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NaNoWriMo Type Along with Stephen Deas – Week Three

Follow along as Stephen Daes shares his week by week experience doing NaNoWriMo.

If you missed Stephen’s intro article, you can read it here.

If you missed week one, you can read it here. And week two is here.

November 18th

Wordcount target: 55,000
Words written: 52,899

The first time I tried to draft a whole novel in a month was back in February last year I had all sorts of problems. This week’s post is entirely about Not Looking Back.

There Instruments of Truth by Deborah DeWitis a commonly held notion that what you’re supposed to do is start at chapter one and keep on going straight ahead without ever looking back until you get to the end. That is largely what I do and I agree with it as advice for anyone struggling to get to the end of a novel. I also have to acknowledge that it’s not really possible. I know there are writers out there for whom this approach doesn’t work and never will and that’s fine as long as they get to the end somehow. I also know that there are aspiring writers out there for whom this approach seems impossible and who never get to the end of anything.

If the latter describes you, then I would say that you should at least try and write this way. It’s not national half-a-novel writing month. Not finishing something is the curse of the aspiring writer. The only thing that stops any of us from just putting down the next word and the next word and the next, at whatever pace was can manage, is looking back at the words we’ve written before and deciding there’s something not right about them. If you can manage not to do either one of those things then, no matter how slowly you write, whether it takes an hour to choose exactly the right word each time, eventually you will get to the end.

It’s hard not to look back. Some of you probably think you have to. You described your protagonist in the first chapter–did she have light hair or dark? That sort of thing. You think you need to go back and check to get it right…except you don’t, not in this first draft. These days I really don’t [1], not even for that. I’m of the view that absolutely nothing should get in the way of getting to the end of that first draft because until I get there, I don’t know whether the changes I go back and make are the right changes anyway.

I can think of four basic reasons why I and others stop pushing forward with the first draft and go back and fiddle with it, and they’re all wrong (in my opinion).

My Plot Doesn’t Work (the BIG one)

Cold Redemption (cover)I mentioned when I started this that I was going to talk about “the avalanche scene.” Superficially these sorts of problems are perhaps the hardest to ignore because this concerns what you do when you realise you went wrong in some significant way earlier in that first draft. The urge, quite reasonably, is to go back and fix it. I’ll give a couple of examples, both from Cold Redemption (see link above) which was my first proper attempt at drafting a while novel in a month. I’ve already hit a similar structural problem in the one I’m doing right now but the Cold Redemption ones are easier to explain.

The basic premise of Cold Redemption is of an exile returning to his homeland and trying to find the family he left behind. Fairly early on, he encounters a young woman who was intended to act as an apparent early threat to his commitment to the wife and children he left behind and then quickly fade into the background. It became very apparent very quickly that neither was remotely interested in the other–they just didn’t have any reason to be and I couldn’t find any chemistry between them as I wrote their early scenes. For a several days I kept trying to stick to the original script, despite the strong sense that it wasn’t working. About a third of the way into the book, I gave up and let this character become what she was itching to be. The result is that she and another “secondary” character between them make a good effort at stealing the entire book (I continue to think that Oribas is the best character in the series but maybe that’s a personal thing). The result was also a mighty lurch in the first draft. If you read it as it was, several relationships suddenly change at one point in the story and it becomes, I think, considerably more fluid.

The other thing that happened was the avalanche incident: several characters pursued across a snowfield cross a ravine over a rickety bridge. One stays behind and sets off an avalanche that sweeps several of the pursuers and the bridge down into the ravine. The lingering character is then on the wrong side of the ravine. In the next scene, I need him on the right side of the ravine. In both cases, the temptation to go back and rework the first draft until the problem goes away before then moving on was very, very strong.


This is how you fix the problem in your first draft:

[*Note: Oi, muppet! Oribas on wrong side of ravine at the end of this scene]
[*Note: Totally change the character relationships everywhere up to chapter NN where they finally make some damn sense, idiot]

To be clear: figure out what’s wrong, make a note, act like you fixed it already and then carry on. Why? Because then when you get to the point of having to write…

[*Note: Rasmus Snowbeard needs to have not died half way through the book after all. Delete avalanche scene]

…you don’t want to scream and tear your hair out at all the superfluous work you did making that damn scene work in the first place. Your first draft should be full of notes about things that need to be fiddled with, checked, reworked, added and deleted. Fine. Go drop them in the right place if you can remember it or drop them in the front if you can’t and then go back and get on with getting to the end. Examples from my work so far this month:

