Hello, fellow writer and welcome to #amwriting!
I’m your host, Ryan Douglass. I’m represented by Rena Rossner at the Deborah Harris Agency. I’ve written four manuscripts and queried for ten years before I found an agent. The book I finally succeeded with is a contemporary YA thriller with a supernatural twist. I’ve also written fantasy and sci-fi.
Now that introductions are out of the way, let’s talk this BIG, SCARY, PINK first draft, AKA the dirty hamper demon from my childhood nightmares and the hardest part of the process for any self-respecting serial perfectionist. After writing dozens of drafts I’ve developed a set of self-disciplinary rules. I’d like to share them with you, along with a grain of salt, since they’re very much based on what works for me.
Rule # 1: Remember you are not the genius you will be (yet).
First drafts are shit stains, okay? Shit stains. They’re ugly and they stink, but the good news? IT DOESN’T MATTER. The book is not a book yet here—it’s a concept. No one will get to see this but you. The typical writer’s delusions of grandeur won’t allow him or her to put a single misplaced word on the page like, ever, at all. But all writers write or have written badly, and screwing up is part of the process. You hate the draft because you know you’re capable of better, especially if you’ve already written great work. It’s hard to go back to wooden dialogue and plastic characters.
Below is a paragraph from my book where my character describes his crush. The first picture is how this passage appeared in an early draft and the second is how it appears now, after about ten revisions.
Notice how they’re not even remotely similar? Notice how the second one is way more interesting? I wrote the first one not knowing who my character was, and the second after getting to know him over the course of the book. Your sentences will grow around the story you form. Which brings us to…
RULE #2: LOOK AROUND, LOOK AROUND AT HOW LUCKY WE ARE TO BE ALIVE RIGHT NOW.
Starting a book is an exciting opportunity to see where your imagination is capable of taking you. What issues are you tackling that you haven’t looked at before? What types of personalities? Settings? Relationships? These blank pages are your oyster. Whether you’re an architect (who plans a story before writing) or a gardener (who builds a story as you write), you’re going to discover new directions as you go.
During this stage, the mundane world should become more exciting. Things you see or hear anywhere–your work desk, in class, on the street, on your couch watching a storm through the window—will inspire your story. Your cat’s facial expression may influence the mannerisms of the giant deformed feline monster your plucky trio encounters at the gates of hell. Shit, I don’t know. Right now, I’m drafting a story set in 1871 Louisiana, so I’m extra aware of every plantation style house I pass when I’m out and about. I take pictures of the architecture. It’s creepy as fuck but so is Google searching “how long do bodies take to rot?”, which I had to do for my last manuscript. Writers are special, aren’t we? Be a sponge to the world, absorb selectively and squeeze it out into an authentic mirror. Your book!
RULE #3: Research the fuck out of everything.
I always groan at this part because I prefer writing to planning, but it’s necessary. Don’t rely on your vague understanding of something or someone and hope it’s right. Know for sure it’s right, because if it’s wrong, readers will notice and you lose them. Confession: I use Wikipedia, but I always cross-check with different sites. Be especially careful when writing people from different backgrounds from you so you’re not offensive. You may do research in drafting, revising, or both (I do both).
RULE #4: Keep track of your story and characters as they snowball in your mind.
If you’re accurately observing rule #2, it means you’re finding new inspiration every day. I keep notes full of research and new inspiration both in my phone and a planning document on my laptop. This is mainly because keeping track of stuff keeps me safe from plot-holes and inconsistencies in characters. Below is the sidebar of my planning document from my current draft so you can see how I do.
RULE #5: Write every day. Or don’t.
You don’t have to write every day. You really, honestly, truly don’t. If you can, great! If you can’t, okay. I sometimes go weeks without writing a single word. And sometimes I go weeks writing thousands of words per day. I allow myself to go long periods without writing because I know I have ADD, I work in hyper focus and can do a lot of writing in big bursts. The “write every day” rule is often dished out to new writers who say they’re going to write and end up never writing. Many writers are drawn naturally to the keyboard, but if you’re someone who really, really wants to do it but is stuck overcoming fear of actually doing it, I’d suggest writing every single day to develop a habit. No matter how many words you write, it’s about programming yourself out of self-doubt and hesitation.
RULE #6: Write the entire draft before revising any of it. Or don’t.
In the vein of the last rule, tons of established writers tell new writers to write the thing and don’t look back, which is useful advice, but not necessarily the only way. I personally can’t write this way. If I’m at the true beginning of a draft (0-10,000 words in), I will start from the beginning every single time I open it, revising what I’ve written and sliding smoothly into new words. If I’m further than the beginning, I’ll start from a major plot checkpoint. But I absolutely never, and have never felt comfortable opening a draft and just writing new shit at the end of what I’ve already written. It simply doesn’t work for me. BUT (and there’s always a juicy butt) observing the “just keep writing it” advice did convince me to go easier on the edits in the drafting process. The revision process is when you really want to dive in to your characters’ psyches and explore different places you want to take the plot.
RULE #7: You don’t actually have to write every scene yet.
If I had a dollar for every time I wrote “WRITE MORE LATER” or “THIS IS THE PART WHERE THE DEMON THING CHASES HIM” in my last manuscript, I’d be a rich bitch. If you come to a fight scene but you’re in a more romantic headspace and want to skip along to the subsequent love scene, do your sexy thing, honey. No one will know but you.
RULE #8: None of these rules matter as long as you can write the goddamn book some kind of way.
So how long is all this supposed to take?
Here is a popular drafting quote from Stephen King:
“I believe the first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months…Any longer and — for me, at least — the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave during a period of severe sunspot activity.”
I would encourage you highly to ignore this popular drafting quote from Stephen King. You are not Stephen King, and no one is. King puts out three books a year. In that time frame, most of us are lucky to have finished one. There is no rule for how long it’s supposed to take. It varies depending on where you are in your journey as a writer and how ambitious the project is. My first book took me two years to write, the second one took three, the third took two, and the fourth took one. I have no idea how long the fifth will take and it doesn’t matter.
So what happens if you’re halfway through and lose interest in a story?
Assess if you’ve really lost interest in the idea of the story or if you just don’t know where to take it. Getting stuck on a scene or plot point is normal (see rule 7), so is it an aspect of the story that’s scaring you or does the story itself not feel interesting anymore? I’d encourage you to really assess if your inclination to give up is coming from real disinterest in the story or doubt in your ability to tell it the way you imagined it. If it’s the second one, BUCK UP AND KEEP GOING. It happens to the best of us.
If you lose interest in the actual story then hey, it happens. It’s happened to me. Now I plan my stories out for weeks or months in my head before I write a single word. I have to make sure I need to tell this story. More about this in an upcoming post about writing the book of your heart!
Until then, thanks for reading! I sure hope I’ve been marginally helpful.
Good luck and happy drafting!
All my love,