I’ve been reading a lot of expert advice lately, both here and elsewhere, about writing your first draft quickly and not allowing yourself to become stalled too early by niceties of style, structure or character. Get the rough and ready bones of the book down, people say, then worry about polishing them and giving them flesh and fine clothing. It makes perfect sense. So why don’t I work that way, and why am I unlikely to try it?
The thing is, one size doesn’t fit all where writing a novel is concerned. Firstly, we’re split into planners and pantsers, plus everything in between. Neither approach is ‘correct’ – they are simply different, and each can lead to a brilliant and original piece of writing. Secondly, we’re divided on our editing and polishing methods. Some novelists will write that quick and dirty first draft followed by three, five, ten other drafts; some, like me, will really only produce one draft, but will polish and refine it as they write. My gut feeling is that planners tend to be ‘one main draft’ writers, while pantsers are more at home with the multi-draft method, starting with that rough first draft.
I’m a planner. I need to know where I’m going and how I’ll get there. I work out the whole novel in some detail before I begin on chapter one. Once I start writing, I stop every three chapters or so and revise everything written to date. Not just the new bit, all of it. That means by the time I reach page 500 and write The End, a good part of the novel has been edited and revised multiple times. I can’t identify anything as belonging to a particular draft, because the process is continuous and organic.
When I complete that last page, I do a complete read-through and final polish, concentrating on the later chapters. I may send the ms to a few critiquing buddies for feedback. After that it goes to my editor. When I get her report I do a round of edits based on that. Then, with luck, it’s all done.
Of course, no book plan is set in stone. Characters spring surprises, or I find I dislike some element of the plot, or I discover an error in my research. I’m not so hung up on the plan that I won’t change it if it’s not working. But the structural framework I set in place before I start writing remains the same.
Yes, this is a slow method, and not recommended for new writers. I don’t like throwing away words. I hate deleting long passages. I like to be reasonably sure that what I put on the page is good writing, something that won’t require massive editorial pruning down the track. Did I mention that I dislike editing my work?
I know this method won’t suit most people, and that’s fine. I just felt I had to put my hand up on behalf of other folk like me, who see that good advice about quick and dirty first drafts and wonder why they just can’t work that way. On balance, I should think that if you can manage a quick first draft, that is the way to go. But the other way is equally valid and can lead to an equally good book.
My posts for Writer Unboxed often deal with process, and may come across as mundane and businesslike. I earn my living as a novelist, so I view writing as a job like any other job. That doesn’t prevent me from loving what I do, from the serendipitous moment when the seed of a new story comes to me, to the time when I hear a reader praise the finished novel. Believe me, slow writers still feel the magic.