A couple of months back, I started chronicling my experience with writing the first draft of a novel. If you haven’t yet, you might want to read My Novel-Writing Journey, Part 1: Getting Started before you read the following post.
I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress on the manuscript since last time you heard from me. Here are some of the things I’ve accomplished or learned:
1. I’ve established my writing routine.
Most mornings I’ve been waking up to write for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour and a half, depending on what other commitments I have on that day. This routine will necessarily change in early September when I resume my day job, but for now I’m making the most of my time. Still, a routine hasn’t exactly been easy to stick to: every morning I’ve had to force myself to sit down and just write, even when I haven’t felt like it. Once I get going, though, I find myself on a roll.
2. I’ve clarified my first-draft goals.
Considering I imagine my final manuscript will be around 85,000 words, my first-draft goal is to write a minimum 50,000 words that are a representative sample of writing from across the entirety of the novel. Once I have this skeleton draft, I’ll be able to create a full outline and then flesh out scenes, refine themes, build character and setting, etc. I’d describe this process as a combination of pantsing and plotting. By clarifying my first draft goals, I’ve prevented myself from getting too mired down in research, in editing as I go, in fully fleshing out scenes. At this point I’m actually writing to discover my story and my characters more fully.
3. I’ve conducted some preliminary research.
Though I didn’t want to spend too much time researching at this point, I’ve gathered some artifacts such as photographs and mementos that have inspired me. I’ve taken some research notes, but just enough to gain inspiration and insight—just enough for now to fudge the stuff I’ll need to research later on, during the revision stage. My objective is to get the first draft done, because I know this is going to be the hardest part for me. Occasionally, I have to stop and look something up, but I just add those notes to my research file rather than trying to go back and incorporate the new knowledge into anything I’ve already written. I’d say I spent a few days on the preliminary research, and now I’m just looking up things as I need them.
4. I’ve decided on my writing tools.
I’ve been using OmmWriter and notebooks and pens for when I want to create without boundaries, for when I feel a bit blocked. When the ideas are flowing, I’ve been typing directly into Scrivener—a writing program that allows you to organize your work into sections, chapters and scenes and provides space for organizing research and character sketches.
If you’ve never used Scrivener, I can highly recommend it for longer projects. Here’s the binder view (notice the way the folders are organized on the left?) . . .
And the outliner corkboard mode . . .
Also love the full-screen composition mode, which automatically scrolls as you type . . .
5. I’ve taken a lot of notes.
I set up a section in Scrivener for notes, for when I have a particular insight I don’t want to necessarily write about at that moment or something I may use but not necessarily. I also keep an “Extras” file for sentences or paragraphs that come to me fully formed but ones I don’t necessarily have a particular scene for yet. If I’m out and about or don’t have my notebook/computer handy when inspiration strikes, I jot down keywords or a skeleton scene in the notes app of my phone. When I get several of these notes, I transcribe them into Scrivener and flesh them out a little as I go. I even made myself a little set of diagrams while I was trying to clarify the major themes and connections I’ve encountered so far.
6. I’ve stayed organized but also let the magic happen.
While my work-in-progress is very organized in Scrivener, I’m not writing in a linear fashion at the moment. I’ve been jumping around between scenes and sections as I write, because I’m drawn to write about where I feel the most inspiration in the moment. Because the entire project is digital, I can search easily for a scene or use the search and replace feature to change, say, a character’s name in every scene I’ve written so far.
7. I’ve recognized my own limitations and obstacles.
The first obstacle I’ve encountered is not feeling like writing outside of my established writing times, so if I miss a morning session, I really feel no motivation to make it up later in the day when the kids are up and the house is in chaos. I feel as if I could accomplish more if I felt inspired and motivated to write at other times of day. At the same time, knowing early morning is my best time helps me to focus on not squandering that time.
A second obstacle is tending to focus more on character development than on conflict. Intellectually I understand it doesn’t matter how authentic my characters are if there’s not enough conflict, but at times it feels as if my conflicts aren’t weighty enough. Story is conflict.
A third obstacle is that when I’m working on the sections of my book that are historical, I often feel completely overwhelmed by my unpreparedness to write a story that takes place in a different era. Here’s where a great deal of preliminary research would benefit me, but I know doing so would halt the writing of my first draft. I want to get down at least enough of this side of the story first so I know what research I actually need to do.
So, what does all this have to do with you? Some of the takeaways from my experience may include the following:
- Set small but manageable goals.
- Don’t let early research prevent you from actually writing your story.
- Choose writing tools and software that are both inspiring and practical for your project.
- Discover what time of day you tend to be most productive and build your writing routine around it.
- Don’t over-plan your story so much that you lose touch with what your characters are telling you.
- Even when you don’t feel like writing at all, just make yourself sit down and do it. Getting started is the hard part.
- Be aware of your writing obstacles, even if you’re not sure how to overcome them yet.
Are you working on the first draft of a novel? Any advice to share with your fellow writers?