A Novel Observed #7 – Starting the First Draft

The Writing Stage

The Writing Stage

Now that the distraction of half term is over and the children are back at school, it’s time to begin the first draft of NT2S&S. This is always the trickiest point for me, the time when works are most likely to shrivel and die. It’s not because I don’t want to write, but because I spend so long making a proper start – I trample around the first chapter like a stabled horse instead of getting up a decent pace.

I found this with preparing sermons: I would get my research done, plan an outline for the talk, work out what the main point should be and roughly how long the whole thing should last… and then I’d go and do something else. Or start fiddling around with a PowerPoint presentation while trying to delude myself into thinking I was making progress with the sermon.

At its core, the problem is quite simple. I want to produce the finished article at the first attempt.

Some writers may well be able to do that, but I’m not one of them. And even those who claim they can are, I suspect, not so much able to produce a well-structured, polish work straight off the bat, but are simply happy with their first draft. I’m not. In fact, I’m rarely happy with the finished article. I can remember working 14 hour days, late into the night, trying to shape ten thousand words into a twenty minute sermon – it was hard work!

But it’s easier than getting down that first draft.

I liken it to making a clay pot (which I’ve only tried once, at school – it was a cup that weighed about two pounds and was more porous that expected). It begins with the raw ingredients, which I guess is the wet clay. Then you have to take the time turning it, shaping it, cutting off any unneeded clay and generally teasing it slowly into the finished pot, which gets baked and glazed and whatever. It is easy to assume that, having done the preparatory work of devising a concept, drawing up characters and outlining the plot, we’d now be at the stage where we start to turn/shape/cut/tease.

We’re not.

All we’ve really done so far is decide what our pot is going to look like – form, pattern, size, colour, that sort of thing. But we can’t start making the pot until we’ve got the ingredients to work with. That is where we are now. In the first draft, we’re clawing out the clay from the ground, scraping it up bit by bit, spilling out raw words onto the pages by their thousands (words, that is, not pages).

When the first draft is complete, what we’ll have will be as similar to the completed novel as a lump of clay is to the finished vase.

Which is all to say that, the first draft is by nature unfinished, almost unformed, and that’s what makes it so hard to begin, because I write a sentence, and then I want to pick at it and poke it and push it around and turn it into the end produce. ‘Leave it alone!’ That has to be my mantra in this stage, ‘Leave it alone. Don’t look back! Stop fiddling! Just KEEP ON WRITING!’

Here goes…