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Getting a first draft done

Create guideposts and don't worry about bad writing

I’m writing the first draft of the final book in The Miramonde Trilogy, and it’s been a struggle. As I write this, one of my kids is playing lacrosse with a friend in our tiny backyard (was that a ball hitting the window just now? Yes!). My elderly dog is standing nearby, panting and staring at me with glassy eyes. My puppy is roaming the house restlessly, barking at all the neighborhood sounds, seeking out the next item on her long to-do list of things to destroy. My other kid, now back in school, is grinding away at homework. In a few minutes I need to abandon this blog post to make dinner.

Summer chaos

Summer is always my least productive time of year. I used to delude myself into thinking that THIS summer would be the one where all the stars would align, where I would magically get more done than I managed to accomplish in the preceding nine months, where I would not only write like the wind, but I would also repaint a room or two, clean out the entire basement and garage, organize every drawer in the kitchen, plan a variety of amazing weekend trips to the mountains or the coast, host friends and family, and still have time to completely rest and recharge…because it’s SUMMER and it should be RELAXING!

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. That is not a maniacal, hysterical laugh. That is my older, wiser, she-knows-better laugh. This year, I told myself and my family that I had low expectations, and I would be thrilled to exceed them. At the same time, I really believed somewhere deep in my bones that this summer I would finish the entire first draft of Book 3 in my trilogy. Because I’m fast now, right? I’ve learned a lot about writing novels in the past few years. I don’t claim to be a master, but it’s getting easier. A first draft should be a breeze to slap together.

So what do I have to show for my summer?

  • A full plot outline with scene-by-scene synopses, broken into three acts.
  • First drafts of all the historical narrative scenes in Act 1 and half of the Act 2 scenes.
  • A few days’ worth of critical research to underpin the storyline. (I am very stingy about allotting research time these days, as I tend to get completely obsessed and have trouble rationing it.)
  • A developing plotline for the contemporary narrative, using the historical narrative as a baseline.

The bad news: I’m not going to finish the first draft by summer’s end. I’m taking my older kid to college in a few days, and Labor Day will be spent behind the wheel of my trusty van logging miles on the drive back. The good news: as of this moment, I’ve written 37,000 words of the first draft.

All things considered, it’s not bad considering I didn’t really get going on it until after the launch of Mira’s Way (Book 2) in July.

How did I do this?

I am very good at grabbing hold of the odd hour or two and using it to write. The way I’ve set up my book on Scrivener, it’s easy to dive in at a moment’s notice, select the next scene that needs writing, review the synopsis, and GO. I’ve been writing an average of 1,000 words per session, and sometimes more. I use earbuds and listen to “ambient” music or nature sounds like thunderstorms while I write, to drown out the chaos if necessary.

During these writing times, I sometimes find that the words flow extraordinarily well and the quality of my first draft is high. Other times, I never get that “flow” and all I do is get the building blocks of the story down. I do not let myself get sidetracked by self-doubt during the hard times, even if my writing sucks wind. My number one goal with the first draft is to get the story written. I can fix all the problems later. And my editor will help me with problems I don’t see or am not sure how to fix.

I’ve also been allotting some time to review what I wrote the day before and make edits. I stick with the obvious stuff that jumps out at me immediately, revise it, and move on. I’ll still need to edit more, but while it’s all still fresh in my mind I can finesse things a bit and remember exactly what I was attempting to do when I first wrote it.

So the bottom line is, despite my summer of chaos and fun and adventure and juggling, I managed to stay focused on the project and complete a big chunk of it. The thought of writing an entire novel is easily overwhelming. But I did not succumb to the overwhelm. I think the key is breaking it down into smaller and smaller chunks (plot outlines, acts, scenes), having each scene labeled with a point-of-view character, and then grabbing a chunk of time and writing like the wind.

Structure leads to creativity

It’s kind of strange that I’m writing a book in a linear, organized fashion, because I am neither a linear thinker nor inclined to organization. But I think this set-up allows my creativity to flow at a moment’s notice, which is exactly what I need with my current lifestyle. And it’s important to note that while my plot outline is guiding me, I add more twists and turns as I go. That’s where the creativity really fires up, because I often have no idea that these twists are coming, and I just hang onto my hat and watch it all unfurl on the laptop. Which is one of my very favorite parts of this process.

I was listening to an episode of a favorite podcast today (“You 2.0: Check Yourself” on NPR’s Hidden Brain) that reinforced what I’ve been doing. The episode was about the importance of checklists to reduce mistakes, decrease stress, improve decision-making, and improve communication in teams. One of the examples used in the podcast was the marked decrease in mortality during and after surgeries as a result of simple checklists performed by the surgeon and her/his team.

Now writing a novel is nothing like performing surgery, but I was surprised to note some similarities between surgery teams using a checklist and me using a plot outline, a three-act structure, and individual scene synopses. The surgery checklist prevents common errors that could snowball, create more problems, and even lead to the patient’s death. Writing a first draft is not a life-or-death scenario, but doing it the way I do it—in fits and starts, without a set daily routine—is very difficult without the guideposts I’ve set up that let me dive back in on a moment’s notice.

One of the surgeons interviewed said that the only part of surgery that there is no recipe for is the surgery itself. Why? Because each patient’s situation is different. New problems may present themselves during the operation that require creative thinking and changes to the plan. Again, I see a correlation here. My version of the checklist is setting guideposts for a novel, beginning with them, and then allowing the creative mind to change the outcome of the story. There is no recipe for creativity, but there are ways to set the stage so your creative mind can get fired up quickly and do its best work.

To all you writers out there, good luck with your own first drafts. Everyone figures out their own best practices, and maybe my process won’t work for you. However you write best, just keep going—you can do this.



1 Comment

  1. JCassin says:

    You have such a clear voice… and it comes in through ALL of your writing! #rockstar

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