Thursday, June 18, 2009

first drafts - the joys of writing fast

I haven't posted much lately, partly because I've been busy with regular life stuff (especially coaching soccer), but also because I was deep in the middle of writing the first draft of a new middle-grade novel.

I adore writing first drafts. I get to live the story at its freshest during this period of time, enjoying being along for the ride. I don't tend to re-read what I wrote the day before (which helps keep crushing doubt and the internal critic at bay). I'll usually just read the last page I wrote, and then jump into the next day's work. The result is far from polished, but I feel like it has a joyful sense of discovery embedded in it.

For me, especially when I'm working on a novel, the creation is like I imagine painters work. The first draft puts the structure into place, the story and the characters. The dialogue starts to settle in. But if you look at it, it's all still rough and fuzzy. I have to go back and rework it, layer after layer, adding more paint, maybe covering over entire elements, clarifying others, finding new details. Sometimes I'll go back and do research after the first draft is complete, because by then I know what I don't know. Often, I find that research before a first draft can stretch on forever, because I feel like I have to know everything. And then the first draft is crowded with me trying to show how much I learned during those months or years of research.

This particular novel, my first for children, came out pretty fast. It's about 38,000 words right now, and I wrote the draft in three weeks. Three weeks sounds pretty fast (to me, anyway), but this time I had a particularly detailed outline from which to work. Back in 2005, I wrote a treatment to do this story as a screenplay, and ended up with a 35-page outline. I adapted this into the novel that I just wrote. It's rare for me to use such a detailed outline, but in this case, it was a complete joy--if I felt stuck, it was a lot easier to plow ahead.

The other factor that made the writing go so fast was that I made certain that every day, I spent at least 2-3 hours of ass-in-the-chair time actually writing, with no e-mail or internet. If I spend 3 hours of actual writing time, I can expect to churn out 2,000 to 3,000 words, if I'm using a strong outline.

Of course, now I need to go back and edit and rewrite and turn the novel into something that other people might actually want to read (and buy). I've taken a week off, and now I hope to start at least reading it next week. I already have a pretty good sense of its weaknesses, but I'll know a lot better by the end of next week. Since this is a shorter piece, I'm curious to see if it would be possible to come up with a more polished draft by the end of July. Again, 3 hours a day of ass-in-the-chair time could make this happen (and making sure I'm not reading blogs or tweets).

I'm still looking hard for an agent to the adult novel that I finished in February (one that took a couple years to write and finish). Maybe I'll add another finished project to the pile sooner than I expected.

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