Writing a first draft

29 June 2012
Hemingway once said, ‘All first drafts are shit’.  Ernest, me old mate,  that is an understatement! I am referring, of course, to  my own current first-draft which at the moment is a steaming pile of merde if ever there was one.  I have to keep reminding myself that there were times when I felt the same about my first novel, but after a great deal of rewriting, I now think it’s rather good, and so do Simon & Schuster, who are publishing it in May 2013.
A novel has to start somewhere; it doesn’t just appear in the right order with the storylines perfectly developed, the characters rounded and convincing, the themes consistent, relevant and thought-provoking.   You have to craft and hone and polish.  And most writers agree that most of the crafting and honing and polishing comes later – after you’ve written the first draft.
But it ain’t easy, folks, so although I hope this post will encourage other authors who are currently wading through the mires of their own first drafts, it’s also a bit of a pep talk to myself, because at the moment, I’m going through a very sticky patch. I’m changing things  –  I’ve changed the  period  the novel is set in and the occupation of the main character, I’ve changed the age of a supporting character, and I’ve introduced a new viewpoint. No doubt there will be a lot more changes. I’m also plagued by doubts – is the plot too thin? Will it be believable? Are my characters convincing? Will the whole thing work? Will anybody give a flying feck?
The thing is, I know from past experience and from talking to other writers that it would be unusual not to be thinking like this at this stage. So I’m ploughing on and I hope to have a rough – very rough – first draft completed by mid-August. There! I’ve stated it publicly, so now I’ll have to do it! Some people write a first draft in a few weeks, and I envy them. I take considerably longer. I started working seriously on this idea in December, so if I hit my August deadline, it will have taken me eight to nine months – and at least the same again for rewriting.
 A couple of years ago, I attended a novel masterclass by award winning author Jill Dawson. Jill keeps a journal-type notebook for every novel, in which she records her thoughts about the novel and the writing process – she uses the notebook almost as a silent writing buddy, having ‘conversations ‘ with it about the work as it progresses.  With her most recent novel, she confided, she’d got to the 40,000 word point and had decided it wasn’t working, and what’s more, couldn’t be made to work. At the point of despair and on the verge of giving up, she decided to have a flick through notebooks from previous novels. She found that she had experienced the same excruciating doubts with every novel she’d ever written – including the orange-shortlisted ones – and very often at the 40,000 word point!
So what we need to do is to really get it into out heads that a first draft is little more than a rough sketch, and we fill in the colour and texture later. At this stage, even if you’ve done plenty of planning,  things will change along the way, so to a certain extent, you’re still telling yourself the story. There will be inconsistencies, plot threads that lead nowhere, one-dimensional characters, rubbish dialogue, important scenes that are skimmed over, lengthy scenes that will end up being cut completely. There will probably be superfluous back story,  lots of ‘telling’ and info-dumping, and no real sign of a decent theme. Stephen King tells us not to even think about themes in the first draft, and I think that’s good advice. The real themes may turn out to be different to what you expected, because your unconscious will have been working away on your behalf.
So no matter how dreadful your first draft seems now, just plough on.  Keep moving your story onwards, even if it feels mundane and clumsy, even if it goes off in directions you hadn’t planned. Remember that it isn’t set in stone  – a half-realised scene can be added to later; a digression that doesn’t work can be cut. Just keep putting the words down! Some writers like to check their word counts each day; others prefer to write for a timed period, or to write to a particular point in the story. I’m a word-count person, and I like to have some sort of visual encouragement, something that shows my progress. I reckon my first draft should be about 90,000 words, so I took two jars, and counted out 90 glass pebbles into one of them and stood them on my desk. For every thousand words I write, I move a pebble from the ‘to write’ jar to the ‘written’ jar.  
I’m happy to say that the jar on the right is the ‘written’ jar! It’s a little bit of nonsense, of course, because many of these words will end up being cut, but I find it helps to spur me on.
When you get to the end of a first draft, it’s time to celebrate – even if it’s pretty poor – because now you have something to work on. Rewriting and editing will turn a poor first draft into an okay one, and an okay draft into a good one. From there, you’re talking very good or even excellent. But if you don’t have a draft, you have nothing.
Do you struggle with your first drafts, or do you find that the easy part? Are you able to ignore the flaws and keep writing, or do you edit as you go along? How long do your first drafts take, or does it vary?  I’d love to hear your experiences – perhaps we could cheer each other on?   
For more about me and my work, visit www.susanelliotwright.co.uk

And to access a list of recipes and book reviews on this blog, go to: recipes and book reviews and scroll down the page (past the writing bits)

