Writing the first draft – 8 things I did right and 5 things I would change

The first draft of my book - 8 things I did right and 5 things I would change
Keep putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) (Image – pixabay.com)
After 20 months of writing, I have finally finished the first draft of my first book! I don’t feel even remotely guilty for drinking sparkling wine on a Monday night in celebration.

Yes, the arduous labour of self-editing is still to come, but let’s not think about that yet. I’m giving myself a month off Mamacona. I want to forget every word I have written so that I can come at it afresh and brimming with ideas in four weeks’ time. Mid-May, I’m sure you’ll be along soon. In the meantime, I will be reading fiction A LOT (it’s research, right?), carrying out some fun writing exercises and attending one of the Writers’ Workshop’s taster courses at Waterstones Piccadilly – on The Transformational Arc, in case you were wondering.

So, what have I learnt about writing so far? As well as asking what genre my book resides in, upon hearing that I am writing a novel, people frequently offer up pearls of wisdom. Over the last year and a half, I have acquired enough of these pearls to string together the world’s longest necklace. While any and all help is appreciated, writing is not a science and, as such, does not have a one-size-fits-all approach.

Which pieces of advice did I follow, rightly or wrongly? Which did I ignore but kind of regret doing so? I am sure my stance on at least some of the below will change when I am finished editing my current book. But, right now, in my slightly smug, bubbles-induced glee, this is what I think.

My first draft – what I did right (in my humble opinion) and will most likely do again

  1. The most common advice I have been given by far is to power through the first draft as quickly as possible. Instead, I chose to write entirely at my own pace, looking for the perfect adjective and pondering my next plotting move as appropriate. This suited me, pretty much for the reasons stated in this blog post by Harry Bingham. I know I will still have an editing challenge, but I honestly believe it will be a smaller task as a result of taking my time over the first draft.
  2. Despite the point around plotting below, I think my hybrid planned-unplanned approach worked well. I had a vague idea where the story was going, but didn’t particularly plan sub-plots and details in advance. This allowed me the flexibility to change course slightly if my mind wandered in a more interesting direction. I liked not knowing exactly what would happen every time I sat down to finish a chapter, and I felt a little as though the characters were leading me, and not vice versa.
  3. Given I was writing about historical periods I did not know too much about, I did a lot of research before I wrote even a single word of my story. I think this allowed me to soak up the essence of the periods, which then influenced the mood of my book.
  4. I thoroughly enjoyed not writing about what I know – I now feel I have an extra few pub quiz topics buried deep inside my brain, and the novelty kept the writing process exciting. I already have a few equally random topics / settings set aside for future books.
  5. A few online sources I consulted prior to beginning my book stated that a first time author shouldn’t attempt anything other than a linear, single point-of-view narrative. I ignored this, partly because I am horribly stubborn and partly because I really wanted to write this book, which just happened to be non-linear and multiple point-of-view. Time will be the test of how wise a decision this was, but I don’t regret it right now as I managed to achieve what I set out to do with the first draft. My advice would be to write whatever you want to write, no matter what that is!
  6. Not setting daily word targets – I like to write when I feel like writing so I continue to enjoy it. I have a flexible weekly target that isn’t particularly difficult to achieve, and I usually exceed it.
  7. Not writing with a hangover – I read this in an interview on a website I can’t remember right now. Excellent advice! A glass or two of wine while writing, is, however, perfect…
  8. If I found myself unable to figure out how to continue my story (I refuse to use the term “writers’ block”), I put my book aside for a few days in the belief my brain would figure it out somehow. This usually worked. On the rare occasions it did not, I tried my best to power through anyway, safe in the knowledge it was only a first draft.

What I would change next time

  1. After drafting the first chapter, I read and re-read it literally about 20 times, editing it in various ways upon each reading. Despite this, when I looked back on chapter one half a year later, it was… not quite as good as the rest of the book. You learn and evolve constantly as a writer, no matter how long you have been writing. Next time, I will have a quick read through for glaring errors but will leave the serious editing until later.
  2. It is not an exaggeration to say I came up with my initial plot in the space of 15 minutes. I think it has worked well, but could probably be even better if I had given it a bit more thought. Next time, I will try to suppress my excitement to start in the interest of longer-term gains.
  3. One thing I did spend a fair amount of time planning was my characters. I wanted them to be interesting and believable. Next time, I think I will carry out more fun (if slightly gimmicky) character planning exercises, like imaginary interviews – I found that my characters changed on the page as I went along (one of them even refused to keep the hair colour I had given her) so I would like to get to know them even better before I begin. I will also spend a little more time thinking about the necessity of each character – a good piece of advice I found in an online forum was to ask yourself (in the case of minor characters) whether this specific character is the one that needs to do something, or whether an existing character could fulfil the same purpose.
  4. I am a big reader. However, there were certain books I was afraid of reading, one of them being The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. As it also featured a Victorian circus, I was worried elements of it would unduly seep into my writing. I ended up reading it a few months ago and can safely say this didn’t happen. My book is MY book. I won’t worry about this next time.
  5. Buy a desk!

The list is long and will no doubt lengthen further over time. Please let me know what the writing process has taught you, or if you have any little gems you think I should follow in future (or wilfully ignore at leisure).

Backache or no backache, perhaps the single most important thing I have learnt is that the following quote from Scott Lynch sums up precisely how I feel about being a writer:

“I think it’s fairly common for writers to be afflicted with two simultaneous yet contradictory delusions, the burning certainty that we’re unique geniuses, and the constant fear that we’re witless frauds who are speeding toward epic failure.”