As I race to increase my word count for November, like so many others this month, I am learning one very important thing: that writing a first draft is a process, not a product.
First drafts are for exploring the story; getting to know your characters, seeing how they react to circumstances and embedding yourself in their lives. First drafts are for making mistakes; getting distracted by storyline tangents that we didn’t know existed, introducing strong characters and letting go of weaker ones. First drafts are for our eyes only; allowing us to write terrible sentences, use lazy words and skip the scenes we just can’t be bothered with.
First drafts are about process, not about product.
I don’t think I ever realised this before. I must have been aware of it, but until recently I hadn’t explicitly acknowledged it. Not until I worked out that my first ever attempt at a novel – NaNo #1 – would be better served by a rewrite rather than an edit.
For the month of November I need to allow myself the freedom to really explore my novel concept. If that means that after 12,000 words I have not yet written the inciting incident, instead focusing on the back story that sets up this conflict, then so be it. At least I’ll really understand my protagonist and her motivations when it comes to destroying all that she holds dear.
I’m learning that part of my process is making my characters real. Not for a reader, but for me – the writer. If I’m going to be writing a 90,000+ word manuscript about them then I need to care about what happens to them. To do that I have to convince myself that they really do exist somewhere – be that in my head and/or on the page. As a result, I’ve spent most of my November writing dialogue between my protagonist and her best friend, discovering how she really feels about losing her birth mum on the day they met and how she discovered she was adopted in the first place.
I’ve been writing a lot of exposition too, to give myself the opportunity to understand the landscape of the story I’m trying to write, to contextualise and legitimise the acts I know are going to come up at some point soon. My first draft process is to write all of the story, so that at the end I can decide which bits are the most significant and which parts are for my benefit only.
My process might involve a rough outline, but I have the option to take it slow and really delve into each plot point and justify it in my head. Until today I was questioning that approach, thinking that it was taking too long, that I was writing rubbish to stall the action, that I was afraid to really write the ‘big scenes’ I had originally planned.
Now I know this is just my process. In order to write those big scenes I need to understand what led my characters there and how they really might react to these things I’ve already decided for them. Most of all, I’ve realised that the first draft is entirely about the process of writing this story with these characters at a certain time and is less about the final product itself.
For all those taking part in NaNoWriMo, or just trying to write a novel themselves, remember this: You might create a final product from your first draft, but that initial manuscript is all about discovering the potential of your idea. No one ever has to see your first draft. Instead let it be the mechanism that drives you to create that final product you eventually share with the world.