Last night I finished up the first draft of my novel, clocking in at just under 60,000 words. Even though I’ve got alot of editing to do, the sense of accomplishment is enormous. It’s amazing to think that I’ve written something of actual publishable length, even if it’s still short of publishable quality.
The novel project is basically a culmination of a year and a half of work at this point. I started last summer, worked on it throughout the school year as part of my honors thesis, wrote sporadically after graduation until rededicating myself to consistent work around the start of the new year. In that time I learned alot about writing and I thought I’d share some of my lessons below.
Consistency is key. I touched on this in my post last night, but I can’t emphasize how important this is. During the summer before my senior year I dedicated myself to writing two pages (double spaced) a day excepting Sundays and days I was on vacation. I only had a 30 hour a week job, so this wasn’t terribly arduous, but I still had a struggle somedays when I felt like I had nothing to write. I made myself try though, and often the story evolved in front of me before I realized it. The result, I walked into the start of the school year with 90 pages of writing, a full novella length story that I spent most of the year revising with only some slight expansions.
Think Ahead. Part of the reason I could do the two pages a day strategy was because when I sat down I usually had at least a vague idea of what I wanted to happen next. You don’t need or want to plan out your whole story, but you should take any time you have to map out the next few scenes. Do it while you exercise, in the shower, in the car, whenever you have a free moment to think.
Don’t Despair at Major Revisions. In my initial drafts I wrote my main character with a thick southern dialect. Over time, it became apparent that this was a very poor choice. When I decided to cut it I was initially overwhelmed at the thought, but I started in anyways. As I progressed I found that the revision really wasn’t that bad. Once you have the framework in place and you’ve done the cognitive homework to understand your characters and setting, revision isn’t nearly as bad.
Bite Size Your Project. The idea of writing 60,000 words still seems enormous to me. Yet it doesn’t feel like I put an inordinate amount of effort into this project. That’s becuase I never forced myself to do more than a bite sized chunk at once. This went for the initial drafting (the two page rule) and for subsequent revisions, where I would only force myself to do one scene, or a few pages at a time. Sometimes you’ll do more, if you’re in the zone, and that’s great, but make sure your minimums are enough to stave off despair.
Just Because it’s Fun to Write, Doesn’t Mean it’s Fun to Read. As mentioned earlier, my main character started off with a thick southern dialect. Writing this dialect was incredibly fun and entertaining. However, as my friends and teachers explained, reading it wasn’t. You should evaluate your material from a readerly perspective, not just a writerly one.
Try New Things. As mentioned earlier, I eventually abondoned the southern dialect, but not until I accidentally wrote a scene without it. When I read the scene over I realized it was some of the best writing in the story so far. These sort of happy accidents happen all the time, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Give your character a new voice for a scene, move from first person to third. Sure it might mean a major revision later, but remember, you shouldn’t fear that either.
Your First Draft is Allowed to Suck. No one will care if your first draft sucks, because no on else will read it unless you became famous and literary critics decide to pour over your writing process. Then it won’t matter because everyone will know you’re a genius anyways. If that still scares you, you can delete your first draft later. There’s still no excuse for obsessing over your first draft. All you need to do for it is write, write, write. I won’t expound on the topic anymore, because there is nothing I can say that Anne Lamott can’t. Her essay, entitled Shitty First Drafts is the most important thing you’ll ever read if you’re a writer. (P.S. The rest of her book Bird By Bird isn’t bad too).
I’ve got a long revision process ahead of me, but I won’t let it intimidate me because I know all it takes is time, determination, and consistency and I’ll get it done.