I finally finished the first draft of the novel I have been working on for seven years (codenamed “Joe”) at 2:46 am today. It shouldn’t have taken so long, that’s for sure, but that doesn’t matter. It’s finished and I’m happy. Incredibly happy. If you’ve never reached this point then you might not fully understand, but keep at it and you will. To me it has to rank as one of the most amazing emotions I have ever felt – a combination of satisfaction, pride and awe that I achieved something I set out to do and made a journey into fear and the unknown.
Of course, the first draft is only part of the journey. Now comes all the polishing and editing needed to make this publishable. I sometimes think that writing is one hundred percent writing, plus one hundred percent editing (and no, my math isn’t slipping there!). I’ve done the first, now it’s time for the second.
So why did it take so long? A number of reasons spring to mind. A couple of years were lost to insane job stress. Some of my initial ideas didn’t work quite the way I wanted and I lost confidence for a while trying to re-write large chunks in the middle of it. Not having a regular writing schedule or targets didn’t help. I wasted a lot of time to distractions and a really crazy amount looking for “perfect” writing tools (I haven’t found any). On top of this I allowed my spare time to get somewhat dominated by other interests (such as Corvette club related work).
Are these excuses? Not to my mind. I’ve learned a hell of a lot through this process, much more than when I worked on my first two novels (unpublished). I’ve never stopped writing either, but at times have focused on writing other things, such as short stories.
It’s interesting to reflect on what I’ve learned while writing “Joe”. First and foremost, have a plan. For me that’s a huge revelation. I don’t plan anything (just ask my wife!). I’m a spur o’ the moment, reckless, headstrong type that never wants to plan. Most days I can’t even say what I want for dinner and as for next week? Well, ask me next week…
Similarly in my writing up until now I’ve been firmly in the NOP (No Outline Planning) category. I’d tried a few times to write an outline, but when I tried to write the final version it was a bit like chewing used gum. After reading several of the excellent writing books by James Scott Bell I decided I would try it again and produced (what I thought was) a detailed outline for Joe.
The funny thing is – it worked! Throughout the whole time writing Joe I rarely had any problems with what I was trying to write. Sure, I deviated from the initial plans to one degree or another, but I always had a pretty solid idea of where I was going. I knew all my main characters, scenes and plot points and when I did deviate I did it with my eyes open and knowing how this would cause other changes.
The second thing I came to realize during the process was that I still need to invest more time in the outline. Why? Because it’s so much more efficient. If all I have to worry about is editing the structure and plot of the outline it means that I don’t have to revise tens of thousands of words that are now redundant or don’t fit.
I come from a software engineering background. No one would build even a relatively modest piece of software without designing it first; imagine how insanely inefficient that would be! Outlining (or call it “plotting” if you prefer, is just the same, it’s the process of “designing” your book: plot, structure, characters, scenes, motivations etc. Once you have that firmly defined enough, you’re in a position to write the actual words – and you won’t waste hundreds of hours in blind rambling.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use flashes of inspiration that come to you while writing; sure you can and quite probably should. But at least you can do it knowing the “cost” of making those changes.
I would only use this technique for novels. With short stories I just get an idea, sit down and hammer it out. A bigger project needs more planning to be efficient.
Something else I learned from editing short stories is the trick of printing them out and working on paper and it applies equally well here. Take each chapter or scene as the equivalent of a short story and print it out. It’s quite amazing how much more crap you see!
It’s also important to write regularly. It isn’t necessary to have a daily or weekly word count, or write for a certain length of time or even at a predetermined time. It’s about writing regularly – and in a way that fits in with your life. I’ve seen lots of advice on this and you know what? Forget it. It’s whatever works for you in your own circumstances. There’s no wrong or right. I would suggest working on writing at least once a day though. It’s easy to get a little “rusty” if you get too unstructured.
So what now? Joe needs redrafting and the first pass will be using the print method as that seems to work best (for me). I won’t look at it now though for at least a month to give myself some objectivity. In the mean time I will be planning “Joe 2” (and others) and also work on some short-stories.
A writer’s work is never done. That’s great – I love it!