Writing the First Draft (with Minimal Agony)
Last week I wrote about how to outline a book. Of course, that’s just one part of the process. Then you have to write your draft. There are many ways to go about this:
- Stare at a blank page or screen in complete agony.
- Do everything you possibly can around your house other than sitting down to write.
- Chat up other writers about this great idea you have, while ignoring the fact that no one cares because everyone wants to talk about their own project that they’re not working on.
- Rack up considerable credit card debt on books about writing, writing classes, a magical writing hat, the perfect notebook, and an attractive set of ballpoint pens.
I’ve tried each of these methods. Many times. But then I stumbled upon a different approach that yields considerably greater progress. I map it out on my calendar.
Note: This approach only works with a detailed outline to follow. Otherwise it turns into staring at a blank page or screen in complete agony.
First, I identify my writing days, usually 3-4 per week. These are days with a large chunk of time blocked out. No lunch meetings, marketing work, or other tasks that will take a lot of time. Most important: writing days only occur when my children attend school.
I assign “5” to my first writing day. This means that I will write 5,000 words. When I started this process, it was 2,000 words per writing day – use whatever chunk feels manageable. You can’t edit along the way with this method, you have to let go and vomit all those words onto the page. Get the basic bones of the book down. It’s not supposed to be pretty.
I assign “10” to the second writing day. This doesn’t mean I’ll write 10,000 words, it means I’ll write another 5,000 to bring the word count up to 10,000.
It’s important to put the cumulative word count, not just a 5 on each day. If I write 5,000 words on the first day, and only 3,000 words on the second day, I can’t put a check mark next to that “10” on my calendar because I haven’t reached 10,000 words. The satisfaction of checking it off your list when you’ve hit your word count goal is more delicious than coffee with booze in it. And I love coffee with booze in it.
How long does it take to write 5,000 words? There are days when I finish in the early afternoon and days when I have to work into the evening. Regardless, I don’t stop until it’s finished.
It proceeds from there, increasing by 5 each time until I get to 70,000 words, which is enough for me to have a working draft. I’ve tried using this method with chapter goals instead of word count goals, but have found it less effective due to variances in chapter length.
Note: If you do the math (you don’t have to because I’ll do it for you), you’ll see that I write my first draft in a total of 14 writing days, spread over about 5 weeks.
HALT: Right about now you’re getting ready to tell me what a shitty idea this is because if you write a draft in only 14 days of writing, it’s going to be embarrassingly bad. Well, that’s true. But it’s a draft and this is one part of the process. It doesn’t get not embarrassingly bad until you go through the editing of your shitty first draft. More on that next week.
A typical week of my calendar might read as follows:
12:30 Lunch Meeting
2pm Call Publisher
Research Media Outlets
Work on Travel Plans
Kids’ Softball Sign Up
Return Library Books
Prep for Writers Guild Meeting
Figure Out Way to Meet Jack Black
Try Not to Eat All Leftover Tacos
Find Way to Not Make Dinner
You can see that the main focus of the writing days is writing, with not much more going on. The other days are loaded. I’ve tried 5 writing days in a week, but find that it’s too much, leaving me overwhelmed. This schedule is manageable for me and allows me to make consistent progress.
I’ve used this method to draft books that have gone on to make the New York Times bestseller lists and win all sorts of shiny awards that my kids sometimes wear when playing dress up. It might not work for everyone, but it works for me and it might just work for you.