Thursday, June 9, 2011

The road to first-draftdom: so far, so good

As of last night, I have written 1,550 words of the first draft of my novel. I find that rather impressive, considering that yesterday was only Day 3 of the actual writing. But, since it is just Day 3, I don't want to get too cocky, so let's seek some reality-checking context.

In the title of my very first post to this blog, I alluded to my novel-writing venture as being a 50,000 to 75,000-word proposition. However, a brief bit of belated research in the genre of my novel (fantasy) indicates that most examples are expected to run to approximately 100,000 words. I'm not much of a minimalist, so I feel certain I can meet that expectation. With that in mind, here is a graphical representation of my progress thus far:
So, while I might feel that producing 1,550 words in three days (spending only perhaps six hours, total) is writing at a pretty good clip, it still represents only about 1% of the totality of the first draft. Keeping that in mind will help me when I'm tempted to slack off later.

I decided at the beginning of the day yesterday to set a daily goal of 500 words. Generally, I can produce 500 words of decent prose in 30 to 45 minutes of work - quite a bit more if I just write without stopping to think and rethink word choices and other writerly decisions. In other words, 500 is a pretty low bar for me, but since my weakness is in following through and finishing the first draft, I want to keep the daily goal low enough that I can feel good about my progress even on days when I can't take a lot of time to write or when the words are flowing like kidney stones. If I get too discouraged, it will make it easier to walk away from the project.

One thing I know from past novel attempts is that I tend to aspire to perfection in the first draft. Sometimes this is good; by reading a passage after I've written it, I sometimes spot a glaring misstep or think of a turn of phrase that vastly improves the passage. When that happens, it gives me a warm glowy feeling that carries me into the next passage.

But there are other times when I hit a spot where I know I need a certain something - the word that conveys just the right shade of meaning, a clever retort that's will make the reader laugh delightedly - and I just... get stuck while obsessively combing my mind for it. Or descriptions: my ability to fashion detailed descriptions out of thin air is unimpressive. It takes me a long time to sort out the specifics of a character's facial features or the exact layout of a room. So when I get to a place where I know I need to describe my character or his or her environment, this is like quicksand for my writing pace.

I hit each of these obstacles in my writing session yesterday, and the first couple of times, they hung me up - briefly. This time out, I've made the decision to only dwell on such decision for a short time. If the answer doesn't come to me in a few minutes, I will do one of two things:

1) Ask someone for help. Depending on what the obstacle is, I might petition my teenage son or call on a friend who's not easily annoyed by off-the-cuff demands. "I have my character talking to his teenage daughter, who's majorly pissed off about the family dog destroying her school project. It needs to be something that would entice a dog that doesn't normally chew things up. What could it be?"

To which my son or friend might reply, "Well, dogs are attracted to food scents. Maybe it's some kind of display that incorporates a food item?"

That sounds reasonable to me, and it's just specific enough that I can build some dialogue that refers to it and move on. Later, when I reread this passage, I might be triggered to remember that my dog, Norman, has a bizarre love of uncooked pasta. Whenever I cook spaghetti or fettuccine, he scarfs and crunches up any pieces I happen to drop. So, what if the daughter's project is a model made of uncooked pasta pieces? That's even more specific (not to mention silly-sounding), and now I can take that placeholder dialogue and really hone it into something funny.

But if I'd insisted on racking my brain to think of this at the time I was first writing it, I would have been stuck on that one passage for anywhere from five minutes to infinity and wouldn't have written a single word beyond it.

2) Leave myself a note. If I don't have anyone to ask or it's something that I just don't have time to mess with right now, I'll leave myself a note to attend to it later and keep writing. Let's say that I'm working on a scene in which my protagonist meets another character for the first time. I know that I really need some description of this new character here, but I can't seem to write anything but bloated, roundabout crap when I try it. This is where I'd say, "You know what? I'll do this later when I can focus on what she looks like instead of what their conversation is about." So I'd leave myself a note to come back to this part and just concentrate on her description.

I do this with any passage that needs more time or attention than I want to give it right now. My note-to-self might say, "Expand this," where I've just kind of "told" rather than "shown" a bit of action, or it might say, "Need funnier comeback here." I mark the notes in whatever way makes sense for the software I'm using. In Word or Google Docs, I make the note a comment, which is easily spotted visually. If I'm using some tool that doesn't have that kind of mark-up feature, I mark the comment with something easily searchable, such as *?*. If I were writing longhand (which I rarely do), I'd just circle it or draw an asterisk and scrawl half-intelligible instructions beside it.

Right now, I have four such notes in what I've written. One questions whether a particular passage is "too earnest" and "needs to be funnier" (I have a real fear of being overly sentimental). Another reminds me to expand the description of the protagonist's backyard and garden; that will be important later but it's not something that should interrupt my flow of progress right now. The third note instructs me to figure out what college a character is going to attend in the fall and what her major is expected to be. The final one says that a particular line of dialogue needs to be sharper or maybe even cut entirely.

I'll look over all these when I sit down tonight to write my 500 words (or more). I may address them or I may not - it all depends on how much of a distraction they pose. My overriding goal has to be to finish the first draft, so I can't afford to take the scenic route. I'm keeping my eyes on the road and my foot on the gas.

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