How to write a novel: 3 The first draft
I’ve found that the best way for me to write a first draft is to join in with NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. During November, Nanoers set themselves the task of writing a 50,000 word novel. The finished item is rough but somewhere in the scramble of words thrown at each day’s target might be the seeds of something special.
When I wrote the first draft of The Syndrome Diaries, it was as a Nanoer during November 2010. I’ve got a pretty good idea of how it went because I joined an online forum and can still access my posts.
On day 1, I was already over my target, and on day 2 even more so, something I attributed to the novel being ‘utter tripe’. I admitted I’d read back what I’d written, despite that being a Nano no-no: reviewing and revising is supposed to come later.
On day 3, I posted this extract:
“I admit I was a little bit in awe. I might have been a bit scared. No, not scared: anxious. I was anxious because there was obviously some reason for her wanting to talk to me, and I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t like turning up to an interview feeling like that. With most people, their agenda would be pretty obvious: sell more copies of their book or record, improve their image in the hope of getting more work, get more bums on seats for their play or film. If they had something unexpected they wanted to get on the record, then I could choose to listen to them, or to try and swing things round to something more word-worthy. I knew this would be different: how can things not be, with that much baggage? But I was not going to be pliable.”
If you find that a bit clumsy, then you’ll be relieved to know that almost nothing of that passage remains. But the rewrite preserved its intention: to convey my narrator Becky’s worries over a meeting with another main character, India (Becky’s a journalist, India’s a rock musician: they were once best friends but haven’t seen each other since an argument 20 years before). There are sections of the first draft that have survived intact to the final version, but most of it was edited beyond recognition. If you want to read the section where Becky and India meet up, you can do so here.
By the end of day 4 , I’d written nearly 8000 words.
On day 6, I recommended cola to the forum as an ideal toilet cleaner because of its limescale-shifting qualities. I stand by that assertion: why I was discussing it there, I have no idea. It’s certainly not mentioned in the final version of the novel.
On day 7, those on the forum shared their working titles: mine was the same as the final title. This doesn’t usually happen. My next novel will probably be The Illness (working title) or The One Night Stand (working title), and neither has what it takes to go on a book cover. But The Syndrome Diaries has always seemed to generate interest.
By the end of day 9, I was making good progress, although I assessed my efforts as ‘turgid crap.’ Nevertheless, there were hints that the novel-writing magic was starting to happen. I wrote about the characters worming their way into my brain when I should be thinking about other things. And once you start being sucked into the world of your characters, a wonderful sense of flow begins and the novel seems to write itself.
By day 12, the characters were taking on a life of their own and rebelling against my neat plan of what was supposed to happen. And that’s as it should have been.
On day 15, I read through what I’d got. Yes, I know that was against the rules, but my comments are interesting. My draft was heavily plot-biased without any pacing or description. I described it as hurtling down a motorway, rather than meandering through country lanes and enjoying the view. That’s how I draft: the colour and subtlety all comes later.
And on the 21st November, 2010, the first draft – at 50,165 words – was completed. I’ve never finished another NaNoWriMo so far ahead of schedule. Of course, it wasn’t remotely ready for publication (the final version is about 95,000 words). My last post for the year was on December 1st where I reported that I’d started rewriting – and that’s my subject for the next blog.
Do you write drafts fast or slowly? Have you taken part in Nanowrimo? Share your thoughts here!