like to write a continuous first draft without going back to edit. In my earlier novels like The Art Kids, this wasn’t always the case, but almost every novel since 2006 (when I started doing Nanowrimo), I’ve written the first draft without going back to edit.
The first draft generally takes me anywhere from 30 days (during Nanowrimo) to six months. There have been many cases where I begin a novel and put it aside, as I did with most of the books in the Wolf Point series, where I wrote pieces of the beginning then circled back to it and usually was able to complete each book’s draft when I was fully focused on it.
I usually write my rough drafts in Microsoft Word, because I find it flows better, but I have written rough drafts for some of my more structured novels in Scrivener.
Other than that, this step is really just writing, writing, and more writing. I’m looking at this step and thinking, This is where I write 50K+ words, and that’s all I have to say about it?
I can offer a few tips that work for me:
- Turn off the TV
- Plug in a writing playlist
- Set a timer
- Have a clear idea of the scene you’re about to write
- Have a word count goal (during Nanowrimo, it’s 1667 words, but the rest of the time 500 or 1000 words works best for me)
- End on a little bit of a cliffhanger to lead your future self into an exciting scene next time
- If you get stuck, use brackets to say what you want to put in later – for example, if I’m stuck on a transition, I’ll put [transition]. Other examples: [witty one-liner], [fact about Victorian medicine], [name], [type of car]. These quick notes will save you from interrupting your flow to go down a research rabbit-hole on the internet.
- Use a random name generator so you don’t spend hours trying to find the right name for a minor character.
This is the fun part of writing. I love to let the story take me on a journey and for surprising things to happen that aren’t planned.
One of the bonuses of writing a rough draft during Nanowrimo is that other people are going through the same struggles as you, at the same time. You get the initial excitement of a new project that often carries you through Act 1 and into Act 2. Then everyone starts flailing in the middle, and struggling to get to the climax – seriously, the middle is always a struggle, and the place where most novels lose steam. This is where I’m most likely to abandon a novel, or skip to the climax and end up with an incomplete draft that feels almost complete and which I will leave unfinished for years, so I recommend pushing through that middle, as hard as it is! Once you hit your climax, you’ll fly to the end.
My best writing advice, especially when you’re stuck in the middle, is, “Don’t be afraid to write crap.” Seriously. Lots of crap has been published. You can’t fix words that aren’t down on the page. You can fix the crap later. Just write it!
As previously mentioned, rough drafts can take anywhere from 30 days to several months. It really just depends on how quickly the story comes to me, how driven I am to write every day, and my schedule – while it’s possible to write a novel during November, that same process hasn’t translated successfully to the Camp Nanowrimos in April and July.
After completing a draft, I usually put it aside for a few weeks, then I’m on to Step 5: Revision!
Did it surprise you that writing the entire novel is just one step in the process? Do you have any tips on getting that rough draft down?