Commentary: Write your novel in 30 days – a 10 step guide (Part 2)

Yesterday I talked about the first five steps of Garda Parker’s advice post, Write your novel in 30 days – a 10 ten guide. Today I’ll look at steps 6 to 10:

6. Write a quick-and-dirty draft

7. Keep your novel to yourself to maintain your excitement and momentum

8. Identify your best time to write

9. Don’t stop to research

10. Understand—and use—manuscript format, even at the draft stage

6. Write a quick-and-dirty draft

Parker certainly offers some good advice here. When you’re writing your first draft, it doesn’t have to be good, you don’t need chapters of equal length and you don’t need to show your eventual publisher what it looks like. I read somewhere a piece of wisdom about a first draft that I think bears repeating:

The only thing a first draft needs to do is exist.

There you go. Because without a first draft, how can you have something to rewrite, to create a second draft from, to edit and pummel into shape? Just focus on creating that first draft.

But bear in mind also that not everyone writes the same. What works for some doesn’t work for others. So Parker’s advice to suspend your internal editor – and advice I’ve seen elsewhere to “write drunk, edit sober” which is designed to remove inhibitions – is not necessarily the best advice for you. Writing drunk certainly isn’t the best idea for me – I tried it once, and it involved me spelling “required” with 17 letters including 3 q’s, 7 e’s and at least one k. When I read it next morning it was a mess. There was no structure, some sentences made no sense or had no context and to put it lightly, that unorthodox spelling of “required” was merely the longest word I could still actually decipher.

Writing without self-editing, even sober, isn’t always a good idea either. If you change your mind about a word choice but ban yourself from changing it because you’re not allowed to go back, you lose a potential improvement and when you come to read it later may well forget what you were going for and base the entirety of that scene’s tone – and that of later scenes – on a word choice that was the quick and dirty first draft no editing word, rather than the second thoughts five minutes later when your brain has had a chance to think of a better one word.

Because your later scenes are going to depend on your earlier scenes, and not allowing yourself to change the earlier ones when you know you should because you have to keep moving forward is going to cause heartache later when you’re rewriting.

If you don’t want to lose the purity of your first draft, fine – don’t delete anything. Just add in your second thoughts five minutes later in a different colour or put it in a new document with a note of where it should be inserted or what it would replace. But don’t just thoughtlessly suspend your self-editing in the first draft because the first draft doesn’t have to be good and needs only to exist. It is important to get the first draft written and finished and to avoid going back over the first chapter repeatedly before you’ve even written the third, because that way will lead you to never actually finishing anything, but don’t rule out minor changes while writing your first draft out of fear that changing one sentence you wrote yesterday will stop you ever finishing the first draft.

7. Keep your novel to yourself to maintain your excitement and momentum

Now this is definitely one that depends on the writer. I have also heard the exact opposite advice – to tell everyone you know that you’re writing, and anyone who asks what you’re writing about, because then you’re accountable, you’ve got someone who will ask “how’s that novel about the ex-circus performer who finds a magical dragon sword in the props box coming along?” and then you can be motivated by the desire to tell them you’ve made progress and show them something.

But on the other hand, keeping it to yourself has got its advantages. It means that six months later when you’ve given up on that story and started on another there’s nobody asking you about the old story, making you feel guilty that you dropped it, and you don’t have to worry about what they think of you because every time they ask you’re writing a different novel.

Like I said, it’s a personal thing with this advice. But the main reason I don’t tell anyone but my fiance what I’m writing, and him only the bare bones, is this: because I get so excited about it I tell him all about it, about how this element of history from four hundred years ago brushes on my character’s story in a way she doesn’t even fully realise. I pour all my passion for the project into what I’m telling him. And then where is my passion later on when I sit down to write? It’s gone, that’s where it is. If you’re telling someone about your story and you sense you’re getting passionate about it, stop telling them and write it all down.

