My First Draft is a Pile of Crap (But I Love It Anyway)

Yesterday, Katherine wrote a really lovely, poetic post that really hit on the terror and beauty of a first draft. This is not that post (which you should totally go read now- I'll wait).

This is a post about my first attempt at National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo).  For the uninitiated, this is an online community that encourages people to write a fifty thousand word first draft during the month of November.  You can track your daily progress, participate in forums and cheer each other on.  I've never done NaNo before, and my first drafts have been written in time frames ranging from six weeks to eighteen months depending on the book, but this year I was at a space in my writing where I was between projects, and I had some time to play with a concept that's been kicking around in my head for three years.  The book is in a genre that a lot of people are writing and which is not in demand, so it's kind of a lose/lose proposition in theory, but I figured, heh, it's only 30 days.  Why not see how much I can get written and decide if it's any good later?
So here we are at the end of the thirty days and *spoiler alert* it's really not any good.  But I ended up with a 52,000 word first draft that I kind of love anyway. 

My NaNo Winners Page

I don't love it because it's good (it still needs a lot of work) but because it was possibly the least stressed I've ever been while writing a first draft.  You see, I'm terrified of first drafts. They always seem so overwhelming.  I never feel like I'll ever finish a book until I do, and that self-doubt keeps me glued to the word count tally until I get to the end.  This time, I didn't feel that pressure, despite the fact that I was racing against a deadline and trying to get as many words in a sitting as I could.  Maybe the lack of stress was because I was writing this for me and me alone, with no expectations of a sale.  Maybe it was because I was writing so fast and the word count went up so quickly that there just wasn't time for self-doubt.  Whatever the reason, I felt a real freedom in just putting the words to the page and letting a story (maybe not THE story, but a story) come out.

I haven't read most of it, but I already know that there's probably not a whole book there. I think there's a solid start, and I have an outside-the-box idea for it that excites me and challenges me at the same time. 

So here are the things I learned from my first NaNo experience.  As always, these are my personal take-aways and your mileage may vary.

 1.  When attempting to write quickly, it helps to have an outline of the plot.  Most times in first drafts, I slow down when I don't know what happens next.  There wasn't much time for pondering.  I had an outline that carried me about halfway through, and then I took a half day to completely re-plot and re-outline the second half of the story.  Once I reworked the main plot points, I was able to get back in the groove.

2.   It would have helped to know something more about the secondary characters than their role in the plot.  Sometimes characters appear and take over, as if they were always there waiting for their page time, but when writing fast, it was harder for me to really dig into what made the secondary characters tick, what they looked like, or what made them unique.

3.  Your first idea is usually the most obvious.  A lot of what I was writing felt like common tropes or cliches that were there as placeholders for the real details, which will be fleshed in later, when I have a better idea how the character or scene fits into the entire novel structure.  Similarly, a lot of the scenes had the characters reacting instead of being proactive, which is often a sign that the scene lacks tension and conflict.  The stuff that comes out first is not always the best quality, but there will be time to rethink those choices later.  The key to getting through was not looking back at what came before and just forging ahead.

4.  If you keep moving forward, eventually you get to the end.  I had to stop myself from starting to edit chapters that came before.  It was tempting to bog myself down with details and second guess the prior day's work, but I only allowed myself a few minutes to skim the last few pages before starting to write again.

5.  You still need to make time for yourself.  I took a number of days off during the month for Thanksgiving and a family trip, where I didn't write at all.  I devoted a lot of hours to getting that draft done, but I also gave myself some hours away from the manuscript to connect with my real life and refill the well.  One thing I've realized is that if I write to the exclusion of everything else, eventually the writing dries up completely.

My (day after) Thanksgiving View
6.    It takes more than 30 days to write a book.  My entire rationale for trying this was that it was only 30 days, so why not?  Well, it's because it will take another several months to revise the draft into something that does not resemble a pile of crap.  But I've got a good start, and it doesn't seem nearly as overwhelming as before I had a first draft. 

7.   Sometimes I need to write just for me.  This book is not in a hot genre.  Worse, it's in a genre that's not in favor at all, not being sought by publishers, and in which a lot of people are writing.  But I had so much fun writing it, and I'm ready to experiment with it in ways I would never do with a book that I thought might actually be marketable.  To grow as a writer, I have to write things I'm passionate about, and if no one reads it but my critique partners, I'm okay with that.  Of course, I would love for this manuscript to be published some day, but it's the process that keeps me coming back to the computer.

8.  The inner critic can be silenced.  Just write so fast, it can't keep up with you.

9.  Don't hit the A-bomb just yet.  It's tempting to look at a rough, rough draft and want to start from scratch, but there are diamonds in that pile of crap, moments and scenes that will drive the next one, and the one after that.  When I finished, my first reaction was that the story was really getting started on word 52,028, and that I might've written 50,000 words of backstory, but Beth talked me off the ledge and reminded me to wait until I had more perspective, and Bret reminded me of his A-bomb post,which I totally needed to re-read.  A few days later, I'm convinced my 50,000 of backstory might be a really tight 25,000 word first act...

10.  There's no such thing as losing.  I "won" in that I got to 50,000 words by the end of the month, but any forward progress in a manuscript is a win.  If you got 500 or 5000 or 25,000 words, you're a winner too.  Any day where you made time to write is a victory in my book.

11.  Enjoy the little moments, when a scene or a character makes you laugh or cry or feel anything that takes you out of your own world and immerses you in the story.  My favorite moment in this story is a spare scene between my two main characters:

            “It’s not an accident we found each other.  I saw you on that bridge with me.”  Addison takes my hand in his.
            “If you really think I’m supposed to save you, then you have to let me do it.
            “I said I would.”
            “And let me go.”
             He squeezes my hand.  “You first.”
             Tears fill my eyes, and I close them tight, terrified that if I look at Addison now, I won’t be able to do this, knowing that I have to.  “No goodbye, remember?”
            His forehead rests against mine, his breath dancing on my cheek.  “You were always my eternity.”
            “I wish that were true.”
            “It has to be.”
            But I know it doesn’t.  Some accidents are just that, the random convergence of two people whose lives and deaths intersect at the worst possible moment.  Or the best. 


It was so great to be able to check in with you throughout the month - that's one thing I learned, that NaNoWriMo is a lot more fun with a buddy to whine or boast to. No wasted words! We had a blast! And I love that mini-scene you shared.

Thanks Beth! I loved having someone to check in with too. Writing buddies make this whole thing seem so much more doable. Can't wait to see what you've got in store...

I've been doing NaNoWriMo since I started blogging and though I don't complete a novel, 50k words don't seem to be enough for me, I've listened to/read so many published novelist that say their novels started from their NaNoWriMo novel. That's good enough for me. This year, I'll edit and revise and maybe have something I'll let someone else read :) But I'm like you- I love my novel. For the first time. My family cheered me on to 50k but you are so right any number of words on the page, just write! Thanks for sharing and hope to see your novel out in the world someday!

Congratulations Heather! Hitting that 50K in a month is a huge accomplishment and I'm glad you got to celebrate with you family. Hope to see your novel out there too.

Wow – Talia, I love this! I've attempted NaNo too many years to count, and never got past 35k or so…. But I appreciate these tips because they make SO much sense. I never really went into NaNo with a plan and always ended up getting 1) overwhelmed or 2) silenced by my lack of direction. Can't wait to see what happens with your draft during revisions :)

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