Diving In: First Draft Shivers

2:24 PM

Our local Sydney beach is an artful temptress, flashing her cellophane sea and sun-bright sky deep into autumn. Every year, right into April, my family runs down the dunes and plunges into the ocean, only to come to the surface, spluttering with the cold. I follow at a more sedate, some would say tentative pace.

The kids don't care. They never seem to feel the cold. They throw themselves at the shore break for hours and then sit in the shallows like little old ladies in their own personal spa bath (see pic!) And my husband is one of those sea-loving salty dogs who swims all year round and is possibly part merman.

Me? I feel every ripple of those shivery winter's-coming currents. But as much as I'm tempted to march straight back to shore, wrap myself in a doona and take a snifter of brandy while scanning the beach for a convenient bonfire, I know that if I stick it out for a few minutes, the "S#%t it's bloody freezing!!" will morph into "This is refreshingly invigorating!" and even "You wouldn't be dead for quids!" And before I know it, I've ridden half a dozen waves like a flailing octopus, have two kilos of sand in my togs and have had a thoroughly enjoyable time.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

Yep, I'm about to dive into the first draft of another novel and I'm approaching it with similar trepidation. It's going to be cold. What if it's too cold? What if I can't hack it? What if creatures from the deep grab me by the ankles and pull me down into hell? (and what if they don't have Scrivener in hell?!!)

Seriously though, this is only my second novel. I've only done this once before. How does it go again? Okay, time to figure out what worked before and maybe check in with some experts . . . .

1. Nanowrimo

I wrote the first 50,000 words of my first novel during Nanowrimo. The basic premise of Nano is "Don't edit, just write." This was brilliant for me first time round because it allowed me to banish my inner critic and inner editor (can you imagine those two locked in a room together?!) and simply get the words down. I had no idea where the story was going but learned a lot about the discipline of sitting my bum down every day and putting words on a page.


Editing those words later was a giant pain in said bum. It was like I'd knitted a jumper without a pattern. It was full of holes, a half-closed neck and one sleeve longer than the other. Not ideal. Editing meant unraveling the jumper, writing a pattern and then re-knitting the jumper using all the same wool but following the pattern this time around.

This involved enormous amounts of reading about structure. Honestly, I went cross-eyed learning about Ws and pyramids and heroes journeys. There were bits about rising action and climaxes that I frankly found quite disturbing! ;-)

I ended up basing my 'pattern' on Michael Hauge's Story Structure. This was the only structure that made sense for my first novel and I was really hoping it would work for my second novel, without all the mad, directionless 'knitting.'

Which brings me to . . .

2. Plotting / Outlining

I was determined to write a solid outline this time around and write to the outline. It sounded a bit formulaic, and a little like I was letting my inner conman out (if it's too good to be true, etc) but I pressed on. I duplicated the structure spreadsheet I'd successfully used for Novel One, opened my notebook full of Novel Two jottings and got my pencil ready.

Then? Blank.

After much hair-pulling and tea-making and cereal-eating, I finally realised that I didn't really know enough about my characters and their stories which meant I didn't have enough to hang a narrative on. It was a big light bulb moment. The novels I want to write are driven by character, not just plot, so hoping to nut out the story without knowing the characters properly was never going to work.

Which brings me to . . .

3. Plotting AND Pantsing

I wanted to plot the heck out of this second novel to save myself the pain of reassembling 100,000 words into some sort of structure BUT I also felt the need to 'write my way in' to the characters and, hence, the story.

Like Veruca Salt, I wanted it all! (The squirrel, the Oompa-Loompa AND the pink candy boat :))

That's when I remembered a blog post by Natasha Lester about how she works her way into a new novel by writing the first 20,000 words. It allows her to get to know her characters and find the voice for the story. (She's written several posts on first drafting so don't forget to slip down the rabbit hole at Natasha's place later.)

There's a section in this post by KM Weiland that has a similar idea. She creates a document in Scrivener called Story Summary where she writes down the basic story idea.

So I created a page in my Scrivener project and have been scribing away like mad, letting the story flow where it wants to, Nanowrimo style, with no particular scenes or structure. It's more just stream-of-conscience stuff, asking as I go 'And then what happened? . . . And then what happened?'

And it's working! I feel all giddy and loose on the page because there's no pressure. I'm not carefully constructing scenes or second-guessing dialogue tags or worrying about pace. It's not the actual novel (yet!) and that feels very liberating.

What are your first draft secrets? (tell me, tell me, tell me!) I'd also love to hear about any resources or links you've found helpful.

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