Just before 12:45 pm, while sitting at a quiet table on the second floor of the Arlington Central Library, I wrote the following words:
When I started this story back on February 28, I had no intention of writing a novel. It was just another story. But it kept growing. And growing. After a couple of false starts and restarts, it began moving. In August, it really picked up the pace and on August 20, I finally admitted publicly that I was writing a novel. It was a big admission because I’ve always considered myself a short story writer. I don’t even know how to go about writing a novel.
Once I realized I was writing a novel, I picked a target of 90,000 words because that is what I’ve heard is a good length for science fiction. The first draft ended up being 95,000 words, which I guess is pretty good for a first draft.
And this is a first draft. For me, first drafts are my way of understanding the story. I did not use an outline for this, I just wrote each day, making up the story as I go along, with a fixed ending in mind. In a way, I suppose, the first draft of a story becomes the outline for me. No one but me ever sees the first drafts. It is the second draft of a story that I sent out for critique and comment.
Purely coincidental, but still worth noting1 today happens to be the 200th day that I have been trying to write every day. The writing I did today means that I have now written 198 out of the last 200 days.
Some thoughts on the process of writing the first draft of a novel, in no particular order, just things that occur to me.
1. The draft is not structured into chapters or sections or parts or anything like that. Not knowing exactly how I would structure things in the end, I took a different approach. Each scene received a number, beginning with 1, and incrementing with each additional scene. The draft, as it stands today, contains 113 scenes. In the second draft, I imagine combinations of these scenes will form chapters and combinations of chapters will form parts. I don’t know if this is how other novelists work, but this worked well for me and it is a technique that I will use in the future.
2. There was a point, probably somewhere around the 30,000 word mark where things really seemed to bog down. I suspected this was the “middle muddle” that I’ve heard of and I brute-forced my way through it. When I came out on the other side, toward the end of July, things began to move very quickly. For instance, I wrote nearly 45,000 words (half the length of the novel draft) in the month of August alone.
3. There is some good writing and some bad writing, and there is some good storytelling and bad storytelling. I didn’t try to think to much about it along the way. I made occasional notes in the draft about things I’d like to do differently in the next draft, but it wasn’t excessive. I expect my initial reading of this draft will be a paining and rewarding experience.
4. During the 199 days during which I worked on the draft, I wrote nearly 175,000 words total. But the novel draft is 95,000 words. So what gives? Where is the missing 80,000 words? Well, some of what I wrote during the time was non-fiction, but that only accounts for about 4,500 words. Some of it was work here and there on other short stories, but that only accounts for maybe 3,000 words. That still leaves around 72,000 words. The fact is that I probably wrote about 70,000 words of the novel’s opening in three or four different attempts, before I found my real starting point. At that point, I did away with all of the earlier stuff and moved forward from there. So the “missing” 72,000 word represents 72,000 words worth of “false starts.” At least one of those false starts was 30,000 words long, nearly one-third of the novel. I don’t know if this is typical or not, but that’s how it worked out for me.
5. While the story I started writing had a different title, the novel draft that I finished today has a working title of Cassiopeia’s Chair. I can’t promise that will be the final title, but I like the title a lot and it has a great deal of significance to the subject of the novel.
6. Having finished the draft, I kind of know what the novel is about, but it will take a full, end-to-end reading for me to be sure. Once I am sure what it is about, that is the point at which I will start writing the second draft.
7. I wrote the entire novel using Google Docs, with a template that I have customized and a set of scripts I wrote to automate the tracking of my writing. One cool side-effect of all of this is that I have the ability to look back to any given day between February 28 and today and tell you exactly what I wrote, what I changed, and what I deleted on a given day. And having done the first draft with scenes simply keyed to numbers, it would be pretty easy to see how things change from the first draft to the second draft.
8. I was very happy with Google Docs as a tool for writing the draft. I’d say about 80% of the novel draft was written on my Chromebook as well. At around the 10,000 word mark, Google Docs seemed to slow down a little; what I ended up doing was breaking the novel into 10,000 word chunks, each in its own file. That not only made it more manageable, but it made it easy to see how much I’d written in total. For those curious, here is the resulting chunks and their corresponding word counts:
9. I grew closer to some of the characters than I thought possible. I made it difficult a few nights ago when I had to write a really tough scene. At the same time, as I got closer to the end, I could not wait to be done with the characters. The juxtaposition of growing close and wanting to get away from the characters was a strange one for me.
10. Over the course of the novel, I averaged about 900 words/day. However, since August 1st, that average jumped to over 1,300 words/day.
11. I wrote the entire novel draft while maintaining a full time day job, doing my regular blogging (147,000 words worth of blog posts during the time the novel draft was written), raising a 4-year old and 2-year old and spending time with the family, writing a bimonthly book review column, writing a weekly Going Paperless column, and reading 34 books. What I learned from this: “I have no time” is no excuse. There is always time if you look for it and make adjustments.
As I got closer to finishing the draft, I began to wonder how I should celebrate. Should there be some kind of ritual I perform, or something like that? It turned out that the perfect ritual took place without my even consciously thinking about it. I wrote the last 4,600 words of the novel this morning at the Arlington Central Library. I wrote the words “THE END” sitting at a quiet table in the library. I can imagine finishing every novel that I write sitting in a library somewhere. I grew up using my community libraries and I don’t know where I’d be today without public libraries. I think there is an almost poetic symmetry that I finished writing the first draft of my first novel in a public library, the place where I learned to love reading and tell stories.
So what’s next?
I won’t be looking at this draft until December. Between now and then, I am hoping to write drafts of four short stories. In fact, in anticipation of finishing the novel draft soon, I began writing the first of the four stories a few days ago so that I had a starting point. I don’t plan on taking a day off. Tomorrow I’ll work on the new story making tomorrow the 199th out of 201 days that I’ve written.
On December 1, I will take out the draft of the novel and spent the next two weeks reading it slowly and taking lots of notes. Sometime around mid-December, I will begin writing the second draft. Writing the second draft is my favorite part of writing. For me, it is where the magic happens. Given how long it took me to write the first draft, I hope to have the second draft finished by the early spring.
When the second draft is completed, I will sent it out to a short list of people who have agreed to read and comment on it. When I have received feedback, I’ll get started on a third “polishing” draft. This is the draft that will ultimately get sent out into the wild. It would be nice to see this happen sometime in the early summer of 2014, but that’s planning pretty far ahead. We’ll just have to see.
It feels really, really good to be finished, but more than that, it feel really, really good to have actually done it. A novel is the writer’s equivalent of running a marathon, and today, for the first time, I crossed the finish line. It feels good.
- With much more detail in a subsequent post. ↩