Writing a first draft in 3 weeks

Eagle-eyed readers of this site might have noticed I went quiet (more so than usual) over the summer. There was a combination of factors going on – not least trying to put together a pilot project for my doctorate – but another one was the one cited above.

I was writing.

A new book.

And I completed the first draft in 3 weeks’ time.

And no, I can’t believe it either. I’m kind of afraid to look at the printed copy and finding out a bunch of blank pages.

If you are as well-versed as I am in the field of writerly productivity tips, you will know that this isn’t really that much of a feat. Quite a lot of people complete their NaNoWriMo in half the time offered them, and there is even an article on how to write a novel over a long weekend which I had bookmarked on my phone from the day I got it (the phone, I mean) to the day the battery died completely. It’s a very attractive dream – not least because the feeling of “flow” is fantastic.

Some might even call it addictive. I certainly do.

Flow is amazing because flow is when stuff gets done. Finally, the words and images that have been plaguing you for months are out of your head and into the page; finally, you can tweet your wordcount and bask in people’s baffled adoration; finally, you feel like you are productive. But flow has another great benefit – it allows you to leave the self-consciousness at the door and write with abandon. It’s basically what any writing instructor – Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldman, Anne Lamott – will encourage their students to do. “I’m going to write a short, bad book,” is what Dani Shapiro’s friend reportedly says before she starts on a new project, and my God, this mantra was what I had in mind when I was trying to lay down the draft.

I could bring us all down to the group by pointing out that, once the short, bad book got written, I am faced with the task of deciding whether it’s viable. I could point out that those 3 weeks and 75K words might be worth nothing other than the enjoyment they brought me. I could say that I have set myself up for failure because no writing project after this could possibly go as good.

But if you’re like me, you clicked on this post to find out How I Did It. So, for what it’s worth, this is How I Did It.

I actually started this book one year ago. I had doodled the concept on a train journey and then ended up chatting about it with my then-supervisor who expressed very enthusiastic interest. Then I wrote snippets while on holiday – not actual structure or story, but random scenes that popped into my head as I went about my business. It was promising.

Then I got back from holiday and forgot the project even existed. It happens. Work piles up and life isn’t very far behind and I actually had another book I set my hopes on and worked hard on making as good as it could be. Naturally, when that proved to be Not Good Enough, I had to do something to take my mind off going into Waste Spirals*.

Oh, lookie, I had just the thing. Years of being unable to write made me approach the project warily. I expected nothing to happen, for words to just freeze up. But I was feeling restless and unhappy, so I set my old notebook out one night, then when I woke up, I got my laptop and told myself that I’ll be writing a short, bad book. I set myself a target, and, because my friend had tagged me to do the #22Kill challenge, I used that as an incentive for me to write 2200 words each day.

At first I flew by the seat of my pants. I had a bunch of ideas and backstory to lay down, plus I had a bunch of pre-written scenes that helped jog my memory, even if they themselves didn’t end up in the actual document. I was still pretty sure it would not go anywhere, and waited for the day when I would just dry up.

After I passed 10K words, though, I had to admit that I was stuck in this thing, so I might as well go all out. And I used the Snowflake Method to outline the rest of the novel. It took me a lot less time than it said it would – one evening – but that’s because I skipped on a bunch of steps and also, the idea had been in my head for a while, so I wasn’t exactly starting from scratch.  Once I had a scene list and a better understading of the character, stuff just kicked into high gear.

I’m sorry if this is vague, but the way I see it, writing is like trying to lay down a puzzle with only a partial idea of what the final picture looks like. You know the dimensions, you know the colour scheme, but you also find a lot of fine detail along the way. You need to find patterns and make leaps to connect plots and characters. The Snowflake Method really helps with that, but you also have to be ready to look for the things too.

It helped that I had a lot of time on my hands. I will never say that I am not privileged that my work schedule allows me a lot of free time on the summer to write. It also allowed me to exceed my word limit.

And, of course, having the ending in mind was really useful. I think with this one, I had the ending in my head almost as early as the beginning, which is great. Not every project is the same, though. And there’s no guarantee that it won’t change in subsequent drafts.

In fact, my job now is to figure out what it is that I wrote. What it’s all about, and whether it’s worth pursuing further. 

I will keep you updated.


*Waste Spiral: the constant reminiscing of the time, effort and resources spent on trying to make a thing work, and it did not pay off. Often found in creative people, as well as anybody why spent money on a gadget that did not perform to task. Could end causing excessive amounts of stress and rage.


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