– Wrong character surname used for half the story
– Add historical detail (crops up several times)
– Sequence of events in account of what happened is wrong
– Timing all wrong in this chapter – large gaps unaccounted for

That sort of thing. When I get to the end, I’ll most likely know what my story really is and all the things that don’t work. That’s what rewrites are for. Most likely I’ll be amazed at how little work it is to change even quite drastic-looking things during the first rewrite. It’s easy (easier, anyway) because you know from the get-go what you’re changing and you’re working through it anyway. So my one piece of advice, if you struggle to get to the end of things, is DO NOT GO BACK TO FIX YOUR PLOT ISSUES IN YOUR FIRST DRAFT. EVER. Just make a note of the issue that needs to be fixed and how the rest of the story is going to assume it has been resolved and move on. At least try it that way once and see how it turns out.

(Changing the relationships turned out to be quite easy, despite being spread over 30000 words, and the reason it was quite easy was because by the time I’d finished the first draft, I knew exactly what they should have been. Fixing the avalanche problem was a total pig, even though it never strayed outside one chapter. That’s how it goes).

I Need To Check What Colour Her Eyes Are

No you don’t.

Fact checking for consistency with what you’ve already written is fine if you go back and look for something once a day. If you do it once every ten minutes (and this is where my issues with researching the historical setting of my current story arise) then it’s slowing you down a lot. Make a note [*check] and move on.

(Notes should stand out from the prose. I suggest having an easily searchable character always included, hence the asterisk. Before starting the first rewrite, go through all your notes and remind yourself of them.)

There Are A Few Passages That Are A Bit Crap And Need Tarting Up

This Writer's block by Lunagraphis a first draft and I, and many other professional authors, would quietly hate you if there weren’t. EVERYTHING needs tarting up. That’s what rewrites are for. Don’t tart up your first draft until it’s done–now you’re working on a second draft and there are probably still several more to go. By all means do a search at the end and quietly weep at the realisation that your characters ALWAYS sigh when they’re troubled and ALWAYS clench their fists when they’re annoyed and you’ve used the word glutinous to describe a thick fog seventeen times of the course of six pages. Revel in it. Then rewrite it to make the horribles and the clichés go away. But not on the first draft.

I had the pleasure privilege experience of writing a pair of linked novels with another author earlier this year. This created the unfortunate necessity of sharing very early drafts with one another so as not to spend a great deal of time reworking something only for it to then be cut (and if you’re not spending about twice as much time reworking and rewriting as it took to get the first draft done then I’d suggest you might be doing something…maybe not wrong but perhaps sub-optimal). At one point I my partner’s writing I found the antagonist changed names twice names on the same page. I dread to think what horrors I perpetrated. Personally I refer to the first draft as the vomit draft–you get it out of you as quickly as you can and it stinks.


Everything I’ve Written Is Nowhere Near Good Enough (Actually, THIS is the big one)

And behind the procrastinating, I know that what stops a lot of inexperienced writers, particularly writers who haven’t finished a novel or two and gone through the whole process of rewriting it again and again and again, is the sense that they’re writing just isn’t good enough. I see this happen. It manifests as going back over old scenes and refining them and refining them and making the prose beautiful because otherwise it looks positively tawdry compared to the prose you read every goddamn day.

Typewriter by PeanutPhotoI wish I could help you with that. First drafts (generally) don’t get published. Most of us rewrite several times. There is an editor and then a copy-editor and then a proof-reader all of whom have a responsibility to find and point out structural flaws, moments of weak character, poorly written scenes, repetitive prose, faulty grammar, every fault you can imagine. The first draft is just that–the first draft and the first step of many.

A first draft can’t compete with a polished published work because it’s just not comparing like with like. You need to rewrite half a dozen times, read it aloud, get some other eyes on it and then rework it again before the comparison is a fair one. And yes, I’m sure there are exceptions, but best to assume that you’re not until you know otherwise. The simple fact is that you don’t know how good your writing can be (or indeed any given story) until it’s been right through the mill from start to finish. Comparing your own first draft to any published novel is doing yourself a disservice.

But then I’m guessing that, if you’re reading this and you understand the problem I mean, you already know all that. It’s not a rational thing. It’s an insecurity that comes from the gut. All I can tell you is that you’re not alone. I can’t say it never goes away but it does diminish, in time and the only way I know for that to happen is to find a little faith from somewhere and push on to the end. You can’t polish your rough diamond until it’s finished.

[1] I try not to. I tell myself I shouldn’t. It doesn’t always work.

Title image by Lunagraph.


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