WRITING A DISCOVERY (FIRST) DRAFT OF A GENRE NOVEL
This is an excerpt from my booklet how I go about “Writing a Genre Novel” the full version of which is available for free on my website.
I would like to start by putting the excerpt into context by giving a summary of the overview of my approach. I think of genre writing as having four components: concepts (theme, idea, plot, story etc), process (six stages: discovery, planning and research, organising, revision, editing & polishing), language (grammar, prose-writing, figures of speech) and story-telling (the 6 elements of fiction, use of details, characters & symbolism). In addition I have a short “Random Thoughts” category for ideas that don’t easily fit into the four components just mentioned.
This excerpt is about the “discovery” stage of the process (or workflow) I use. I guess the “discovery” tag is self-explanatory: this is my first draft. I don’t plan anything before I start. I know there are many different ways of approaching the writing of a novel, this just happens to be the way I go about things.
I have an idea and a title and that’s all. The title should conceptualise for me the idea of the book, eg, my first e-book (I’ve written a few “hard-copy” books prior to going indie) started with the idea (and it also happened to end up as the rationale of the story) of the conservation of wildlife tied up with conflict between scientific (from conservative to progressive) values on the one hand and the activist/political (from bunny-hugger to animal rights people) values on the other hand.
The title was from the bible which characterised the devil as a roaring lion (which I then used as my title) seeking whom he may devour. This title embodied an element of double entendre (although not risqué as is more common), directly referred to one of the easiest to recognise of wild animals, implied that a great deal of the narrative would be set in Africa and even that a lion may play a leading role in the story (it is also an example of symbolism at work).
With just that – idea and title – I start writing. The “rules” for the first draft are very simple. I start on page one and write anything that comes into my head, given the idea and the title. It could be the biggest load of garbage in the world. I must start each morning and keep going for at least 4-5 hours and sometimes more than that if and when I get on a roll.
There is no stopping, I do not go back to see what I have written earlier, either that day or on previous days. I do not revise anything. I do not care what I write. Sometimes it is very hard to write anything sensible at all. Sometimes it just flows and the material stays virtually unchanged through all the many many drafts that I do. I don’t care. The big thing is just to keep going until I get to the end wherever that may be.
I do not do the first draft on a word processor. I write with a ballpoint pen on a pre-punched executive writing pad A4 sized, tearing off the sheets as I go and sticking them into a lever arch file. I only write on one side of the page.
There are a number of reasons for this:
First, I do not have to worry about what I am doing having to be saved from a possible power outage or computer crash or anything else – to do that I would have to involve my brain in the routine of managing computer files, saving to external hard drives or to cloud storage or whatever. A hassle with my mouse or screen or operating system or something else computer related would interrupt the writing process. All of these activities are left-brain activities and would take me out of my writing which is a right brain activity. I would lose impetus. I also do not answer the phone. I do not deal with domestic crisis. I just write word after word, sentence after sentence, page after page.
Second, for me the growing “wadge” of A4 sheets in my lever arch file is physical proof of the fact that I am getting somewhere. Sometimes I just riffle the pages through my fingers, feeling what I have written through my fingertips, getting a sense of accomplishment from the physical presence of those pages.
Third, the tactile feel of pen on paper is a more direct connection with what I am writing than the hitting of keys with some mechanical or digital process intervening to produce the words.
Fourth, seeing the words on a screen makes it almost impossible for me not to correct errors or to edit what I have written and my biggest rule is never to re-write anything in the first draft. The most important thing is to produce X amount of pages a day and to keep going until I get to the end.
Finally, as I go along I have ideas for scenes, characters etc that need slotting in to what has gone before. If short I write these on the left side of the facing page opposite where I think it should go, alternately for longer scenes ideas, characterisations etc. I write these out on separate A4 sheets and tuck them into the lever arch file more or less where I think they would best belong. I might also have cuttings from newspapers or magazines or printouts of stuff picked up off the web which I can punch holes in and stick in my lever arch file again where I think it would be most appropriate.
By the time I have finished the first draft I have a very good idea of how my story is going to start, how it should end, how the whole thing should unfold between those two points. I know most of my key characters and have stacks of good notes as to their background details. I become so immersed in that unfolding story that I dream of scenes and events in the night and keep a pen and A5 sized pad next to the bed to jot down notes, scenes etc for slotting into the appropriate place in my lever arch file.
I don’t actually like writing first drafts: having no plan each writing day is a trial, nearly every word has to be forced out (but occasionally just flows, although it doesn’t seem to do that very often), every page seems an insurmountable challenge. So it’s a hassle.
But when it is done and I have the whole story in my head and I pretty much know what happens and why it happens and who it happens to and I can see the whole thing clear in my mind’s eye and I cam see and feel the whole story all at once and I understand it, then for me that is the ultimate reward for the painful journey through that first draft. I will have “discovered” my story.
I hope this gives some insight as to how one writer goes about his business. A free copy of the complete booklet on the subject of how I go about writing a genre novel can be found at my website: http://jackwelles.com and just click on the “For Writers” tab.