If you happen to walk past my house over the coming days you may hear the odd squeal of delight. No, not that sort of squeal. It’s just me getting excited because I’m coming to the end of the 1st draft of my sequel to Second Chance. The process has taken a little longer than I had expected, not because of any particular writing issues, just that life had a tendency to get in the way. There may also have been the odd moment of procrastination – some of them odder than others – but I was soon brought to heel by writers I have befriended, either through this blog or more recently through twitter. You know who you are and I can’t thank you enough for your support.
As is usual at this point of my writing process – listen to me, the experienced novelist with one whole book under his belt – I’m already thinking about what I’m going to change. Now this might come a surprise to some of you. In fact, I know it will due to a number of recent conversations I’ve had, mostly from writers starting out on their path.
“Why haven’t you already made the changes?” I hear you cry. “You haven’t finished your first draft yet, there’s still time.”
Well there are a number of reasons.
What I’m about to tell you is something that works for me. Having spoken to other authors and having read plenty more texts on how to write, I believe it works for many others too. But it is not the way to write because there is no the way to write. The only way for you to write is the way that works for you; anything else is hot air.
When I write my first draft, all I’m worried about doing is getting the ideas out of my head. I’m not concerned about the prose, whether I have captured things well, if the dialogue is stilted or not or if I’ve committed any grammatical sins; all I want to do is tell the story. This doesn’t mean I’m not trying to write well, or I don’t think about what I’m writing. I’m not advocating a stream-of-consciousness methodology (unless of course you are a stream-of consciousness poet, in which case move along, nothing to see here). During my writing process there have been days where I feel I could crap gold, and other days where I’m convinced what I have written should never see the light of day, but unless I have trouble sleeping at night they are both kept as part of the first draft.
I haven’t always been this way. When I started writing would often spend days trying to perfect a single scene. I would become frustrated if I couldn’t find the exactly the right word and my writing would grind to a halt as I stubbornly refused to open a thesaurus. There were times where I would write a sentence, delete it, write it again then delete it once more. Then I read what Hemingway wrote about first drafts.
The strange thing was, I had heard from various quarters that with the first draft, you just needed to get it down. Don’t look back, just write. But I thought this was advice for new writers, for amateur writers, and I didn’t want to be an amateur writer, I wanted to be A WRITER. It all sounds a little ridiculous now, looking back. As far as process is concerned, there is no difference. It was only when I read what Hemingway wrote, that I realised the advice was universal.
So instead of searching for perfection first off I wrote the rest of my first draft without looking back, and it was only when I finished it that I learnt the reasons why this approach is so highly regarded:
You don’t know what your book is about until it is written
This may seem counterintuitive. Surely you know what the book was about before you start writing, especially if you are a planner like me. Before I wrote Second Chance I had certain themes that I wanted to explore and I thought that the first draft covered them well. The problem was, my brain had other ideas. Even though I thought I knew what the book was about, it was only once I had finished that I realised the core story was something else entirely.
What you thought was good may not be, but what you thought was bad may not be either
You remember me mentioning days where I thought I could crap gold? When I read back some of those scenes I was embarrassed with the prose. At the same time, there were scenes I had written and felt depressed afterwards where I got a pleasant surprise. This is why it’s important not to get too hung up on what you have written in the first draft. It is very difficult to know what is good and bad at the time. By the time you have finished writing, a number of months (if you are lucky) or even years may have passed between your first written words and the last. Your thoughts on the story and your skill levels will have changed during that time. You need space to forget about the book for a while (which is why it is recommended that you leave it for a few weeks) so that you can look at it with fresh eyes. You’ll be surprised what you find.
But the most important part I learnt was:
It is during the editing process that your story and prose reaches its full potential.
When you go back to your book and start the edit, there will be scenes that need a light touch, others that need a hard prune and still others that may need ditching or re-writing completely. But you cannot do this, or at least I could not do this, until I had the context of knowing what the book was about and got to know each of the characters , and that couldn’t happen until that first draft was finished.
So instead of worrying, get the first draft down and enjoy the ride; the real work starts during the edit.