If you’re curious what the process of writing a book’s first draft looks like, feel free to read along. I’ll be chronicling my efforts to knock out a complete first draft in the span of 14 days.
It all started earlier this month at the behest of my better half, who urged me to run with an interesting story idea I’ve had percolating since July. Since she’s much smarter than me, I agreed and made arrangements to take two weeks off from running Glass Spider Publishing. At the end of those two weeks, I should have a full manuscript that I can then shape into draft two—the only thing is, I’ve never written anything that quickly. But as a famous fictional writer once said, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything, Marty.” I decided it might be worthwhile to share notes and thoughts on the writing process in the hopes it will help and possibly inspire other writers to do the same.
STATUS: COMPLETE! Wednesday, December 30, 2020 (Day 15 – OVERTIME)
Yo Adrian, I did it! I’ll have more thoughts later after I’ve picked myself up off the mat. [Fast-forward to the next day…] I’m taking the next few days off to relax and do some reading. I don’t do enough of either, and both are good for you. My next move will be to tackle the book’s second draft, and although there are differing opinions on the way forward, my instinct tells me it would be better to continue than to take any extended time away in the hopes of returning with fresh eyes. Besides, I want to take advantage of the momentum. I fully anticipate that the second draft is going to be more difficult than the first—but I don’t want to take anything away from that initial accomplishment, especially considering I did it so quickly. I am immensely proud, but there’s work still to be done.
Monday, December 28, 2020 (Day 14)
I hit day fourteen running. Woke up at around five and went straight to the computer (after a stop at the coffee maker) and within an hour I had about 1,200 words written. Figuring I was in the zone and this was my best opportunity to get a lot of necessary writing done, I stopped only long enough to eat breakfast and went back to work. (Thankfully, my wife has been incredibly supportive and took care of feeding the pooch and the cats, otherwise we’d have had a full-on furry revolt.) By the middle of the day, I had written the final chapter and epilogue. (Side note for myself and anyone else who enjoys fueling their writing by listening to music that sets the mood: If you need help writing something that borders on sap, play late-70s Bee Gees ballads.) Anyway, I liked how the final chapter came out but not so much the epilogue, and I had to remind myself (again!) that this is just the first draft, the pencil sketch, and I can worry about adding color and fine details later. Since I did not approach the writing in a linear, start-to-finish fashion, I closed the day with the knowledge I still had more to do. But now that the day is done and I really think about it, there is really only one bridge chapter that needs to be drafted. It practically already exists, albeit in fragmented bullet points and not in any narrative form, so all I need is to give myself one more day of overtime, and I can call the first draft finished! But not today. Today I need to rest, and tomorrow I’m taking a day off with Jane. The end of draft one is in sight, and I feel an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. That means more than anything.
Sunday, December 27, 2020 (Day 13)
Today I brought my word count up to just over 45,000 and cracked the 100-page milestone in my first draft. I also came to a realization: For me, the creative process is what I find most rewarding. The actual writing. I’ve come to look forward to it like I used to look forward to days off from work. Whenever I think about how the story will be received by readers or what (if anything) may become of it, there’s no excitement. Only the desire to move on to another story when this one is finished being told. I’ve never experienced that before. I’ve always written with deadlines in mind and hopeful outcomes held between crossed fingers, but I think that’s changed. Tomorrow is day fourteen, and although my butt has grown sore of sitting in front of my computer all day and my stomach is rumbling for dinner, I can’t wait to come back again in the morning.
Saturday, December 26, 2020 (Day 12)
I took Christmas Day off, but the rest may have done me good. It allowed me time to think about the general plot structure. I’m also finding that waking up in the middle of the night seems to have become part of the creative process for me, at least with this book. It happened again last night, only this time instead of lying there with dark thoughts about the state of the world, I turned my thoughts inward and let my mind wander on a particular area of the story that was giving me trouble. This accomplished two things: it helped me get back to sleep, and it helped bring the story into even more focus. By morning, the changes to the plot had worked themselves out. Taking yesterday off seems to have helped greatly because today I wrote about 4,000 new words and finally broke the 40,000-word milestone that had been eluding me. At this point I’m not moving in a linear manner so much as I am just tackling sections as the ideas arise. I’m thinking I will have to extend my work time for another week (twenty-one days instead of fourteen) but I plan to get as much writing as possible done before the fourteenth day comes to a close.
