'The First draft of anything is shit', as Hemingway told us many moons ago.
In the month when many of you will be writing 1,666 words a day for NaNoWriMo I thought it would be good to consider that most troublesome of beasts, the first draft.
I'm not a great planner, although I've tried - chapter plans, story and character arcs, even an unwieldy grid which involved multiple spreadsheets and lots of sellotape - but I've now accepted that I do have a process, and it works for me...
A Strict Word Count
A thousand words a day for three months.
That means every day, weekends too, regardless of where I am or what's happening. For the last two books that has been a concentrated effort in the early months of the year, which fits well with my editing deadlines. I tend to get up very early, and I've learnt to be less precious about where and how I work: on trains, in snatches of time, even when the house is full.
I write every day, not only to build my word count, but also to keep everything in my head. Psychological suspense relies on a careful balance of reveal/conceal and I need to be aware of what goes where, even on a first draft, although all can be changed. So I begin by reading over the previous day's words, editing lightly or making notes, before I continue.
Although I don't have a definite plan, I will have a notebook beside me, and probably a rough synopsis, as well as lots of stuff held in my head from months of thinking-time. I also do lots of research before I start writing, so that's in my notes too. Any ideas, thoughts, dates, chronology issues, get jotted down as I write, so I can revisit them later.
Tips (or how not to get in the kind of mess I do!)
Give every character a name and date of birth, saves so much time checking later.
Print out a calendar and keep a record of what happens when - including the weather.
Keep it simple - the simpler the better- actions not feelings.
The Finish is Only the Start
At the end of three months, roughly, I will have my 80-90K first draft.
But...all is not well. Far from it. What began as a shiny possibility, is now becoming a reality, and there will inevitably be a dissonance between initial expectation and results, and that's where doubts begin to creep in.
Three months ago, my ideas were unsullied by exposition. In my imagination, they were full of possibility, to be anything I wanted. To be...perfect. That's a hard act to follow. But first attempts are never about perfection.
As Terry Pratchett said, 'First drafts are about you telling yourself the story'.
What I do have at the end of those first three months is the bones of my story, with characters, and events; something I can work with. How else, for example, would I have discovered what happens on page three hundred, or even on page two? How would I have seen the opportunities to seed later events in earlier passages, and how would I have known that my characters would act as they did unless I placed them in those situations?
My next job is to sort the good from the bad, to polish what works, to eliminate sections that don't, and now I have a whole story, to decide on structure and points of view. Everything is still up for debate, even the ending.
I suppose, now I come to think of it, my first draft is an elaboarate plan, so maybe...I do plan after all! If you're participating in NaNoWriMo, good luck!