Novel Writing: Taming the First Draft

Novel Writing First DraftI have now finished the first draft of my novel. I started writing it on November the 1st 2011 as part of National Novel Writing Month and just under five months later, the first draft is finished. It stares at me from across the room, its face a mass of scars and matted fur, its body showing burn marks and the crude stitches of amateur surgery. It is a twisted monster devoid of love, filled with hate and anger.

I created this monster; it was the product of five months of ideas, changes, bad ideas, bizarre plotlines and even more bizarre plot-holes. I wasn’t expecting it to be perfect but I’m surprised at just how wrong it is in places. I learned a lot during this process, and that’s the point of course. It is my first novel and no matter how much I read novel-writing sites, help books or guides there’s no replacement for just diving in, making a complete mess of it and then turning that genetic mistake into a creature of beauty in the future edits.

National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo is where my novel started. I’d been planning on writing a novel for years, but it had only ever been a plan. NaNo kicked me up the arse and made me start writing. The seemingly achievable task of writing 50,000 words in a month is what lured me in. NaNoWriMo made me start writing the damn thing. At that point, writing a novel stopped being an idea and became something I was doing. From that perspective NaNoWriMo is a good thing.

However, there is a down side. National Novel Writing Month is like being chased by a man with a chainsaw. If you stop for even one moment there’s a chance he’ll catch-up with you and forcibly remove your spleen, so you just keep running. Every day was all about the word-count, and it felt like I was wasting time if I stopped to plan or re-evaluate. I didn’t want to spend time planning or investigating. I kept going, blindly barging my way through any issues that popped up, thinking…

“I’ll sort them all out later, once I’ve crossed that 50,000 word mark”

The trouble is when you cross the line, you realise that the chainsaw guy isn’t holding a chainsaw it’s a leaf blower and there was no need to run from him at all. Worse still you now have to look at all those issues. They may have been easy to fix if you’d looked at them earlier, but now they’re all in one giant plot related amorphous blob and it’s difficult to separate one issue from all the others.

Now this huge plot-issue monster stampeded through the novel. Not a page went by where I didn’t realise that I’d forgotten to add a character, or I’d rewritten the history of a character, or changed the personality of one of the characters. I thought I had planned enough, I was surrounded by a forest’s worth of paper, detailing weather patterns, history, landscapes, and the most popular band of shampoo in the ‘Land of Bonga Bonga’. There’s not a thing I didn’t know about my world. I was happy, I was ready and off I went.

Everything was fine for a few days the plan rolled over at my feet and allowed me to tickle its belly. It purred at me and stretched out content and happy. Then something happened, my brain went maverick and turned against the plot and man did the plot not like that. It reared up at me slashing at my face with its detail-soaked claws. As I continued writing the novel, wrestling with the plot-monster at every stage all the plans I had created before became useless until suddenly I was on my own without a plan.

Don’t get me wrong, I came up with some darn fine ideas that I think work really well, but as I added those ideas they felt like isolated story points. They didn’t feel integrated or fluid in any way. By the time the Draft zero was finished the plot and I were battered, bruised and half insensible. Yet still eager to go on…

…and that’s the point. Despite how much of a ‘dribbling pile or dead donkey carcasses’ the draft zero turned out to be. I’m excited about editing it. I can’t wait to go in there with my machete and just hack away, and tame that monster. It’s exciting and kinda liberating.

There’s a lot of things that need doing, but three which I consider the most important, and they are…

1.)    Look at the plots

I’m going to take the plot, put it down on to index cards or a flowchart and look at it all over again. I’ll be moving bits around, deleting things. Just looking at it and making it all make sense. I find it strange that the earlier part of the novel which all the planning is dull as hell and desperately needs an explosive suppository, while the end of the novel may have been incoherent dribble but damn was it fun to write.  By the end of this stage I aim to panel-beat the plot back into a recognisable form again.

2.)    Rewrite the character Bio’s

When I started writing the novel there were 5 main characters and 3-4 sub-characters. By the time UI had finished there were 8 main characters and about 15 sub-characters. That’s a hell of a lot of people just written in on the fly. They seemed like a good idea and they got in the novel, but those characters have no substance. Most of them aren’t three dimensional people, they don’t have any wants or fears. They exist and then they don’t. This step is to write or rewrite their biography’s now that I know how they will act and react to situations.  I can tailor the characters to the redesigned plot. I can make them living, breathing characters again.

3.)    Tighten up the sub-plots

Once I have the plot re-organised and the characters better identified, I can start threading the sub-plots through the novel. At the moment bits of sub-plots are included but these are inconsistent. In most cases though the characters are there, sub plots are forgotten or changed at whim. Guilty secret here, but I actually forgot to write two characters into the last scene. They were, at least at some point the purpose of a sub-plot but it  just melted away into nothing.

These three points are enough for me to get on with. There’s a fair bit of work here but I’m excited about it. After all, I’ll need to start perfecting this process it won’t be my last draft zero.

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