I hate writing first drafts. The story either comes out too fast in a messy splatter, lacking substance, or every paragraph sits reluctantly in the bowels of my brain and needs coaxing out with a stick. Sure, there are occasional moments where a page will glide out that’ll make me smile and think ‘ahhhh! I can do this!’ But those moments are too rare.
I love rewriting. I love editing. Once I’ve got something on the page with which to work, then I am in my element. Then I feel like I can apply craft. But getting that first draft down… eesh. It sucks, and I have to smother the critical part of my brain that says, ‘Hey, this is no 40-Litre Monkey.’
With short stories, getting through the shitty first draft phase is bearable. It might take me only a week or two. Certainly no longer than a month. And then I can pull it apart, interrogate it. What is the story really about? What’s at stake for the protagonist? What levels of conflict exist, and how can I amplify them?
But right now I’m working on a novel, and my ability to put up with self-doubt and self-criticism is being pushed to the limit. Several times over the last year, I’ve told my partner, Zoe, ‘I’m going to quit this damn book. I hate writing novels. I’m a hard-wired short story writer. I just can’t do it. I don’t like writing novels. Why do something that makes me so miserable when writing short stories makes me so happy? Wah wah wah.’
But on the last of these occasions, Zoe pointed out something to me. She said, ‘You never enjoy writing first drafts. You just have to stick with it. You’d never give up on a first draft of a short story, no matter how bad it was, because you know you’ll be able to make it right when you edit it.’
This was so true!
So I recommitted to finishing the first draft, and at least getting the story to a point where I can get out my editing tools and start work on it for real.
I’ve got through first drafts of other (abandoned) novel projects in the past by setting myself daily word targets – usually 1,000–2,000 words. And because I’ve wanted to get the draft over with as soon as possible, I’ve often written beyond the day’s word minimum, and churned out 4,000 words. But writing at that speed, I’ve found that first drafts have come out so bad I’ve had to throw the whole novel draft away and start again – another first draft – double agony!
So this time, I’ve decided to try a different approach…
Daily word count target: 500 words
500 words a day is easily achievable. In a peak of creative flurry, I can do that in half an hour. It never takes longer than two hours.
And if I’m having a bummer of a writing day, and having to prise each word out with a stick:
a) I don’t have to put up with this agony for too long.
b) If I’m stuck because I’ve made a bad decision about a plot point, I can go back again the next day and cut it, and not feel too bad about it, because tossing 500 words in the bin is much easier than tossing 2,000 words.
b) I can just write 500 words in a state of ‘play’ rather than work. It’s an experiment in what happens next – could almost be a stream of consciousness exploration of the next moment in my main character’s journey. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go anywhere interesting, because I can go back and cut it later. But often, maybe because the stakes are so low because I’ve only committed to 500 words, something interesting does come out – a little grain of possibility, which I can build on the next day.
c) If I’m stuck because I haven’t yet worked out what needs to happen next, I give my unconscious time to come up with an interesting solution.
d) I also give the universe time to put solutions my way. For instance…
Have you had that experience when you’re mid-way through a story, and it feels flat and lifeless, and then you go see an exhibition, or read an article, or have a conversation with someone, and then the answer is suddenly there? You see a poster for a new puppet show at the Barbican, and you think, yes! If my protagonist were a puppeteer rather than a dog trainer, it would make sense of the fact that her dad said that thing to her when she said she couldn’t make it back for his birthday, or whatever.
I saw Tobias Wolff read at WordFactory last year, and he talked about his most famous story: Bullet in the Brain. He said it began with a real event. A friend of his had been present at a bank robbery, and his anecdote about it was full of bank robbery cliches, and Tobias Wolff imagined a character criticising the technique of the robbers. And he wrote the first half of the story, but then got stuck with it. It was just an anecdote. He couldn’t work out how to move it forward. But then one day he read a book about neuroscience, and the solution to the bank robbery story came to him – what if as the bullet went through the protagonist’s head, it’s tearing through all these memories stored in there? And that’s the thing that lifted the story from anecdote to classic. (BTW, you can listen to some highlights of the WordFactory Tobias Wolff interview here.)
While writing in 500-word micro-bursts like this reduces your productivity, it makes the experience more pleasurable (or at least bearable), makes your target more achievable so you don’t dread it if you’re not in the mood, and it opens up the possibility of interesting new solutions that will elevate it. At least that’s what I’m telling myself during this daily word count experiment anyway. I’ll report back in a while and let you know how it’s going.