Just over a year ago, I competed my first book. Then I sent it to a couple of experienced beta readers, and revised it. Sent it to some more, revised it… you get the picture. It’s currently out on submission, and I will someday do a ‘6 things’ post on the whole, complicated agent querying process. It’s head-wrecking. But in the meantime, I want to share a few of the things that got me to a point where I could tentatively type those precious words, The End.
Of course, there’s no easy formula for completing a first draft. If there were, no one would agonise over the process and this post would be much shorter. But as writers, we often have to trick/cajole ourselves to make it to what feels like an impossible finishing line – like dragging a reluctant toddler around a supermarket with the promise of an ice cream if they behave. It might be writing in different places, using different fonts, listening to a specific soundtrack. We read articles and books on the subject because something, something, might offer the magic solution. In fact, it’s more a matter of staggering on until one day you realise that the large collection of words and sentences you’ve conjured up bears some resemblance to a story arc.
So in an attempt to offer a few nuggets that might help someone else cross that line, here’s what helped me. I hope it’s useful.
1. Bludge on. You probably don’t need me to tell you this as how else would you get to the end? But I think the number one mistake fledgling writers make (myself included) is to keep going over and over the first few chapters. Sometimes it’s because you take breaks away from the MS when it gets too hard, so then you have to refresh your memory. Other times it’s because it feels more manageable to polish what’s already there than to forge ahead into unknown territory. But quite often you’ll run out of wind when you get to the end of the written bit and stop again. I would suggest writing a new segment of the book – whatever you think of and in any part of it, it doesn’t matter. Write the scene that appeals to you the most. Ideas beget ideas, and even writing something that may veer off course from what’s gone before could lead you to good things. Just. Write.
2. Keep track. I found it helpful to have a brief recap of what happened in each chapter, just a sentence or two. Some people use index cards, some paper their walls with Post-its notes, some use spreadsheets. I liked the Post-it approach as I could see at a glance what I had where. This was particularly useful because my book had three POVs alternating throughout. I used a different colour for each character, which helped me to see whether one was getting more of a look-in than the other, equally important characters. It also meant I could quickly scan through each character’s arc to see where there were gaps in their storylines and match up the timelines. I’m not saying it was perfect (first novel!), but it was an invaluable visual aid.
3. Set achievable goals. Writing a book of 80-100k words is hugely daunting. But how about telling yourself that all you have to write today is 500 words? And it can be from any part of your story? You’d be amazed how fast the words adds up, even if you set yourself a very modest target. Not only that, most of the time once you’ve warmed up and started getting words on the page, you’ll find that you want to keep going beyond the 500 goal – which is all to the good.
To motivate myself during a recent writing slump when it all seemed overwhelming, I made and printed out a chart with blocks of 500. Every time I achieved a block, I’d fill it in as my reward. On good days, I found I was anxious to keep going and could write 1,00-1,500 words or more. On bad writing days, I’d stagger to 500 terrible words, break out a highlighter and then walk away from the computer guilt-free, obligation done. I wrote 10,000 words in ten days that way, the most I’ve written in one period for a long time, I can tell you. These simple tricks can be surprisingly effective. And once you get in the zone of writing daily, the words do have a way of flowing more easily.
On the other hand, you might decide to really go for it and get a rough draft down in a short space of time. NaNoWriMo (National November Writing Month) is brilliant in this regard. You aim to write 50,000 words in the month of November alongside a huge community of writers around the world, which is about 1,200 words a day. I’ve done it – it is possible. All you have to do is set up a free account (here) and you’re issued with a graph where you chart your daily progress. And who doesn’t love a graph? It’s almost as satisfying as colouring in a 500 box. If you want interaction, there are forum boards where you can discuss your progress, or you can just focus on your own WIP without having to check in with anyone (my preference).
4. Buddy up. Showing your work to too many people while it’s in progress can derail you – so many opinions on where you should take the story – but one thing I’ve found very helpful with my second book (current status: excruciating) has been swapping work with another writer. My friend Honoria Beirne and I were at a similar stage with our second novels last year and decided to have regular check-ins to swap chapters and discuss issues. We weren’t sure whether we’d be able to sustain it, but in fact we did, sticking to a zoom call every two weeks. We would email excerpts to each other a couple of days beforehand and try, where possible, to return our feedback so that we could discuss any issues that had been raised. It allowed both of us to untangle tricky elements with someone who knew the work as well as ourselves. Do choose your person wisely, however – you want an equally balanced exchange and someone who gets you/your WIP. And you can’t have Honoria, I’m keeping her!
5. Do a course. This would not be for everyone, but I have benefitted enormously from being around other writers striving to write their novels. The Doolin Creative Writing Winter School run by the University of Limerick was brilliant for immersing me in book one for a week at a time, and I did a Curtis Brown Creative three-month novel course last year to help me plot my current WIP. The latter in particular required participants to write a synopsis and query letter – challenging for a book not yet finished. It forced me to consider what my story was actually about, as well as how it would unfold. By the end of the course, I hadn’t increased my wordcount greatly, but I had a much clearer idea of the book I wanted to write. And just being immersed in the world of writing can be very inspiring. It doesn’t have to be a completely solitary pursuit.
6. Plot? Maybe? There’s no definitive advice on this one for the simple reason that what suits one person may not suit another. I’ve always been a pantser, I like to see where the road takes me. My first book, Fundamental Things, was written that way (as was a previous, unfinished effort which we will call novel zero, current status: parked in a dead end with a view of a brick wall). It took a long, long time. For the second one, I have tried a more structured approach to see if I could speed up the process and not lose faith quite so often. Some writers like to plot their books to the nth degree. While that wouldn’t suit me, I found that having a general outline was helpful. Of course, the doubting demons have inevitably come along to chip away at my self-belief, but I am still making much quicker progress than with my previous attempts. So even if you don’t want to tell yourself the whole story before you write it, perhaps do a brainstorm of things you might like to happen? A few interesting landmarks to stop off at along the way? It can take away some of that fear of the unknown.
Bonus point 7. Write for yourself. Everything is commercially focused these days, including books. ‘Where do you see your novel sitting on the shelves in Waterstones?’ is a question you’ll be asked when you’re submitting to agents. And it’s true that you will need to know what kind of book you’re writing in order to pitch it. But not now. For now, the only thing to focus on is the story you feel compelled to tell. This should be the fun part, the reason you’re putting yourself through this madness in the first place – for the enjoyment of telling a story from the heart. Worry about the rest when you’ve got that first draft down.
It’s as easy as that, really…