Thursday, 2 August 2012

Reaching The Other Side

I've blogged before about first drafts, and how I found a way to get through the you-suck moment that inevitably strikes me about halfway through every book. Well, I'm in good old first draft territory right now as, with the edits and copyedits for ACID done, I'm forging ahead with my second book and trying to get it done. And as I've been writing, I've been thinking about the whole process of first drafting, which is very different to writing a second draft, or a third, or a fourth…

It's no secret to my writer friends that I find revising much easier than writing a first draft (I may even have been known to send tweets with the hashtag #firstdrafthell at times…), because with subsequent drafts, you have something to work with. But with first drafts, you have nothing. You're spinning those words, those characters, that plot out of thin air, and inevitably, things end up going in different directions to the ways you planned. Sometimes, I find this exciting. More often, it can throw me into a panic, and I have to frantically return to my notes (some of which I make before I start, some as I go along) to figure out exactly what needs to happen, and why.

One thing I've learnt not to do at these moments is to try to think about the WHOLE BOOK. If I think about the WHOLE BOOK it will loom over me like Everest, and I'll run out of oxygen long before I get to the top. Instead, I think ahead only to the next major plot point. I don't plot rigidly, but I always have a vague idea of the complete story arc before I start, and, as I go along, I work out the plot points so they're laid out in my head like stepping stones across a river. I don't need to look right over to the other side of the water to see where I'm going – only to the next stone, and then the next. Bit by bit, I find my way across, and by keeping my eyes on my feet, there's less chance I'll lose my nerve and stumble. (Besides which, I can't swim very well, so falling into that river would be a bad idea.)

Crossing over to the other side
Photo by J.A. Holland via Flickr. Licensed for use under Creative Commons.

How about you? What techniques do you use to get through those tricky first drafts?



40 comments:

  1. I've just done a post about exactly this subject, in response to a friend who was drowning in her own River of First Draft hellishness :) I totally agree with you about not thinking about the whole book, it's too huge!

    http://hierath.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/first-draft-wrangling-a-requested-post/

    Love

    Joey

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    1. Thank you, Joey. I'm going over to take a look now! :)

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  2. Really lovely post, Emma. I'm always intrigued by how other authors approach their work. It varies for me - at the moment I'm in #re-write hell.

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    1. Thank you, Malaika. I am too! Very best of luck with your re-writes (I'd offer to swap you, as that's the bit I LOVE, but I'd better not! :D).

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  3. Years ago I wrote a work-related book (about play therapy) and experienced this feeling of a narrative falling apart for the first time. Then that miracle as it somehow comes together. It doesn't frighten me now I trust it to be part of the process, and if I don't panic, then it will be all right in the end.

    OK, sometimes it's pretty rubbish, even when it's come together. But I'm still in one piece, and can think fairly clearly about what to do next.

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    1. I know exactly what you mean, Jo, and I have to say, the more books I've written, the less panicky I get with the messy bits of my first drafts. I think it's an I've reached the ends of novels before, so I can do it again kind of thing!

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  4. Wow - a glimpse into another way of being a writer - thank you!I hate redrafting, I loathe it, because by the time I've finished the first draft I know the story and I want to write something new. I have to really force myself to begin a redraft, with many bribes and incentives,though having said that, I do like the way you finish up with a MUCH better book at the end of it.

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    1. Thank you, Jenny. Perhaps we can swap a bit of our first draft/re-writing loathing and end up with a happy balance? :oP

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  5. AHH my original reply somehow disappeared on me! But just wanted to say thanks for the post, Emma! It's funny how there's so many stages to writing a book, and how writers all approach them differently. But I'm with you about how thoughts of the WHOLE BOOK are freaky. Breaking it down helps so much!

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    1. Gah, bad Blogger! Thank you, Elsie. :)

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  6. Great post! Am in that hell at the moment myself. I usually deal with it by putting the story away for a week and work on something else. Can't with this one, though. Deadlines and all that! At least, as Jenny pointed out, you do end up with a better book.

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    1. Thank you, Saviour! Ah, yes, the dreaded deadline… this first draft is being written to one of those! It does make you get it done, though! Otherwise I might procrastinate forever…

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  7. I love the stepping stone analogy Emma. I've found that writing the first draft for the second novel is more difficult because of all the things I've learnt when editing the first one. When I wrote the first draft of the first novel, I didn't know about any of the 'rules' of writing and so I got the story down very quickly. Best of luck! Great post as always.

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    1. Thank you, Anita. Yes, I've learnt SO much about writing from editing, and it definitely makes it harder in one way, because you have so much more to think about the next time round! Best of luck with your novel, too. x

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  8. Yeah, I remember saying to you on Twitter that I enjoy first drafts, hehehe! Thing is, I've just hit the wall on mine a bit, with something like 15k words left to go. Inevitable...

    My way of dealing with the woes, when they do come up, is to take a break for a few days. Then I return to it, read it again, and allow myself to admire some of the better passages (and inevitably tweak things here and there). It makes me realise I'm not a bad writer after all, and gets me back in to the game...

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    1. Joe, you're just weird. ;o) I agree, taking a break is a great way of recharging the creative batteries when you hit a wall. Hope you've managed to get past yours now!

