There’s a reason people tell you the first draft shouldn’t take any longer than three months.
All right, all right, calm down–they’re not saying it should be good. Everyone who’s written anything knows the first draft is always garbage. (In my case, the quality of the second and most of the third draft are also highly questionable.) But, it turns out there’s a reason for most advice “they” give about writing.
I’m talking about the standard advice for fledgling authors: Start with short stories and work your way up. Accept that your writing will be crap at first. Finish your first draft in three months.
And, here are the problems with that advice, according to me, six years ago:
I came up with a great idea for a BOOK. Not a short story, not a novella, but a furREAKing book, okay? Sure, the last thing I wrote successfully was a grocery list, which I may or may not have left on the counter when I went to the store. But, why dabble in the little leagues when the WORLD SERIES is within your grasp? I thought I could teach myself to write in the time it took me to finish the my book, and when it was complete, I would be Anne Rice. If not Anne Rice exactly, a blonde version, without vampires.
Aside from that, I couldn’t just accept that my writing would be crap at first. I had a computer. I knew how to make words. Anyone with a half a brain can type out a story, right?
I told myself that writing a first draft in three months would be impossible for someone like me. At that point I had two mini-hellions wreaking havoc in my house, work, AND a dayhome where I took in other people’s hellions. Besides, who gave out this advice anyway? The people trying to publish their first book generally need to have other “real” jobs, where they get paid, to do things like eat and stay alive. They probably had laundry to fold, groceries to buy, lawns to mow and *shudder* driveways to shovel, just like me. How could anyone, anywhere, possibly be expected to write the first draft of their epic premiere novel in three months??
Six years ago, tossing all of that advice out the window seemed like a great idea. I was going to make my OWN road, forge my own path, and use all of the other clichés I didn’t know I should probably exclude from my prose. When people asked me one day how I managed to write the greatest book since the Epic of Gilgamesh so easily, I would tell them it was just *sigh* a gift from heaven, brought down by angels, and sprinkled with fairy dust. I, was a natural talent.
Six years LATER, book still unpublished, I believe that maybe the advice was pretty good. Now I know.
Short stories are a great learning tool to sharpen your craft. Once you feel confident enough, show that story off in critique groups. Take the plunge and try to get it published in a literary magazine. Accept help from authors you TRUST. Reading about writing will only take you so far. My book shelves are heaving with textbooks and style guides, but I never learned as quickly as I did once I found the right critique group. A lot of learning how to write involves trial and error, writing and re-writing. Learning how to work within the confines of a short story will teach you how to say so much more using less words. You will be able to focus on theme and pace, and keeping the reader’s attention. And, when you’ve published a collection of short stories, a publisher will be that much more likely to accept your manuscript when your BOOK is finally ready.
No matter if you’re a seasoned professional or just starting out, the first draft of your novel will be awful. And, that’s okay. Don’t spend your time revising it. When a writer sits down to begin their work, it helps to think of it as a chuck of marble. With each new word, you’re chipping away the rock which isn’t meant to be in your story. The first draft is just about taking shape. Finding form. Most of the words you type aren’t going to make it into the final copy, but they will be placeholders for the ones that will. You’ll get to know your characters in an intimate way that an outline, no matter how detailed, won’t facilitate. Worry about the details after.
Taking longer than three months to write that first draft is DANGEROUS. Imma tell you why. I’m fighting my way through the aftermath of an INCREDIBLY long slog at a novel right now. My first draft took me years, not months. The second draft took almost as long, and this third draft will turn one in March. Because writing this behemoth has taken so long, the second draft hardly looks anything like the first at all. The third draft might be a cousin, at best. All that added time gave me a lot of leeway to veer off track of what I originally wanted my book to be. In that accumulation of weeks and months, the theme has changed countless times. I’ve lost track of subplots, plots, character development and motivations. I’ve axed some players completely, changed names, added new ones, and sometimes forgotten who made the cut and who didn’t. Right now, I’m trying to work my way through the last four chapters, but I find that I’m untangling some pieces of the story I set into motion ages ago.
What I have learned over the years adds up to this: Start with short stories and work your way up. Accept that your writing will be crap at first. Finish your first draft in three months.
Sometimes you have to learn things the hard way.