I met up with a group of crime writers last weekend. Some of us are published, some of us are agented, some are working on novels to go out on submission and some are self-published. When one of us brought up the subject of how we tackle a first draft, we found - after chatting about it - that we all did it differently. As it's November soon and coming up to NaNoWriMo time where writers everywhere try to get down 50,000 words towards a novel, I thought I'd write about how I tackle mine.
I'm in the 'dirty draft' camp of getting down the words, no matter how they come out, as quickly as possible. It takes me about six weeks to write a first draft. But I have to plan ahead - if I didn't roughly know what was coming next, I wouldn't be able to get past a blank page. For me to write a novel, I plan for about a month before so that I have my characters, plots, sub-plots and a beginning, middle and end.
The more you write, the more you'll want to find out what happens next. Your characters will start talking to you, bringing their own ideas to the board. When reading through a first draft, I often come across sentences such as 'describe room' or 'work out the year they were married.' These details are extremely important to the overall finished product but not for my first draft. I even write scenes completely in dialogue if I’m eager to write something. Don't stop for description, research, plot-holes - all that can be sorted out later.
I also open a separate document for second draft ideas. If I think of something that will work on the second draft or if a 'what if' thought pops into my head, I write it down and file it away. More often than not, by the time I get to the end of the draft most of those ideas have been worked in to the rest of the book. If they haven’t, I’ll add them on the next draft. I do try not to act on impulse now though – which is why I file ideas in another document or else the temptation to meddle is too great. I’ve done that on several occasions and it hasn’t worked and I've had to undo it all and start again.
'Write every day' is something I see in a lot of features and articles. Like I mentioned above, we all write differently. I don't write every day except when I'm drafting or rewriting. Then I make sure I use bum glue to sit at that seat. If I miss a day or two, I find it harder to get enthusiastic about it when I come back to it. Miss more than a day or two and the whole momentum I had has to be built up again. And, by giving myself permission to write and not worry about it until later, I can get words down quickly. When I was working full-time, my target was 1500 words before I went to work at 8.30a.m.
1663 words a day don’t have to be written in one sitting. Often I’d write 500 words early in the morning, a few more during my lunch break and the rest during the evening. Not all the words will stay in the second draft but whatever I write always leads me to another point, scene, sub-plot, thought, twist etc so really no words are wasted. My first drafts always end up with a word total of about 70-80% of the finished word total. For example, WATCHING OVER YOU, the last draft I worked on came out at 68,000 but finished at 90,000 words. TAUNTING THE DEAD came out as 98,000 and ended at 114,000 words.
I know 50,000 words is too short for a book in most genres but maybe concentrate on getting a skeleton down of a book, something that you can then go and add lots to on the next round. Use it as a foundation, something to build on. I'm on my eighth book and I still complete three full drafts before I show anyone. If I'm then going on to self-publish, the script will have another three rewrites and then go to a copyeditor. Then I proofread one final time.
Finally, don't think it's publishable once it's done. NaNoWriMo is a great challenge, to see how much you can do if you put your mind to it, but whatever word count you finish the month on, it will still need to be honed, edited, polished to perfection. And you have a lot longer than 30 days to do that. Don't rush - you could just have completed the first draft of something that will go on to be something spectacular.
Mel Sherratt has been a self-described "meddler of words" ever since she can remember. After winning her first writing competition at the age of 11, she has rarely been without a pen in her hand or her nose in a book. Since successfully self-publishing Taunting the Dead and seeing it soar to the rank of number one bestselling police procedural in the Amazon Kindle store in 2012, Mel has gone on to publish three more books in the critically acclaimed The Estate Series.
Mel has written feature articles for The Guardian, the Writers and Artists website, and Writers Forum Magazine, to name just a few, and regularly speaks at conferences, event and talks. She lives in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, with her husband and her terrier, Dexter (named after the TV serial killer, with some help from her Twitter fans), and makes liberal use of her hometown as a backdrop for her writing.
For more help and advice on NaNoWriMo, please take a look here.