In honor of NaNoWriMo, here are seven lessons I learned when writing The Sowing about what NOT to do when you’re writing the first draft of a novel. These are rules I’m trying (and sometimes failing) to keep in mind as I write The Reaping as well, so this post is partially to remind myself to be efficient and stay on track.
While writing a novel, do not:
1) Procrastinate. “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground,” they say, whoever they is, but procrastination is a sure way to kill your novel before it ever gets off the ground. Can’t motivate yourself to write? Instead of kicking around on Facebook or Twitter, go watch a movie. Or see a play. Or cook. Or get a drink. Or (best of all!) read a book. All of these things contribute to what I like to call “filling the tank of inspiration”. They’ll help motivate you to write later on, and is a far better way to spend time than knocking around on the Interwebz.
2) Think. When I was working at the winery last month, one of the jobs I had to do was to get inside a tank and dig out a whole bunch of fermented grapes. Before I went in, my boss told me, “Don’t think. Dig.” Just dig. If you’re thinking about what you’re digging, you’re not doing your job. The same goes for writing the first draft of a novel. If you have a plotted outline, follow it – don’t second-guess yourself or change it now. If you’re pantsing (writing without an outline), don’t think too hard about the choices your characters are making. Let them lead you. Don’t think. Write.
3) Edit. Unless you know that something from previous chapters or sections is drastically, horribly wrong, don’t succumb to the temptation to go back and change things too much. Getting words on the page is the most important thing; you can edit later.
4) Insist on writing the entire book front-to-back, in chronological order. I’ve left entire chapters blank before and come back to write them later. I’ve left large patches of description or story arc open because I didn’t know how to fill them out right at that moment. Not everyone works that way, but it’s okay if you do. What’s most important is completing the story and character arc that comprises your novel. John Irving once said he always writes the last sentence of his book first. I don’t know why or how that happens to him, but I like to imagine that it’s because that way, he’s completed the story before he’s even started writing the book. Likewise, once you have the bones of your story down, you can flesh it out in the editing process.
5) Worry. We’re all nervous about our babies, that idea we’re dying to put down on paper but just don’t know if it’ll turn into the work of genius we envision in our heads. We’re all worried that our writing won’t measure up. I get it. Stop that. Worrying holds you back; you can worry once you get to the editing phase. When you’re writing that first draft, the only thing worrying will do is convince you not to continue, and then that idea in your head will never see the light of day.
6) Think you’ve written a work of genius. Believe me – if it’s a first draft, it’s not a work of genius. The closest you’re going to get to genius is not as shitty as I expected, which, for a first draft, is monumentally high praise. Genius will come later. For now, be humble but determined: know that your work will require editing, but believe enough in your story to continue writing it out.
7) Stop. Don’t stop. I mean, yeah, obviously you have to eat, sleep, pee, take care of the kids, and socialize every now and then, but that’s not the kind of stopping I mean. If you stop writing or hesitate or don’t get back to your project, that manuscript will end up in the third drawer in your desk, rather than out in the world where it should be. Don’t stop. Keep writing. Whenever you can, wherever you can, however you can. Get it out. Do not stop writing.
Thanks for reading!