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  9. I am just finishing a first draft -- and this is the first time I'm experiencing what you're talking about... I am about 3 chaps (of 28) from the end and I'm stalling. I know I'll finish in the next few days but it's a matter of sitting down (set time everyday), shutting off the social networking and all other distractions, and just sit at the computer. I'm exact opposite about not being able to look at the whole thing -- because that's the only way I can do it, by looking at the big picture. Sometimes if I hit the wall, I'll take a break to read or exercise. Here's hoping I'm writing THE END any day... then onto revision (which I have mixed feelings about... another whole blog, right?).

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    1. That's really interesting that you approach it in the opposite way, Julia. Just goes to show that there really is no right way to do it – only the right way for you. Very best of luck with it!

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  10. Great post Emma. Been there, done that. I've got to the stage now where I bash out any old thing for 1st draft as I KNOW I'll get it right in the re-write, edit stage. If I get stuck for the right word or expression - soddit, put something approximate. But that is my kind of approach in general really - scruffy Herbert.

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    1. Thank you, Cameron, and I think your approach sounds highly sensible, actually! :)

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  11. I'm about half way through a first draft and squarely at the "I suck and this story sucks and I'm never going to get this done" stage. Finding your blog is perfect timing. 6:50 am and I have a plan: get the stepping stones in order.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Robin. Very best of luck with it!

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  12. Love the 'stepping stones' take it one at a time...and like Cameron said, I don't worry too much about specific words as they can be put right later!

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  13. I really had fun with my first drafts, to be honest. I love seeing the story in my head for the first time. I don't edit while I am writing because it detracts me from the story and where it is headed. With VD (the novel I'm currently revising), I'm on my 12th revision. Gah!! This novel is told in non-linear chronology and I am a pantser...so imagine my shock when I had to write an outline as I went along. LOL! I have to say, though, I am really enjoying the revision process for the first time. I never thought I liked to edit but I realize I am improving the story and characters.
    It's all a process...

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    1. Editing definitely grows on you the more you do it! When I was starting out, I didn't like it as much, but now, I LOVE it. Good luck with your revisions!! Got everything crossed for you. :)

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  14. YES. Thinking about the WHOLE THING is terrifying. Which is why I think I clung to a redux for my last WiP, and a pretty straight one at that. Because that picture was already in place.

    I think that's WHY I patchwork, actually. It's less discouraging to kno wthat I already have ending scenes done.

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    1. Your first draft post is great, Leigh-Ann. I've tried patchworking with edits (and it worked quite well) but with first drafts, I just have to get it down in order. It's like it's in my first draft DNA or something! :oP

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  15. excellent post. I actually have to have an overall plot arc worked out, but have managed to let myself break the arc to allow for those "it would actually be better if THIS happened " moments.

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    1. Thank you, Evan! Oh, I LOVE those moments - had one this morning in fact. They make first drafts (almost) bearable for me!

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  16. Lovely post, Em! I like your idea of stepping stones, Emma. I think I write in a similar way, only looking a little bit ahead but normally with a fairly clear idea of where I need to be by the end. It does vary though, according to which age group I'm writing for and can be either planned meticulously, or very random!

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    1. Thank you, Abi. Yes, I think it depends on the book – this one is pretty long, so it definitely helps to *not* look too far ahead!

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  17. Stepping stones . . . I like the analogy. I work in a similar way. First draft, try not to look too far ahead. And when you've got a first draft, at least there are some words to work with, and I've often forgotten what I've written. Reading back through is then a roller coaster of 'Wow, did I write that?' and 'Did I really write THAT? What on earth was I thinking?'

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    1. Dan, I know exactly what you mean! I kind of love and dread that bit, all at the same time…

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  18. Lovely, post, Emma, and timely for me as I'm cleaning every inch of my house and helping my kiddos get ready to go back to school rather than dive in (so to speak) to my second Neptune book. Once I do actually get my rear in the chair, I find writing fast and lots helps me stay engaged with my story. If I can get lost in it, the process goes so much faster. So I set myself some pretty steep word counts (well, steep for me???) of around 1,500 words a day. I'd much rather power through it, get immersed in it, and not worry about each line being perfect.
    But rather than get immersed, I really need to finish getting those closets organized! Good luck!

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    1. Thank you, Polly! Hope you've got those closets organised now and can power on with the writing. ;)

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  19. I hate rewriting, but do it. This is good advice for any project. I struggle with that looking ahead thing, so I'll take your advice and focus on the next step. :) Angie

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    1. Thanks, Angie - best of luck with it! :)

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  20. I think it's Stephen King who likens first drafts to archaeology! Slowly uncovering a story that's buried in your mind, and it's only when you've finished that you can see what it really is.

    I rather enjoy first drafts, I can (and do) write any old tosh knowing it can only be improved upon! It’s also quite nice knowing that no one but me will EVER see that draft!

    I’m sure that feeling changes dramatically when you introduce the concept of a deadline though!

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    1. It is Stephen King - I love that quote! It reminds me that first drafts *can't* be perfect, and it's only when you start the revision process that you can figure out what it's all about. And yeah… when you have a deadline and you know that your first draft isn't just going to be for you, it's a bit scary! But not too bad. :)

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