Back to the first hand, sometimes telling someone is useful though. But don’t tell your mum or your co-worker or whatever. Tell a writer. Describe the story, not exactly without passion, but without letting the passion control what you tell – be more structured. Tell a writer what you’re writing because a writer will ask the right questions. They’ll spot the plot hole or the illogicality of your antagonist’s actions, or they’ll ask a question about how your main character actually got into the castle that’s meant to be guarded and locked up at night, and you’ll realise there’s something you need to fix. And it’s best fixed early, before you’ve written too much, than when you’ve done the first draft and made a few major revisions, because if it’s a big enough plot hole then it could send your story flying right out of the window.

8. Identify your best time to write

No arguments with this. Some people write best in the morning, some in the evening. Some at lunch time when the boss has gone off to get her lunch and there’s nobody around who cares what’s on your screen. Writing on a schedule gets you into a habit. Going back to point 5 in part 1 of my commentary, this is about discipline, but it’s also about knowing your limits. If you know you’re going to be tired when you get home from work, don’t write when you get home from work. Either relax a couple of hours first (like I do) or get up an hour early and write before work.

9. Don’t stop to research

Solid advice. If you’re in the flow of writing, don’t interrupt it for anything if you can avoid it. That includes going on name websites to get a name for your new character, right up to checking how long it would take to make a sword. Use some square brackets, make a note – use the letter “tk” to stand for “to know” so it’s easy to do a search later, since “tk” doesn’t often pop up in words (though since I first heard that trick, I have started working with a guy whose surname starts with those two letters; needless to say, it’s very easy to find his name in the “recipient” list when I need to email him). Then put a tag to remind yourself what you need to know, like “innkeeper’s name” or “time needed to make a sword”, and finish up with a close square bracket and keep writing. You can fix it later, and you don’t have to know everything you could possibly need to know before you start writing.

10. Understand—and use—manuscript format, even at the draft stage

Absolutely not. No. Forget manuscript format. If this is a first draft, you’re getting ahead of yourself. Chances are this document isn’t going to ever need to see manuscript format. You’ll copy the bits you want to keep and rewrite the rest in a fresh document at least once before manuscript format is called for. At this stage manuscript format is nothing more than procrastination – making things look finished to put off starting.

Write in the format you are most comfortable writing in. I have my Word document default set to Calibri size 11 at 1.15 times line spacing. Why? Because I am comfortable with the font and the spacing. I can’t write in Times New Roman, it looks weird, and Ariel makes me feel like I’m at work or something. They stifle my ability to write because I’m not comfortable with them. Calibri, at least as it looks in Word 2010 (not so much with Word 2003 which I have at work) is comfortable to look at and easy to ignore and just focus on what the words say, not what shape the letters are.

Now I’m sure there are people out there far less distracted by things like fonts and line spacing than I am (I spent some time dabbling in webcomics and you get to learn a lot about fonts when you do that), so really don’t stress over this. Point is, write with what is comfortable. If that means you turn your text green and use a font with “party” in the name, go for it. If it means whatever your word processor’s default setting is, fine. But forget manuscript formatting. Leave that for when you’ve got a complete manuscript edited, polished and ready for submission, and find out what your potential publisher or agent prefers, not what is suggested as standard.

Other advice

If you really are determined to still write a novel in 30 days, then good luck to you. It’s possible. But here’s some parting advice:

  • Don’t expect it to be good first try
  • If outlining works for you, make sure you do plenty of it; getting stuck half way through and losing all your momentum because you didn’t plan out a linking scene between when your hero steals back the magical dragon sword and when he presents it to the dragon princess could kill your 30 day challenge stone dead.
  • Don’t make your real life suffer out of determination to write it in 30 days – if you’re falling asleep at work or snapping at your kids for no reason because you wrote til 2am, maybe set a new, longer time limit on the novel.

But really, I’d say just don’t try to write a novel in 30 days if you don’t think you can do it. Sure, NaNoWriMo and other similar monthly writing challenges are fun and can be very productive and useful to your growth as a writer, but that format isn’t obligatory. Write at the pace that suits you, a pace that you can achieve but not too easily, and let the novel finish when it finishes.

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