And by that I mean the literal process of literally writing a first draft. I’m not talking cookie-cutter, step-by-step, how-to instructions. No. You can Google that. First, let me save you from that rabbit-hole. None of what they’ll tell you is real. It’s too easy and it will make you feel bad about yourself when you inevitably fail. And you will fail. A lot. It’s the ass-backward joy of the crazy adventure you just signed up for and the reason this support group exists in the first place.
You also might be told that there are two types of novelists: outliners and those who fly by the seat of their pants, otherwise known as pantsers. It’s a nice, neat idea that is a lot like saying there are two types of people in this world: blacks and whites. It’s just wrong. And insensitive.
The Outliners vs Pantsers debate overshadows all the mutts and hybrids in the writing world like they’re redheaded stepchildren. And frankly, it hurts my feelings. So no, we’re not going to talk about all that watered-down, idealistic mumbo-jumbo. We’re going to talk about what happens when you sit down and literally put the pen to paper to write the goddamn thing. How do you do it?
I’m glad you asked because there’s always a method to the madness, and in writing, there is always madness.
Recommended but entirely optional. This is the part where you get to know your characters, construct an outline, conduct research, world-build, blah, blah, blah. Personally, whenever I try to prep a novel, I never actually end up writing the thing. What’s the fun of it if everything is all figured out already? It’s kind of like reading a book immediately after reading the Sparknotes version of it. Just- why?
Some people like this. They like structure and order. They like to know what they’re doing before they do it and if they’re writing a novel that takes place in history or a well-known place like New York City, prepping a bit before they go makes a lot of sense.
Here’s a personal digression: I don’t like confines. I like to be just as surprised as my reader at the shit I come up with. Call it a literary God-complex. It doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t prep at all. I’m just supremely good at prepping on the fly and it usually happens at a place in my storyline where I need to do something like explain how the system of government works. Like if a character gets arrested. Do they get a trial? Do I need to orchestrate a breakout? Is this world judicial? I don’t know. I probably should so I look back at the world I’ve created thus far and piece together something that makes a moderate degree of sense. After all, this is the first draft. I’ll be back.
Another form of “prepping on the fly” comes in the form of spontaneous inspiration. You’re on chapter 4, trying to nail down what a side character’s background story is when, bam, you just realized a character you meet later on is a runaway circus performer with daddy-issues. Put a pin in that. Look at you- you just prepped something!
This style involves very little prepping. People who gravitate toward this process tend to be impulsive and there is nothing wrong with that! They get an idea in their head and they just run with it, fast and hard, with very little sense of where they are going. It sounds like a pretty shortsighted way of writing a coherent 80k story but in terms of cranking out a first draft, winging it isn’t exactly a terrible idea. They say the key to writing a great novel is in the editing anyway, right? Pantsers cut right to the chase and get the party going.
Ah, the infamous outline, born straight out of the prepping stage. You’ve done all the research and plotting you possibly could and now it’s time to slap some literary flesh on it. Right? In a perfect, cut-and-dry world the answer would be yes. But this is the real world.
I will say this: believe it or not, no matter what your writing style is, by the end of your novel, that outline will have become your best friend. The thing with having a best friend, though, is you don’t always start besties from the get-go, and even if by some miracle you do, you’re not always going to see eye-to-eye. You’re going to fight, you might not talk for a while, and you might think badly of one another’s choices along the way, but you’ll always come back together in the end.
This process is pretty self-explanatory. Linear writing, to quote my man Lewis Carroll, is to begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop. The majority of writers will at least start out writing linear because it’s what makes sense. We read books linearly so it’s only natural to know how a story starts better than it ends. Linear writing shows a moderate degree of organization and if that sounds like you, congrats. That is not a terrible thing to be in this 80k-word-count rat-race.
How this works is you suddenly have an idea for a scene, dialogue, action sequence, setting, character, or pretty much anything, and you write it down. That’s pretty much it. Writing in chunks shows enthusiasm for the project. Hooray for enthusiasm.
Another Personal Digression
To help you pin down your style, which can seem a little scary, I will now share with you my very own process of writing to help drive my point home.
Here is my truth- I am a high functioning mash-up of a personality, often paradoxical, but always a good time. For that reason, my writing process is a high-functioning mash-up of pretty much everything I listed above. I am a hybrid-panster and proud of it. I don’t always think linearly, so for me to always write linearly is nonsense. I’m a skinny bitch with a chunky mind. I write sporadically, skipping shamelessly through time with a scene here and a detail there, etc. etc.
Sometimes I even have a real idea of something I want to happen. I am also rarely sure how I plan to get there. Luckily, I have pins-a-plenty and am not afraid to use them. I stick one in that bad boy because, like much of my life, I make shit up as I go. Sounds like a problem for future Moira.
This enviably forms my haphazard version of an outline, constructed on the fly, that just sort of fades off into the distance. But as those chunks of narrative coalesce, I backtrack and polish them up into coherent chapters because, after all, hindsight is 20/20. Then, bam! chapter 9, which is then uploaded to my writer’s group. That way I can’t be tempted to mess with it further.
What You Should (Probably) Take Away From All This
How you should go about writing mostly boils down to who you are as a person. Some people eat and breathe organization. Others thrive in chaos. You can research to your heart’s content ‘best way to write a novel’ or ‘tips for writing a first draft’ but none of that will help you long-term. Chances are it’s what brought you here to my literary doorstep in the first place.
There is no ‘best’ way. There is only your way. Play to your strengths. It took J.K. Rowling five years to finish the first Harry Potter book. Do you know how many marriages end in the first five years? 20% (I Googled it). So don’t worry about the best way and focus on your way because five years is a long time to stay married to a project governed by someone else’s rules.
The most important element of a successful first draft is the writing part. Actually, that’s the only element. I don’t mean writing as a noun, either. I mean the nitty-gritty verb. You can’t edit jack if you haven’t written it down first so if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. Start walking.
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