The life cycle of a first draft (novel edition)

So I’ve decided that I do actually want to start using this thing for semi-regular postings that aren’t “Hey, I sold a thing!” or “Hey, you should buy this thing what I wrote!” That’s important content and it’s going to continue (sorry), but after reading some advice on blogging in the current issue of the SFWA Bulletin, I think I want to try something I did a while back and institute a schedule for posting things. To that end, I want to introduce two new features:

Muse Mondays. These will be posts–really, deposits of neurosis–driven by whatever I happen to be currently working on. Thoughts I’m having about the process, how I feel like it’s going–or not going–and anything else that strikes my fancy and that is writerly in some fashion.

WIP Wednesdays. (Yes, I like alliteration. Deal.) These will be posts that feature actual snippets of whatever I happen to be currently working on. Probably whatever I was crying about on Monday, which will give you a great opportunity to see what I’m actually dealing with in terms of Things That Make Me Hurt.

Yeah, it’s… it’s been that kind of a workday so far. Which is what I’m going to talk about today.

I’m writing a book. Yes, another one. I’m doing this one on my own, which is a fabulously scary experience. Writing alone is really a very different beast than writing with a co-author, so despite having done a novel before, there are things that I’m learning here for the first time. Among these are what actually happens to your relationship with your draft when you try to write a novel. It’s interesting to watch the process, because it’s actually kind of horrifying.

This is something that people don’t tell you about writing novels: I think for a lot of people–certainly for me–it really is horrifying work. This is what happens:

Phase 1: Inception. This is where you have an idea. This is probably the best part, because the idea is fresh and new and shiny, and you haven’t yet piled it on top of yourself to the point where all the shine and the freshness are gone, and it’s hard to breathe, and generally you hate it. But the idea part is great. It’s exciting, and it looks so cool in your head, and you plan it all out and talk about it and fantasize about book covers and the blurb on the back and the great reviews it’ll get. You haven’t written a single word of it, but it’s already the best book ever. You just have to write it.

Phase 2: Foundation. This is the part where you actually sit down and start writing the book. This is still very exciting, because there are words now! Words from the book! Which, don’t forget, is the best book ever. Now you’re actually laying out the first pages and letting your characters come out to play in the world that you’re building, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s also beginning to be work, though, and you’re starting to get a more solid sense of how far you really do have to go before you’re done. However, it isn’t bothering you very much.


Phase 3: Construction. At this point, you are probably anywhere from a fifth to a third of the way into the book. The foundations of the book are done–the initial pages or scenes from which everything else will grow. Now you’re actually putting your head down and building your plot–necessary work, because while people have been known to buy and read plotless books, they aren’t exactly in the majority. You’re also starting to really work at making your characters live and breathe on their own, in a world that you are required to make self-consistent. This is especially difficult if you’re writing sf, because you are having to come up with major features of that world on your own. It’s still fun, though. Mostly. Even when you’re experiencing your first gnawing doubts about the quality of it. Even when it’s harder than it used to be to get working on it.

Phase 4: Frustration. This is going to be your first major snag. Maybe you’ve forgotten something. Maybe you’ve just realized that a major feature of the plot or of a character doesn’t make any sense. Maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner and now you need to decide if there’s any way to get out of it without a major rewrite. Maybe a major rewrite is going to end up being necessary. Maybe you’re just stricken with crushing doubt. Either way, the book is now really not so fun anymore, and you’re having a hard time remembering just how shiny and exciting everything looked back in Phase 1.

This is, I think, where a lot of people put their own book down and never come back to it, because this is where sitting down and working on it every day becomes a real trial in every sense of the word. It can be extraordinarily hard to push past, especially when there are shiny new ideas that are  in Phase 1, plus all the other distractions that life throws at you. But if you persevere and keep going, you will make it to:

Phase 5: Depression. At this point, you’re probably about halfway done. You’ve come too far to give up, but by the same token, the finish line feels impossibly distant. At this point, all the problems with the book have taken on warped, gargantuan proportions in your fevered mind. They loom in the background, all these issues and inconsistencies in plot and world-building and character–you don’t want to think about them or look at them directly, because you suspect that it might completely crush your will to go on if you do. But you know they’re there. You will have to deal with them at some point. You begin to be very afraid that they actually can’t be dealt with. You begin to be very afraid that the best book ever is, in fact, an irredeemably bad book.

By the way, this is where I am right now.

if you didn’t quit back in Phase 4, you may come to your senses and quit here. If, however, you slouch wearily on, you will reach:

Phase 6: Exhaustion. You’re almost done. But it’s bad. The whole thing is bad and crappy and bad. You are sure of this. You are positive. You may only have a vague memory of what the initial pages of the book are like–like someone lost in a trackless desert and dreaming of water when they can barely remember its taste–but you suspect that they are bad as well. That it’s all always been bad. That the idea was bad. That you never should have started it in the first place. That even if you do somehow finish, what’s the point? What will you have, but a shockingly bad book? You have wasted weeks of work, weeks that could have been spent on better ideas but which are now gone forever. Your book is a joke. You are a joke. And yet you’re so close to being done. What the hell. Might as well wrap it up.

Phase 7: Liberation. You have finished your book. The problem is that you hate it.

This is one primary reason why many people who are inclined to give writing advice suggest putting the draft away somewhere and not reading it at all for at least a couple of weeks. You and the book need a break from each other, because editing is an entirely new kind of torture.

So yeah. Writing novels is horrible. So why do it?

Well, for one thing, it’s for that moment after you and your book take that several week-long break, when you come back and have a look at each other again. At that point, you will probably discover that you were wrong about your book. It’s not the best book ever–it’s got some problems. But they’re much smaller than you thought they were. They’re fixable. You can go back and do some smart rewriting, some cutting, some tightening here and there, and what you have then will still not be the best book ever… but it may be a good book. It may even be a very good book. You might start thinking, as you sit down to edit, about what the cover might look like. You might tap out a rough little blurb. You might talk to people about it again, as if you’re actually excited about it. Because you sort of are.

Welcome to Phase 1 of editing. Brace yourself.

One thought on “The life cycle of a first draft (novel edition)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s