Accidental novel: thoughts on first drafts

My accidental novel: Thoughts on first drafts

I accidentally wrote a novel. Well, it certainly started that way. I started working on a short story in December, setting out a really basic outline and running with it. After about ten thousand words, I realised I had barely scratched the surface. Clearly, this short story was something more expansive. The story demanded a larger setting. So I continued on until finally, last weekend, I typed THE END. What was a short story has now turned into something approaching short novel length. I had very little idea what I was doing and even less of an idea on how I was doing it.

It is incredibly satisfying to get to the end of a draft, especially with a longer project such as a novel. Typically, I have written short stories and plays. Getting to the end of a first draft with these formats is quick and satisfying. It can take less than a week sometimes. Obviously, a novel is going to take longer, even if you write fast. It took me about three months to get to the end of a first draft, writing  3000-4000 words a week on average. I found it hard to sustain a consistent approach during that time and to focus on the story. It changes and mutates under your fingers, depending on what is happening that day. As such, simply getting to the end feels like a satisfying achievement.

Given the muddled development, the book is an absolute mess. Plot strands start and splutter out never to be referred to again. There’s not much of a structure and I’m not sure the central mystery makes sense. Even the protagonist’s motivations and voice changes throughout the book, being radically different to the first paragraphs. I changed my mind on the main antagonists as well, making them quite sympathetic. I ended up taking their side. It’s going to take a lot of editing to make it even vaguely readable and to force it to make sense.  This was part of the difficulty in pushing through to reach the end. I kept thinking of major changes I would need to make at the start of the novel in order to make the rest of it make sense. The problem was, most of it wasn’t a simple word change or paragraph change here or there, it was rewriting the beginning. So I pushed on through.

I am glad I carried on to the bitter end. Through the writing, I made a hundred decisions about character and situations. Each small decision on a sentence level impacts the next. This is how the big decisions are made about character. This is how I found the voice of my protagonist. Through small decisions in the writing process, I found out what the story was really about. Minor characters took on greater prominence as I wrote and eventually impacted the story. All of these small decisions help to change the novel and will ultimately inform the second draft. When I come to rewrite the novel, it will be much richer for having blundered through the first draft, far more than a detailed outline would have been.

A first draft is terrible by design. The novel is a word vomit mess, full of inconsistencies and terrible sentences. It is also necessary. As well as giving me much more of an idea of an outline, it also is something to work from. Once the story is on the page, even in its roughest format, it can be reshaped and edited, honed and perfected. The real work begins in the second draft, rewriting to make it better. The point of a first draft is therefore just to push through the words, get them down onto the page, so you can change them all later. That’s not to say the process is no fun, in fact, it is the most imaginative and exciting times in the whole process. You can go anywhere and make anything happen in the first draft, no matter how crazy or inconsequential. There is boundless creativity in the first draft, even as you grind out the words to meet the word count.

This is all subjective of course. I knew writers who would work to a meticulous outline, plan the whole book out before they came to write it. Others may be a bit of bot, using an outline but deviating from it as they write. I like to have the barest bones of a story, then figure out what is happening or what the story is about along the way. This is not to say it is right, it is simply the bet way I have found for my process. Whether you use an outline or not, the first draft is a heady rush of excitement and creativity. At the end of it, in whatever terrible form it may take, you have a novel. Then you can get to work making it better.

Let me know what you think