Writing The First Draft or “The Ugly Duckling”

Writing the first draft has always been the most grueling part of writing a novel for me. Always one to attack my challenges head on, however, I used to set an ambitious daily minimal quota for myself, counting out how many clean, carefully thought-out pages I would need to write each day in order to finish a 400-page manuscript and still give myself enough time to revise it before my deadline.

The first draft typically took me a arduous five months; I would then spend the final three or four months of my allotted time revising and polishing the manuscript.

But things never seemed to go according to plan.

I invariably ended up writing more like 600 pages total, with 100-200 being thrown away as I discovered particular story points that didn’t work. It’s wasted effort to polish ten or twenty pages worth of prose only to chuck it because it doesn’t contribute to the story as a whole, but having to throw out two hundred pages of carefully polished material is one bitter pill.

This left me in a position of constantly having to scramble to make up for the pages that I had needed to cut, so my daily quote would go from 8 clean pages a day, to 10, to 20, pushing myself for months at a time as hard as I could, nixing any days off no matter how much my brain might need a rest, and working each day from sunup to late into the night.

As I found out the hard way, this is a recipe for burnout, but fortunately, I averted disaster by changing my methods.

The great news is that there are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers, and happily, there is no one right or wrong way to do it. It’s simply a matter of whatever will work best for you. However, there are a few main, basic approaches, and since I’ve tried them all in my perennial quest to improve in my craft, I figured that in this month’s article, I would share with you what I’ve learned about the advantages and disadvantages of each.

That way, you may be forewarned and perhaps better armed for the pitfalls that may befall you when you sit down to write your first draft.

‘One Magnificent Draft’

Some very successful authors creep along at a snail’s pace on one magnificent draft that only needs a slight polishing by the time it’s done.

In this scenario, you would take the projected length of the book and divide it by the number of days you have to get it finished. For the purposes of this article, I will use as an example a 400 page manuscript (the standard 100,000 words for a single title) and a deadline of 8 months, which is also fairly typical for historical romances. The One Magnificent Draft type writer would thus have to figure on writing one to two practically-perfect pages each day to meet her deadline.

People who are highly intuitive and who have deeply absorbed into their subconscious minds the archetypal and mythic story patterns seem to do well with this approach; however, there is not much margin for error, deadline-wise, should your story wander off on a tangent that proves to be a dead end.

I started my career (and wrote my pre-published efforts) with this approach, but it didn’t work very well for me. In fact, it totally stressed me out. Sure, I only had to produce a couple of pages, but good Lord, you mean I only get one shot to get it right??

Scary.

Another problem with this method was that progress through the manuscript at only one or two new pages per day went so slowly that months would pass between me writing my major story turning points. In the interim, it was easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

I think the biggest lesson I learned from experimenting with this method was that wonderful little PIECES of a book do not necessarily add up to a wonderful novel. Some famous writer (and forgive me but I can’t remember who) once said that ‘Writing a novel is like building a house with your nose pressed up against one brick.’ That sums up the disadvantages I ran into when I tried to get away with writing only one magnificent draft. (Though there are certainly plenty of writers who do it well!)

Because it takes so long to make progress in the story writing at the pace of only a few pages a day, it’s easy to lose your grasp on the overall story arc, lose a sense of what is *necessary* to the story and what is just flab. It’s just like an artist who dabs a little paint on the canvas and then has to step back a few feet to see what kind of impact that has on the whole. Certainly it takes a long time, years, to develop the ability to hold a whole book in your head and ‘see’ it in your mind as one organic thing, interrelating things at the end with things at the beginning; matching up motifs of the first turning point with those of the second turning point some two hundred pages later; recurring symbols; the gradual emotional growth of a character or the evolution over time of a relationship, etc.