When your characters speak

The Writing Bit
How do you make your dialogue convincing ?  It has to be realistic enough to be believable , but  your characters shouldn’t speak exactly like real people, and you only have to eavesdrop on a few conversations to see why.  Real people  say ‘um’ and ‘er’; we waffle; we go off the point; we don’t finish our sentences; we use the wrong word; we can’t remember why we started telling you this in the first place. Characters can’t get away with that (well, once, maybe, to make a point about the character).
But by and large, what your characters say should be more interesting, meaningful and to the point than what real people say, and they should say it in more interesting ways.  If you catch your character wittering on about something that really isn’t relevant to his/her character, the scene, or the overall story, it’s time to shut them up!
Dialogue is a wonderful way of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’, but we do need to ‘tell’ sometimes, such as when showing would clearly bore the pants off our readers. So for example, it’s ok to summarise:
‘How was work,’ he asked.
She sat heavily on the sofa and sighed. ‘You don’t want to know,’ she said, and then proceeded to give him a blow-by-blow account of her day.
In terms of the characters and their relationship, maybe we do need to know that they had this discussion, but we don’t need to hear the blow-by-blow account of her day, so summarising in this way is fine.
Speech attribution
He said/she said. That’s it; it’s all you need.  Anything else is an authorial intrusion, because the reader is likely to notice it, and when a reader notices the writing, it means that he or she has stopped reading, albeit briefly.  Ok, we can probably get away with ‘he whispered’ (or muttered/yelled/shouted); and I don’t think the reader is likely to trip up over ‘she asked’ (or replied/added/continued) but please, oh please, avoid speech tags that are unnecessary or inappropriate at best, and at worst pompous, overblown or archaic. I have seen all of the following used as speech tags in contemporary fiction:  opined; interjected; retorted; exclaimed; remonstrated; expostulated; and (I kid you not) ejaculated.
The simplest tag of all, ‘said’, is virtually invisible on the page. If you feel you’re using it too much, can you show who’s speaking by their actions, or just by what they’re saying? For example:
‘Hey, at last!’ He stood up, smiling, his arms outstretched.
 She hurried towards him, dropped her bags at his feet. ‘I’m so, so sorry!’ She leaned in and kissed him. ‘First I couldn’t get a taxi, then the traffic was horrendous and the stupid man kept going on about what was wrong with the transport system in this country, and …oh sorry, I’m rambling. But I mean really, do I look like the sort of person who would be interested in – ‘
‘No, darling, you don’t. Anyway, you’re here now.’ He leaned over and pulled out the chair opposite. ‘Sit down. Drink?’
‘Oh lovely. G and T please.’
He looked around for a waiter. ‘Gin and tonic for my companion, please.’
She giggled. ‘Ooh, get you. “my companion” indeed.’
He leaned back in his chair, a smile spreading slowly over his face. ‘So how would you describe yourself?’
‘Let me see…girlfriend is too young; ladyfriend  is too old. Mistress? No, then people would think you were married. Shame; I quite like the idea of being a mistress.’ She leaned towards him and lowered her voice. ‘How about lover?’
Ok, it’s not the most riveting piece of dialogue I’ve ever written, but I think you’ll agree it’s fairly easy to tell who’s speaking, and not a speech attribution in sight. I’m not a fan of qualifying ‘said’ with adverbs, either (she said, angrily) But that’s probably a whole different blog post. 

So to sum up: he said, she said – fine. That is all.
The Food Bit
If you don’t went to spend too long faffing around in the kitchen, this  garlicky mushroom pasta is  dead easy and quite delish.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and pop in enough pasta (egg-free if you’re vegan) for two. Meanwhile, slice about 300g of mushrooms. I use a mixture of portobello, chestnut and ordinary closed cap mushrooms.  Put in a pan with some olive oil and cook over a medium heat. Crush two big fat cloves of garlic and chuck that in with the mushrooms. Add a good grind of black pepper, a teaspoon of wholegrain mustard and a slosh of white wine. Cook for a couple of minutes – they should be more or less cooked by now – then add about 100ml of string vegetable stock and a squeeze of lemon juice.  When the liquid has more or less evaporated, taste, and add salt and more pepper if necessary, and chuck in a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley.  Mix with the cooked pasta, adding more olive oil if liked, and serve. 
This goes well with most types of pasta.  For even more flavour, add a few dried porcini  (wild mushrooms). Soak in a little boiling water first, then add to the fresh mushrooms. You can use the remaining water as a base for your veggie stock, but make sure you strain it first because the mushrooms are sometimes a bit gritty. Suitable for vegans if you use vegan wine (or use more stock instead of wine).

To find out more about me and my work, visit: www.susanelliotwright.co.uk