Thursday, December 24, 2020 (Day 11)
That wonderful thing that happened yesterday had an unintended (and initially unnoticed) consequence that didn’t dawn on me ’til much later after signing off. By dreaming up a sudden left turn in the middle of my story, I completely invalidated and erased a planned sequence of events that would have infused the overall story with what I consider to be some “deep” subtext. I had to sit and chew on that for some time, both last night and most of the day today. I wanted to find out if there was a way I could have my cake and eat it too, and I think I may have figured it out. That said, I had to remind myself today that the first draft is no more than that. It’s supposed to be a sketch. I keep pulling against that idea and assuming I have to have all of the details of the plot ironed out before I continue, which I believe is neither possible nor a good idea. Stephen King once said that he begins the writing process with just an idea of where the story could go, and he allows the story to tell itself. I think what happened yesterday was the story trying to tell itself, and my instinctive reaction was to try to reign it in. I’ll be freer with it when I return. Alas, leave it up to me to schedule a fourteen-day writing marathon in the middle of a holiday. I’m taking tomorrow off unless I get hit by some bolt of inspiration and just have to sit down for a few minutes to hammer out the details so they aren’t forgotten.
Wednesday, December 23, 2020 (Day 10)
Something wonderful happened today. No, I didn’t triple the number of words I wrote yesterday. I didn’t even break the 40,000-word mark (although I’m almost there, at thirty-nine and change). But what did happen was something that’s more likely the result of my having been working on the same story for the past ten days without a break: I came up with something better. Actually, what happened was that as I approached the middle point of the book, a thought arose, and I said to myself (although not aloud, because that would be weird), “What if instead of THAT happening, THIS happened instead?” It was an inspired moment, the kind you want to have as a writer, and although I thought for a while about ignoring the idea and plowing on with the story I’ve already loosely outlined, I decided in the end to go with it. Without having to actually divulge what the plot points are, I’ll just say that the new development will help me achieve that all-necessary “raising of the stakes” that everyone talks about when writing stories that other people may want to actually read, as opposed to just writing for yourself and not bothering with plot and resolution and all that technical stuff. So, as a result, I spent a good amount of time once again staring out the window and mulling over how the new pieces would fit together. Once I had them, I set about deleting a lot of content I’d written into the outline to make room for the new. This development means I may not make the full first draft in the fourteen-day allotted time, but if the tradeoff is that I will have written a more interesting story, that’s fine by me. More tomorrow.
Tuesday, December 22, 2020 (Day 9)
I woke up (again) at around quarter to five in the morning today with a driving imperative, so I got up, went to the computer, opened the master document for the manuscript, and in bold capital letters typed MAKE IT PITHY. FUN. LIGHT-HEARTED. MOVING. I think I was going over everything I’ve written to this point in my sleep, and something told me I was really taking the story a bit too seriously. I determined that would be the kiss of death. It was born as a flight of fancy that eventually took up residence on my to-do list for 2020, and I want to make sure it stays that way and doesn’t evolve into something it rightly shouldn’t be.
Monday, December 21, 2020 (Day 8)
Today I found my boat floundering in the shallow waters of the narrative details I’ve not yet mapped out. The outline helps, but the deeper I go, the fewer notes I have, and so I find myself having to make up what happens next on the fly. That’s not the most comfortable place to be, and I think I’d be making a lot more progress if I went through and added more action bullet points. There was a thousand-word chunk of sloppy, rough-draft narrative that I’d inserted into the outline before I began, and today I found most of it had to go. As I highlighted the words and hovered a finger over the delete key, I thought about that saying often credited to Stephen King (but that actually had its origins elsewhere) about the need to “kill your darlings” when writing. This refers to the act of removing unnecessary words you may have developed an affinity for, like a wonderfully constructed sentence that just doesn’t fit any longer. I’m not sure that any of the content I removed today would qualify as wonderful in any way, but it did serve to inaccurately inflate the word count. I’m closing the day today with 84 pages and 35,300 words and a plan to outline my intentions more clearly tomorrow so I’m not stuck trying to think of what happens next but can just get to telling it.