To keep one hand on my overall story arc, I constantly had to go back and re-read what I had written previously to keep it all as one organic ‘thing.’ Otherwise it would become choppy and piecemeal, segmented and episodic rather than smooth. Unfortunately, re-reading my previous material lured me into polishing it ‘one more time’ until, frequently, I had wrung all the life out of it through too much tinkering with it, and then had to go back to an earlier version, anyway. A big, big time-waster, as this polishing business can take all day. Exasperating, too. (Compulsive polishing, I think, is sometimes a symptom of fear; it’s much easier to sit at your desk safely polishing the old stuff than it is to lay down new stuff, and it still looks like you’re ‘working.’)

I will say that the benefit of the One Magnificent Draft method is that when you work on early sections of the book until they’re really good, it helps to give you more confidence as you press on into each new chapter.

Just don’t let it turn into a trap.

The extensive revisions that I was asked to do on my first couple of books taught me fairly quickly that I was not really the One Magnificent Draft type of writer. I realized I would need to start scheduling revision time into my production schedule, not counting revisions my editor might ask me to do down the road. In other words, I realized I needed to do two drafts before my editor even looked at it.

Enter the Double Draft method….

‘The Double Draft Method’

This second breed of writer tends to be a bit more analytical or left-brained than the previous type. In the Double Draft Method, the writer counts on doing at least one full revision before her manuscript is editor-worthy, so she’ll have to double the numbers because she’ll be doing two drafts in the same length of time: 800 pages divided by 8 months = 100 pages a month, or three to four reasonably clean pages every day.

The output is greater, but the pressure of perfection is less because you still have another chance to play with it.

The Double Draft method was a major improvement for me over the One Magnificent Draft technique, and I wrote some six books this way, but it, too, had its pitfalls, especially when I found myself writing very long books.

Instead of 400 pages, they went as long as 550 in manuscript form. Well, my schedule had only allotted for a 400-page manuscript: that equaled 3-4 pages per day, every day of the month, for 8 months. But even though I kept to this schedule easily, with these long books, when the 8 month deadline approached, I was nowhere near ‘The End’!

Panic time.

I still had another 150 pages of story to go, and keeping to the same writing schedule, that meant another month and a half of writing.

I learned, as usual, the hard way, that if you have a deadline and your book unexpectedly runs long, you can get into trouble. Thankfully, both of my wonderful editors were born with the patience of Job.

But I still don’t consider the Double Draft method as the best way to write a book. Let’s say for argument’s sake that you don’t write these over-long, complex books of the sort that I write. Even so, you’re doing double the pages in half of the time of the One Magnificent Draft method, so now, what happens if you take a bad tangent, put a few days or even a whole week into a plot twist that doesn’t work out? You end up having to cut it. Well, okay, but that means now you’ve got to make up numerous pages as quickly as possible just to keep on track. That can mean a dozen, even twenty hours of work; so where are you going to get another day or two to get it done? You’re already working 30 days a month with no days off.

(Did I mention I haven’t always been the world’s best planner? Creative types are not usually the most organized people in the world.)

At only three or four pages per day, the daily writing quota is still low enough that you can theoretically make up for it by putting in a couple of long writing days, but if it happens repeatedly, if you have a series of experiments with possible story twists, say, and you end up scrapping them, a bad cycle can set in where you’re constantly rushing to try to catch up, and that gets exhausting fast. It’s like being caught on a treadmill.

Each time you try a different possibility within your story, and spend time and energy writing scenes that don’t work, it kind of shakes your confidence; this leaves you questioning your abilities, which makes it even harder to do good work, meanwhile, you continue piling on still more pages that you have to make up ASAP in order to stay on schedule.

Carried on constantly over a number of years, this can grind a writer down. I realized that if I didn’t drastically change my approach to writing, and soon, then all of the joy in the process’the joy that had brought me to writing in the first place’would be eaten up by the relentless pressure to perform at peak ability, even though I felt like I was falling farther and farther behind the eight ball, deadline-wise.

This was, as you can probably imagine, an extremely stressful way to write and not a fun way to go through life, either. My books are high in emotional intensity, and of course, I was putting everything I had into them. My readers deserve no less. All the same, I knew intuitively that something was very wrong with my process.

