The first draft

So I have just finished writing the first draft of my first novel. It took about 41 years to get here. Okay, that’s not strictly true—I haven’t exactly been spending my entire life trying to eke out 90,000 words to call a first draft; but there have been many times and many periods throughout my life when I thought that I should write a novel.

There was the aborted attempt in my twenties when I got about four thousand words in then decided it/me just wasn’t working. That cancelled attempt is still lingering somewhere on a floppy disk as a Word 93 .doc file; I’d be quite interested in reading it if I knew anyone with a floppy disk drive…

The first attempt of my current work-in-progress was two years ago. I had to wait three months for my visa to clear before being able to work so I decided it would be the ideal time to write a novel—no excuses about being too busy, this was my golden opportunity.

I flew out of the blocks and got into a routine of writing every morning. It was new and exciting and, even though I didn’t have a firm idea about where it was going, I knew the plot would manifest itself the further I got inside it.

Then I stopped. A new job combined with a new baby and suddenly my energy levels and motivation levels collapsed and that was the end. The further away I got from my last writing session the more I realised I would never come back to it.

But about 18 months later, I read through what I had written and started to get the feeling back for it. So for the past three and half months I diligently chipped away at it, finishing just over 90,000 words a couple of days ago.

What have I learnt in my still-limited experience? A few things that I wish I had known at the start of the process actually:

  1. Write every single day, without exception. I started off by aiming to write 1000 words five days a week with two ‘rest’ days. What I found though was that after my days off it took a lot of effort to get back into it and into the mood of writing. I lost momentum and pretty quickly resolved to write, even though a fewer words, every day without fail.
  2. That initial feeling of ‘I can’t write a novel’ dissipated so quickly once I got into the flow; I’d say the 20,000-word mark was when I realised I wouldn’t be giving up and would, at least at the time of writing this, make it to the end of the first draft.
  3. Don’t worry when you get stuck on a detail. Leave a placeholder for it and keep going—those things can be worked out in subsequent drafts, not when you’re writing freely in the first draft. Just get it written.
  4. Aeon Timeline is an app for creating timelines and keeping all your characters, locations and story arcs clear. It really helped me towards the end of the first draft to make clear where everthing fit in the plot. I’m sure I’ll be using it a lot when it comes to the second draft—I just wish I’d heard about it earlier on.
  5. Plan but don’t follow it rigidly. So many times the characters took control of my story and took it in unexpected directions; and that’s alright. I am positive they haven’t finished guiding the novel yet either—there’s still a long way to go.

So I’m having a little break now for a couple of weeks and trying to put my focus onto other projects, hoping that when I come back to the novel I will be able to see it again with fresh eyes.

The next step? The dreaded first read through where (from what I’ve heard) every writer realises how far they have to go to finish their novel.

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