Sunday, December 20, 2020 (Day 7)
I’ve discovered that I have a habit of worrying more about the quality of the words I write than the quantity. While this sounds good in theory, it’s a habit I need to break, because the first draft should be all about getting the words out. It’s the pencil sketch over which I will add shading, colors, depth, dimension, and detail. It’s important to focus on this. Also, I realized today that the playlist I created for this project may not be working. It’s difficult for me to write when a song has vocalizations of any sort, and only about one percent of the songs on the playlist are instrumentals. That’s okay, I can work around it. Although I shouldn’t be using this as any barometer with which to gauge my writing progress, I ended the day at eighty pages and 34,200 words. Of Mice and Men was about 30,000 words, so I feel I’m doing well. Making it something nearing the quality of Steinbeck . . . well, that’s going to take a few miracles and a lot more work. But this is the first draft. I can’t worry about that yet.
Saturday, December 19, 2020 (Day 6)
Today, I was lucky to write just a few paragraphs, but I had a few good excuses and decided to go easy on myself. In addition to it being my father’s eighty-fourth birthday—one he very likely wasn’t aware was happening because of his unfortunate slide into dementia over the past couple of years—there were also two paid live events to watch that I’d been looking forward to for months. (A two-hour livestream concert by Marillion singer Steve Hogarth, and yet another fight night, this one featuring boxing superstar Canelo Alvarez (the fellow just so happens to be the namesake of our redhaired tripod rescue cat, Canelo). By the time it was all over, it was time to sleep. I will write more tomorrow.
Friday, December 18, 2020 (Day 5)
Hit the ground early with the knowledge I’d be calling it an early afternoon. I’m not much into sports, but I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with professional boxing since I was a kid, and today’s event was one I didn’t want to miss. Nobody got hurt, so that’s a bonus. After dinner, I went back into my office to cram some more words in, but I’ll admit it left the day with something of a fractured sense.
Thursday, December 17, 2020 (Day 4)
In the middle of the writing day, staring out the window at the snow, I experienced a “eureka!” moment when I conceived of a different and significantly more exciting ending to the story. It was born of one of those “What if?” thoughts. This time, instead of sending me down a stupid path, it actually made a lot of sense. Spent a lot of time gazing out the window listening to music and running over the various plot points, adding notes to the outline document, making sure the new idea would work. An exciting and unexpected development.
Wednesday, December 16, 2020 (Day 3)
Burning my Northern Lights whiskey and tobacco candle and sipping coffee all day. Another day where the calling of the day ahead roused me from bed at around four fifteen. When five came along and I was still trying to get back to sleep, I decided to give up and gave myself an early start. Today was the first day I actually experienced a bit of doubt about my story. The trouble arose when I again posed that all-important question every writer should ask themselves: Who is your audience, and are you writing to them, or are you missing the mark? Felt a bit like I was missing the mark, but I want to let it happen. I resolved to let the story take the lead and figure the rest out in the second draft.
Tuesday, December 15, 2020 (Day 2)
Woke up at a little after four in the morning, worried I would be too tired to do any writing, but by the time breakfast was done I was feeling good about the day ahead. This time I skipped where I’d left off the previous day and moved straight to another chapter that was screaming at me to be written, which basically means I had an idea for an opening paragraph and so I followed that path. Added four thousand words, which was better than I had expected, but I still want to get to the point where I’m churning out more. Seems I’m still focused too much on “writing” instead of sketching, which is what this first stage is supposed to be all about.
Monday, December 14, 2020 (Day 1)
Day one of a planned fourteen days working on nothing but the first draft of my book resulted in roughly eight pages of new content. Not bad for a first day. I began the day with the knowledge that with the considerable length of the outline, I was already ahead of the game. By the end of the day I had a good number of pages but was a touch deflated to learn the actual word count had only risen by a couple of thousand words. I’ll do better tomorrow. I also realized that, because of the holidays, I can afford to extend those fourteen days into twenty-one.
Sunday, December 13, 2020 (Day 0)
Day zero was spent taking one final look over my book outline, which I decided I will use as the official document in which to write. I’m not interested in having a scattering of separate chapter documents—I like to keep things all in one place. Excited to get started, and a little nervous, but I’m hoping I can channel that energy into something special. I am approaching the work with the acceptance, understanding, and expectation that I will likely be writing in nonlinear fashion, similar to the way movies are filmed. Hey, if it worked for Ed Wood, maybe it’ll work for me.