Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Joy Of First Drafts - Alice Jolly

I am reaching the end of the first draft of a new novel. It is a while since I've worked on anything entirely new and I had forgotten how much I love first drafts. It also always surprises me how fast I can write one. Two or three months at the most.

My technique when writing a novel is first to plan and then to get the whole thing down on paper from beginning to end. The rule is that I'm not allowed to stop - no matter how bad it gets. The plot may cease to make sense, I may change all the characters names two or three times, a character may be born during the Second World War and then become a teenager during the 1980s - but still I keep going.

This is what works for me. I know that other writers work in entirely different ways. But I need to see the whole book from beginning to end before I can progress. And the process is so exciting. You can write whatever you want. No need to think about subtly, nuance, detail, research, credibility. It is fine to write as much melo-dramatic rubbish as you want.

Of course, when I look back over my first draft I will realise that it is utter tosh. And that I will need to go back and re-write it all - again and again. In fact, re-writing isn't really the right term because it isn't just the writing that changes. The whole structure will probably be taken to bits again and again before I even get on to the words themselves. All this may take years.

But hopefully some memory of that initial excitement remains. The book I'm currently writing is set in the Victorian era and so I am writing the first draft by hand with a quill pen - as my character would have done. I have also set up my writing space to look a little like my character's room might have looked. (Obviously I should shut up before you call the white van).

I briefly even considered dressing in Victorian type clothes. You'll be glad to know that I gave myself a firm talking to on that subject and can safely say that I am past that now. But I am loving looking at old Victorian death registers and endless other sources.


Oh if only writing was always like this.

But the sad fact is that, in my experience, by the time you've got about half the way through the process of writing a book, you lose interest in the subject you have chosen. But you still need to finish. And that's when it gets tough. Best not to think about it.

Better just to get back to another page of hugely enjoyable swash buckling rubbish, laden with adverbs and people endlessly shouting.


14 comments:

Mari Biella said...

This is rather similar to my own experience, Alice. For me, one of the biggest challenges of writing is to maintain my initial enthusiasm for a project, and it helps if I can get the first draft down quickly. Of course, that draft is horribly confused and terribly written, but hopefully there will be a solid idea at the very core of it. Thereafter, the long process of re-reading, editing and re-drafting helps to refine and polish that core, while shedding all the rubbish that accumulated during the writing of the first draft.

JO said...

Isn't it interesting, how different our processes are. I find deeper in get into a novel, or short story, the more interested I am in it - the better I understand the characters or the setting, the more likely they are to show me which bits are twaddle, and I love that!

Bill Kirton said...

You're describing such a familiar experience, Alice, even though my approach is very different from yours. Like Jo, my feeling for the novel gets more intense and it becomes more interesting once I'm about two thirds into it and the various characters have taken over and let me know where they all want to go. Murderers turn out to be innocent, secondary figures step up into the limelight and start displaying characteristics which seem to confirm some sort of guilt, and the narrative frequently springs surprises on me - things I never conceived of when planning the thing but which make a huge difference to plotting, motivations or whatever. In fact, as I think of it, it's almost like a collaboration between them and me.

Leela said...



That Victorian dress idea sound a good excuse to shop for lovely things, Alice! I am so glad to read this blog. I'm writing the first draft of a crime novel, a totally new genre for me. Bill Kirkton's comment reassured me a lot. I tend to write character driven pieces. I was getting worried when the strictly plotted line went haywire at times. Thanks to all, I feel better about the few thousand words written. Phew!

Wendy Jones said...

What a familiar experience. Both plot and characters continue to surprise me in my novels as well. Things move around and change regularly. At the moment I am resisting the urge to change everything in my first book as I write the first draft.

Dennis Hamley said...

I see what you mean, Alice, about getting into the era you're writing about by actually trying to live in it. I've never got near that except for buying a medieval harp (though not actually playing it) when I was - no, not actually writing my Joslin de Lay medieval mysteries but coming back to them years afterwards and sorting them out for Kindle. Like Bill, I find my interest growing rather than diminishing as I rewrite and reconsider and believe passionately in 'never trust the teller, trust the tale' because, as the story develops, characters continually say to me, 'You've got it wrong again. You don't understand us at all, do you? Even after living with us for so long."

