A novel usually begins in my mind as one scene or one image that I have to get down on paper. With The September Sisters, I saw a scene of two sisters fighting in a pool over an inner tube – something I’d repressed from my own childhood, but came back to me one night after I was watching a news program about missing children. Then it occurred to me to think about what might happen after that scene, if one of the sisters were to disappear.
I wrote the pool scene first, and it ended up becoming part of the first chapter of The September Sisters. In the months (and years) to come, I would revise the book, many, many, many times, but the pool scene always remained perfectly in tact.
However, getting to a first draft from an image has always been a little bit of a struggle for me. I usually have some idea of where I might like the story to go or where I might want the characters to end up, but I’m not especially good with outlines and plot points. I can’t figure out what I want to happen to my characters until I really start to delve into them.
In fact, I’ve had a lot of character ideas and images that have turned into nothing more than a few fruitless pages. But after I wrote my pool scene, I wanted to figure out a way to turn it into a complete novel. I came to the conclusion that I needed to think of writing as a job, and like any “real” job, I needed goals and responsibilities and deadlines.
So I came up with something very uncreative and very job-like for how to write a first draft: make myself a writing schedule. I pick a deadline for the draft to be finished (either real or self-imposed). Then I make a calendar for myself, breaking down how much I reasonably think I can write each day – usually around five pages each weekday. I write the schedule down on a sheet of paper and put it next to my computer.
And that’s how I try to think of the first draft, as five pages at a time, a task which does not seem so overwhelming. When I get to my computer each day, I think, ok, I have to get five pages down, and then I’ll be done working for the day. This seems a lot less menacing than thinking, I have to write this entire 200 and something page novel. Ahh!!! When I finish each day’s “requirement” I cross it off, which gives me some sense of accomplishment.
Sounds easy, huh? Well, not exactly. In the in between time, I also have to do a lot of thinking. Thinking about who my characters are and what they want and what should happen to them – a process which is oftentimes harder and more time consuming for me than writing it down.
When I’m working on a first draft, I find myself thinking about my characters all the time. This means I end up acting a little spacey, burning food, and having dreams about fictional people. I even tend to have revelations in the shower, oddly enough. (Or maybe not so odd, considering, it is one of the few quiet kid-free times and places of my day.) It is not uncommon for me to run to my office to write down an idea before I dry my hair. (Which means I have lots of bad hair days when I’m in first draft mode!)
But if I keep plowing through the thinking and the writing every day, within two or three months I have. . . something.
Not necessarily something good, or permanent, but it’s there, and I can work with it. In fact, my first draft is often messy, full of plot holes, out of order, and filled with highlighted notes in brackets that say things like [Insert scene showing x here] or [add description later]. But that’s why it’s called a first draft – and for me, getting it all down is half the battle.
The other half, of course, is making it work. But more on that next month when we blog about revisions!