Tuesday, July 28, 2015

First novel's first draft

In my last post from about 5 minutes ago, I posted a screenshot of the ending of my first novel's first draft. In the spirit of writing a first draft and forcing myself not to edit/revise as I write, I decided to make that blog post short. You know, so it wouldn't be a long, awful mess since I didn't want to edit it. But in the spirit of spending 7 months writing the first draft, complete with scenes and whole sections I now realize I'll need to seriously pare down, here's a longer post about the process of writing.

For this novel, I had the whole story in my head for months before I finally decided I was going to write the thing down, so I wrote it more as a plotter than as a pantser. For this blog post, I'll be more of a pantser. In other words, the following is not really in any kind of order.

Some thoughts, feelings, discoveries, frustrations, surprises, etc. regarding writing a novel's first draft:

  1. Well, that took longer than I expected!
  2. The hardest part wasn't coming up with overall plot or back stories. I had most of that in my head already. The hard part for me was just writing words. I was pretty good about writing daily, but what slowed me down was indecisiveness ranging from minor to small to just-pick-something-and-write-the-dumb-sentence.
  3. Scrivener is my favorite of the few processors/programs I've tried. It does cost money, but you can do a 30 day trial (not just 30 consecutive days, but 30 days of actual use), and the price is worth it if you're serious about writing a novel. For a while I used Lit Lift online (it's free), but Scrivener can convert your manuscript into proper formats for PDF or printing, or even to Word files, and once you download the program you don't need internet connection to use it. It's very similar to using Microsoft Word, but you can have your chapters and scenes sorted into files and folders in a "binder" in the organization side bar. In Word, I would either have to have the whole draft in one giant file (lots of scrolling!), or have it broken into smaller files (lots of files open at once if I need to see previous sections or reference materials).

    Scrivener allows not only your manuscript in your binder, but also files for characters, settings, photos, reference, whatever you want. (So it's like Word, but with the Book 1/Book 2/etc function in Excel.) The only thing I don't prefer in Scrivener is the table function - they're so hard to edit. I simply have separate files in Excel for my world's timeline and price list tables.

  4. You don't have to have Scrivener, or even Word. I used a spiral notebook and a pen sometimes. That's more portable for traveling. Also, when I felt particularly stuck about wording or minor events (see point 3 below), I would hand write in pen so that once it's written it's written. If I come up with something better I make a note in the margin and move on. After I finish the section, I copy it into the computer.
  5. Me before writing a sentence or choosing the minor event: "But I can't decide! I don't want to write one thing if the other thing would be a better choice!"

    Me after choosing one and just writing it: "Eh, sure. That works."

  6. Some characters barely made it into the story with maybe two or three scenes, when they were meant to be (and I still plan for them to be) more major.
  7. I use a lot of commas. I already knew that, but it's still a problem for me. At least it's one that easily editable.
  8. After 135,000 words, I still type "herslef" and "besdie" and "KEt" and "shek". Every time. Ket and Shek are major characters' names. I guess the extra capitalization in one makes up for the lack in the other.
  9. It's harder than I realized to come up with sayings and phrases for a made up world. In modern fiction or nonfiction I use plays on words and references to history, the Bible, pop culture, etc, but can't do that for a fantasy world. But fantasy tends towards dialogue too proper and stuffy for most of my characters. I wanted turns of phrase to make them sound uneducated but not stupid, informal but not modern, timeless but not fantasy-formal-stuffy, conversational but not cliche.

    More snags: It's a Bronze Age based setting. So no iron and steel. So no rust-colored hair or being "rusty" at something. It's a tropical location, so no ice-cold anything. (I used "cool as caves" and simply cut the color comparison.)

    I had fun creating my own phrases. The characters can't throw a monkey wrench in the works, but they can put a leak in someone's bucket. "Less is more" sounds modern and cliche, but "little is much" gets the point across while (I think) sounding more original.

  10. I researched. And over-researched. I look up something, such as whether bananas are in season year round, and find more interesting facts than I expected, and before I know it I've spent an hour researching bananas. Who knew you could make flour, fabric, beer, paper, and rope from bananas?
  11. Suddenly everything is potential material for my story or a future story. A snippet of dialogue that catches my attention, a problem someone is dealing with, the architecture in a painting. My first reaction now is, "How could I fit that into my story?"

As I progressed through the manuscript:

  1. I realized I was way overexplaining motives and gestures and such. The beginning is going to be a muddled mess to reread.
  2. My world building evolved. Plot-wise, my story coheres from beginning to end. World-wise, I developed culture/clothing/architecture into something different and, in some cases, much simpler than what it was originally. That will have to be addressed in future edits.
  3. I got better at NOT editing as I wrote. At first, I was afraid to have something badly written with my name attached to it, even though no one but me would ever read it. (Hey, I don't even like the idea that there might some picture of me or homework with my name dropped on the ground somewhere out in the world.) But as I went along I a) got used to the idea and b) just wanted to move on and not worry my head over editing this part over and over. I even started leaving notes when stuck and moving right along, such as:
    • [makes an offer]
    • “There’s more,” she said. “But that’s for later. You’ll have to earn it.”

      [Blah blah blah stuff happens and then more stuff. I suppose they reach/near the mountain, and then turn eastish or northeastish or something.]

  4. In general, my writing is more wordy at the beginning. As I progressed through the draft, I realized I was overexplaining, including too many events that were interesting but not important to the story, and worrying too much about show-don't-tell-ing. Yes, showing is better, but for a first draft sometimes it's okay to tell and move on. (At the end of a 2,040 word scene of two characters discussing marriage with each other and their parents, I wrote: "So they got married." And then moved on.)

How it feels to finish a draft:

  1. Not as different as I expected. Kind of like when I cut all my hair off.
  2. It's still the primary thing on my mind, and it's still hanging over my head. The difference is, instead of being eager to get the next scene written, I'm eager to read it again and get to revising.
  3. I surprised myself finishing in July. When I turned 25, I decided 26 was going to be the birthday when I didn't look back at another wasted year. Each month of 25 I want to pick some kind of goal (mostly fun things I've always wanted to do, but never got around to). I was really hoping July's goal would be to finish my draft, which did happen. (This is a big part of the reason I started telling so much instead of showing in the later scenes, and leaving notes to return to later.) It's a good thing I made July's goal, because it's only month 2 and I'd hate to fail so soon.

So now I set my draft aside and not look at it for a while, or think about it if I can help it. That way, it can sit until it all compresses into a thick, compounded sludge of unrecognizable, laughable prose. In the meantime, I continue reading my books about the writing process, or read my personalized, autographed copy of The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, which is the book that originally made me want to be a novelist, or think about future stoies I may want to write.

And a kickback to February. Here's the note Shannon wrote me in The Goose Girl, after I told her it was the book that made me want to be a writer and that I'd finally started writing my own.

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