I'd never dare writing with a quill. I'm illegible enough on a computer.

Susan Price said...

Alice, it sounds like you have fun! I have never felt the urge to write with a quill (what, give up my computer? Never!) or dress up in period costume, but so what? - If it works for you, fill your boots! That's the rule - whatever works for you.

Leela - I think an important thing to remember is: Nothing is written in stone. If something isn't working, change it. Merge several characters into one, change their names, their gender, their jobs - change the time period, the location. Only the final draft matters.

Lydia Bennet said...

Gosh writing the whole thing with a quill pen - surely it'll take ages, watch out for Victorian RSI! There are so many ways to write a novel, we all have our little ways to get over the 'blimey i'm going to have to write ALL THOSE WORDS and what if I can't' feeling. Perhaps you can apply to arts council for funding for servants, as victorian writers would have had, to allow more time for writing! Good luck with the new novel.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I'm full of admiration for the fact that you love first drafts because I hate them so much that I have to give myself stern instructions every morning to 'just bloody keep going, woman!' I love the research - do lots and lots of it, especially since I write mostly but not exclusively historical fiction. And I love editing and rewriting and polishing. I've just more or less finished that part of the new novel - well, there'll be a bit more to go - but I miss it already, want to cling onto it. But the bit in the middle? The hideous blank screen? Oh lord no. And I'm doubly admiring about the pen. If I couldn't get it all down as quickly as possible on a computer I would never do it. I do, however, agree entirely about the necessity to keep going, get to the end, get it all out of your system. But I also know writers who revise meticulously as they go along, so I suppose we all find the way that suits us best. I certainly surround myself with stuff. You should see the antiquarian books of Burns's poetry and the pictures and other things in this room! And you know what - I think I'm quite capable of dressing up in the clothes of the period. But I'd still need the computer ...Lovely post though - I love knowing how other people work.

Alice said...

Wow! What an amazing range of comments. I think what is interesting is how different people are. Definitely like the idea of applying to the Arts Council for Victoria style staff. Joking apart, I think overall this is very heartening. It just shows that whatever you are doing is OK as long as you just keep on doing it. I personally don't find my characters taking over the book. But I do find that things that work on the plan just 'won't write.' And I will always put character before plot. I think that is why some of my books have taken so long to write. They are basically books with quite big strong plots but I've approached them through character. A slow way to write but much better than that moment when a character behaves entirely 'out of character' because the plot demands it.

Kathleen Jones said...

A lovely post Alice! Really interested in your working method. Mine is quite different - I work backwards and forwards doing it like embroidery, sketching in and filling out, editing as I go. Fascinating that we're all so different.

And I couldn't help thinking of a really fantastic piece from 'Bird by Bird' by Anne Lamott called 'Shitty First Draft' which gives just the advice you've given.

Enid Richemont said...

Bill Kirton's method comes closest to mine, when the characters come alive and take over. I once posted a (true) little semi-ghost story about this. I do plan, but not in detail. Detail comes much later.

Fran B said...

I need to have my setting first. That might be geographical: two of my novels rely heavily on setting (one in St Andrews and one in the Inner Hebrides). It might be related to the period: I've got one in 1950s, one in 1960s, one in 2005 and the current one (first draft almost finished) in the 1920s. Or it might be situational: my third novel is set around the longstanding friendship of four women. Next come the characters: I sketch in a few mains one and add as I go along (they usually just 'come out of the woodwork' as the novel progresses). The plot always comes later: I have a rough plan, probably no ending in mind, at the beginning. Ideas develop with the characters interacting with each other and with the setting. Dipping into research features here too. Funny thing is: several readers have asked me how I plan or 'craft' such intricate plots! Do I write it all out in detail before I start? Well, no . . .

julia jones said...

Quill pen? Madness! Loved this post - wish I was writing a first draft, second draft - anything, really. Just at the moment life has got in way and I feel cut off.