by Chuck Sambuchino
Having just completed the first draft of my second novel, I can attest to the fact that writing a first draft is still a lot better than oral surgery, but a good measure worse than folding laundry or even cleaning the bathrooms (which, full disclosure, my husband does). First drafts require starting from nothing and creating something only slightly better than nothing. At least, that’s how my first drafts feel to me. The good news? Now I have something to work with. Fresh from the trenches, here are a few tips on writing the first draft of your novel.
1. Make an outline. Then be willing to leave it behind. Writing an outline forces me to think through some big questions before I begin. But I follow it the way I travel with my husband sans kids: “Hey, Honey, look at this weird little mountain on the map. Wanna check it out?” And pretty soon the story has taken a turn. Sometimes the side trip changes everything, and I revise my outline. Sometimes it’s a dead end. Then I have my outline to get me back on track.
2. Think of your first draft as the clay, not the sculpture. Imagine that what you are doing is digging up clay, just a hunk of stuff from which you’ll create something later. Much of it will be messy and unrefined, but that’s not your problem now. Your job is simply to get from the beginning to the end. Keep digging! When it’s time to write a second draft, you will have your raw material.
3. Every time you think about how pedestrian and clumsy and downright awful your first draft is, remind yourself that no one else has to read it. I don’t show my first draft to anyone. I already know it needs a lot more work, and I even know what some of that work will be, so asking someone else to read it would be pointless (and embarrassing). If you don’t know what your first draft needs, then by all means, ask for help. But if you decide not to show it to anyone, it may be best not to tell anyone about it either. Otherwise, your well-meaning friends will keep asking you how it’s going, and you will have to distract them with beer or chocolate or witty conversation on another topic (my personal favorite).
4. Don’t let a lack of research slow you down. I write historical fiction, so I do a lot of research, but I only do a little bit to get started. When I began drafting my debut novel, A Violet Season, I needed to know that violets were grown in the Hudson Valley beginning in the early 1890s, and that wet nurses had become somewhat obsolete by the turn of the century, when infant formula was invented. As for the details—how to pick violets, how much wet nurses were paid—in my first draft, I made them up! If I’d been concerned about research too soon, all those trips to the library (and the violet farm, and the Lower East Side of New York City, and so on) might have prevented me from ever finishing that first draft. Instead, I use CAPS in my first drafts to indicate where details need to be filled in later.
5. Set a deadline. A Violet Season was written over four summers—each summer, another draft. This was a crazy schedule, I know, but in some ways it was perfect. There was a clear end to the summers (sadly), and to my drafts. If you don’t have a deadline, you run the risk of one draft spilling into the next, and you may never feel a sense of closure or accomplishment. This is really important in a business in which we often work alone and without recognition. When you finish your draft, celebrate! Then start the next one.