The end result pleased me well enough: My finished products lived up to my personal standards of excellence. But each one left me increasingly exhausted and drained, to the point where I could pretty much count on being sick for two weeks after I finished a book’like my body just gave out on me after eight or nine months of full-out effort.

Certainly it was not how I wanted to live.

It was time to take a step back and find another road.

April Kihlstrom and ‘Book In a Week’

April Kihlstrom is not your ordinary writing guru. She’s one of the few who has actually published a large number of novels, thirty-one to be exact, and to me, this makes her Someone Worth Listening To. For many years, April has been an admired figure in the romance writing community as an author, speaker, writing teacher, and most recently, individual writing coach. She is best known, however, for being one of the driving forces behind an innovative new philosophy of writing novels that’s been dubbed ‘Book in a Week.’

Book in a Week (BIAW) provided the perfect solution for the unsatisfactory writing methods that had been putting me so woefully behind the eight ball. The theory is simple: Clear your schedule for a week, two weeks, or even take a month and then write a short first draft as fast as you possibly can. You can skip any parts that don’t seem to be coming to you, but you do try to hit all of the plot high points.

It doesn’t have to be pretty. It doesn’t even have to be punctuated properly, and spelling doesn’t have to count. You don’t have to know all of the secondary characters’ names at this stage of the game, or have all your research done yet.

The idea is to get the basic core story down as quickly as you can to see if it’s going to work in the first place.

You can always fix it later.

BIAW helps you to see what’s ‘there’ in your story and where you still need to do more fleshing out, character development, motivation, action, more research’whatever. Fly through the first draft as fast as you possibly can, because statistically speaking, unless you’re one of those rare birds of the ‘One Magnificent Draft’ variety, in all likelihood it’s going to suck no matter how much time and effort you put into it. Writing a fast, short rough draft will at least let you see if your story elements are even going to hang together.

Once you’ve got the draft down, it’s such a huge advantage to be able to SEE the whole story in one fell swoop. It makes so much more sense to me to put effort into revision once I’ve got the whole story down, rather than rewriting the first hundred pages over and over again, only to find that by the time I reach the end of the story, those pages are totally off-base. Makes sense, no?

One of the most wonderful aspects of writing a first draft as quickly as possible is that it outwits your Inner Critic, you know, that nagging voice that we all have as we write, telling us that the work’s not good enough. It shuts that inner critic off because you’ve already told yourself that it doesn’t matter if the first draft is a very ugly duckling.

By knowing you can fix it later, BIAW frees us from perfectionism which is rooted in fear, and brings us back to the joy of telling a story: taking the brakes off and letting ‘er rip.

Another fun aspect of BIAW is that the most effective way to do it is to round up a few writing friends and have everyone start their ‘BIAW Challenge’ on the same day. At the end of the day, you log in to the internet and email your writing buddies with how many pages you got done that day. This makes it so much more fun! And it works, just like having a diet buddy, someone to suffer through the challenge with you, and celebrate with you when you reach your goal.

Since April Kihlstrom is the expert on this fantastic writing method, I will now send you over to her website where you can read her BIAW Tips if all of this intrigues you. I encourage you to at least try it, especially if you’re an aspiring writer or just starting out, because it’s a great habit to get into, one that will help you become a better, happier, and more prolific writer’faster.

For my part, I have finally learned to just accept it that I’m going to need to do a number of drafts before my ‘ugly duckling’ is presentable. But that’s not a bad thing! It actually takes most of the stress out of the process, and as I’ve discussed many times in these articles, while a little pressure can serve as a tonic to motivation, too much stress is kryptonite to creativity.

Perfection from the get-go would be nice, of course, but that’s not possible for me in this lifetime, so simply planning from the start on doing a number of drafts helps me to keep a sense of humor about it all and maintain the sense of play that is at the heart of the creative impulse. To me, it’s marvelously comforting to know that I can pretty much rely on it that my first draft is going to be lumpy, awkward, rambling, dull, unbalanced, and as ridden with holes as a stinky slice of baby Swiss. Happily, it can and will be fixed!

Rewritten. Again and again and again.

Until it’s right.