Alan Watt is author of the bestselling book on writing, "The 90-Day Novel." He has been running the creative writing workshop LA Writers Lab since 2002. Visit him online at lawriterslab.com.
Some writers struggle for years to complete the first draft of their book. You work on it for a while, get stuck, put it in a drawer, fish it out a few years later, and this goes on indefinitely. It becomes like a scab that you pick at in the vain hope of improving it, while often making it worse.
As a writer, your goal is to create something bigger than you are. In practical terms, this is impossible. But that doesn't prevent you from believing that through decades of bashing away at it, you'll be able to "figure out the book."
Though every writer's process is different, most published authors tend to write their first drafts quickly, in a fevered blast over a scant few months. Here are some reasons why:
1) Without a deadline, there's no urgency. Urgency is crucial because it activates your subconscious, which is the seat of your genius. Haven't we all had the experience of writing something, and then afterwards, stepping away from it and wondering, "Where did that come from?" In fact, you begin to recognize patterns that you could never have come up with consciously. When you don't write on a daily basis, your connection to what you wrote yesterday weakens.
2) By taking your time, you're essentially saying that you're in control of the process, rather than accepting your role as a channel for the story. This is a subtle but important point. If you notice that you're "getting stuck" in the middle, recognize that this "stuckness" is a function of your story's not cohering to your "idea of your story." This is an inevitable aspect of story creation, because the purpose of story is to reveal a transformation. As Einstein says, "You can't solve a problem at the same level of consciousness that created the problem." The solution is to write through the confusion and follow the characters in spite of the story not seeming to make sense.
3) It's only by getting to the end that you really understand what you're attempting to express. You may spend years working on the first 10 chapters, only to discover at the end what your story is actually about. Those first 10 chapters may not survive the rewrite. You can't fully understand your story until you get to the end. The end is where your theme gets resolved. If the desire to write is connected to the desire to evolve, the ending holds the key to this thing you've been struggling to understand.
4) When you have too much time to think, you tend to kill the "aliveness" of your characters' choices through logic. There's nothing logical about human behavior. Your job is not to "figure out" your characters, but to find ways to support their choices. People have affairs on their honeymoon. Bank robbers risk capture to help old ladies across the street. By writing quickly, you tend to loosen your judgments on your characters and allow their natures to be revealed.
5) The first draft doesn't have to make sense. There will be narrative holes, inconsistencies and contradictions; don't get hung up on these. In fact, in the rewrite, you may discover that these "mistakes" were actually leading you to a deeper understanding of your story. They were a necessary part of the journey.
6) Stop doing research! You might be surprised by how much of your research can be done after you've finished your first draft. Certainly research may be necessary, but it often becomes a way to rationalize procrastination. The reader cares more about the characters than she does about the details of working in a Newark glove factory in the 1940s. Much research can be done after completing the first draft, as a way to add detail.
OK, enough. It's time to get back to your first draft.
Pauline Rowson, author of the DI Andy Horton marine mystery crime novels, adds, 'This is excellent advice and happens to be the way I work. Bashing out the first draft as quickly as possible, minimizing research, letting the characters develop as I write and not knowing where the novel is going and 'who done it' until I'm almost at the end.'