Words

The writing of a first draft

I have just finished writing the first draft of a story. I feel like doing a jig. For anyone who has ever completed a first draft – you know what I’m talking about. For those of you who haven’t YET – it is well worth all the hours put in. This moment is sweet.

There is editing to be done. A LOT of editing. I’m an unashamed pantser so I have no idea, particularly at the start, where my story is going. That means a lot of filling in later on. Maybe at some point I’ll talk about my editing process, but for now I want to focus on how I write a first draft (and I’m going to talk about the book I’ve just finished, because it’s fresh in my head!)

Writing a first draft is something that fascinates me. When other writers talk about their processes, I am THERE. Front row, notepad out. I’m not really interested in changing my approach, writing a first draft is one of my favourite parts of writing, but I love hearing how stories are made.

Because it is magic. Someone has an idea, they write some words on a page, and then that makes something happen in other people’s brains. They can share adventures and fall in love with characters that came from someone else’s mind. Wow.

IN THE BEGINNING

All my ideas start with a person, and they are all already doing something. This time it was a woman called Lina and she was walking home after a party. Pretty basic stuff, until I realised she was limping, it was raining, and she was scared.

Lina came from seemingly nowhere. I think most people have some experience of walking in the dark and feeling scared. I can honestly say that Lina did not come straight from one experience because she popped into my head during a James Acaster stand-up performance, which is probably one of the furthest experiences from walking, scared and in pain that I could get.

But there she was. She was alone and she was afraid. And she didn’t know if she was being followed.

I wrote the first chapter that night after we got home from the comedy show in a flurry. I had so many feelings I wanted to get down. This is often how it is for me with a first draft. The main character walks into my head and they are thrust into some situation and I just really want to follow along with them.

Very quickly, as I was writing, I realised that I wanted there to be a big question mark over whether Lina was being followed or not. In the moment, she felt sure she was. She ducked into a shop but could not see anyone on the CCTV. Only a woman walked past in the opposite direction, drenched because all she was wearing was a green dress.

Fast forward a couple of days and Lina has convinced herself she was imagining things; no one was following her. She walks to her friend’s house and sees a man putting up fliers. His girlfriend (green dress woman) was kidnapped, on the same night and on one of the same streets that Lina fled down.

Lina has to decide whether she goes to the police and tells them she thinks she was being followed that night. She isn’t sure if her information will be helpful, but she thinks that the only consequence if it isn’t is that she will make a fool of herself. As the story continues and Lina tries to act in ways she feels is right, the consequences escalate until being in the wrong place at the wrong time that night might not only cost her friendships, her home, and her job, but also her life.

All that spiralled out of a woman walking home in the rain.

IN THE MIDDLE

This is when I actually figure out what’s going on in my story. A character and situation springs itself at me and gradually I work out how their story will end. Then I have to figure out how to get there. I will be the first to admit that to begin with, I didn’t know if Lina was being followed that night. This story could have gone so many different ways. I find out where I (and the main character) want to take it through the writing of it.

I am a pantser (which to me means generally figuring things out as I go along) but I do make some notes. Some are about characters, so that I can keep them straight in my head. I am terrible with remembering names and that extends to the made-up people in my brain. I make notes about important bits of action that need to happen SOMEWHERE, and little hints I’ve made that I knew I need to resolve SOMEWHERE. As a general rule, I have no idea where.

The middle of the story is the part I find the hardest to write. I still really enjoy it but, unlike at the start and the end, I have to be more disciplined with myself to make sure that I actually sit down and do it. It is the part that is the least clear to me, so I have to think a bit more about it rather than just typing in a mad frenzy.

IN THE END

Although I do enjoy writing endings, and have probably been looking forward to writing the last scene almost since I jotted down the first, this is when it becomes glaringly apparent that there is going to be A LOT of editing to bring everything together. My first drafts are full of massive plot holes.

To be honest, I try not to think about it. I write first drafts to please myself. Since no one else is going to read them, who cares if a character pops into existence halfway through and needs to be written into the first half later, who cares if there is a big hint I forgot to drop, who cares if someone’s name or job or family situation suddenly changes? I don’t. At this point in my writing, that’s future Anna’s problem.

I write a lot of notes while I end my book, because I do feel some sympathy for future me. Then I finish the story. I do a dance. I let it rest, for at least a month, before I start editing. I am a big fan of letting things rest. A month is the bare minimum for me. The longer I can leave it, the better. It means that when I come back to it, I am much further removed. I have a terrible memory, so some things will actually come as a shock to me, and I can approach it more like a reader.

GEEKERY

As a way to monitor my progress, I decided to keep a tally of my wordcount during this story. For those among you who find graphs pleasing (and who wouldn’t?!) – I hope the following makes you smile.

Some of my reflections:

  • Excluding days when I did no writing at all – it took me 60 days to complete this story. I had a lot of breaks though, so from start to finish it was 210 days. I can usually finish a first draft a bit quicker than this, closer to around three months, but my writing mojo was thrown off by a global pandemic so I’ll cut myself some slack
  • The most words I managed in a day was 2696 (not in one go!) and the least was 92. My average words per writing day (including all the days when I didn’t write would skew the results DRAMATICALLY) was 1141. This feels like an achievable number, and makes me think that I could finish my next book in a much shorter amount of time!
  • This way of recording progress kept me accountable. Instead of thinking I’m sure I did some writing last week I could see exactly when I last wrote and that made me get a wiggle on when I was leaving it too long between writing sessions (apart from during April when I wrote nothing because my brain had turned to mush)
  • I found recording my word count rewarding. One key thing I didn’t do, which seems to make a big difference to me, is that I didn’t keep track of what the overall word count was. For some reason, I beat myself up with that and feel quite intimidated by it. But daily ones were fine, and recording them meant at the end I could make GRAPHS

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