A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

Why Writing the First Draft of a Novel is So Difficult

My novel binder and fountain pen

My novel binder and fountain pen

First drafts are like first dates. They’re awkward, arduous, boring, and full of uncertainties and doubts. You have to just get through them to get to the easier stages where things are more comfortable and exciting.

This is what I have concluded about writing the first draft of a novel. I’ve tried three times so far with three different stories. The first time, I gave up, thinking, “This story is terrible.” The second time, I didn’t lose hope on the story itself, but I thought, “I must be doing this wrong; surely it shouldn’t be this hard.” Now I’m on my third attempt, and while it’s going better because I’m working from a more detailed outline than I was either time before, it’s still hard—but now I understand that I’m not doing it wrong. Novel writing is just hard. Maybe some writers find it easy; but if so, their path is very different from mine. I find novel writing to be a uniquely difficult kind of writing, for at least three reasons.

1. Creating as You Go

First, no matter how detailed an outline you begin with either on paper or in your head, writing a novel involves creating the story as you go, which is a laborious process. When I write an essay like this one or piece of flash fiction, my thoughts flow so easily and naturally that it’s all I can do to capture the thoughts that have been building up in the back of my mind as they tumble out. But with drafting a novel (or a substantial short story), I have to continuously make things up as I go, so it’s slow going. And I can’t let myself hand-craft and ruminate over every little detail at this point or the story will never get written, so I often find myself just picking details randomly in order to move forward, while consoling myself with the knowledge that I can always change them later.

The result is that, far from enjoying the flow of an easy, satisfying stream of words and ideas, writing the first draft of a novel feels like trying to lay a gravel road by hand, tossing down one stone at a time from a heavy bag on my back, while also being blind and not knowing whether my road is going in the right direction or whether it will even look like a road when I’m done. It’s laborious, often boring work, but I know I have to do it in order to get to the fun part of making what I’ve already written a lot better.

2. Letting it Be Bad

Second, it’s not only the creating-as-you-go process that makes novel drafting so arduous; it’s also the lack of instant gratification from the sense that what you’ve written is good, because you can’t take time to stop and polish your words to perfection. I love the revision stage of writing; it’s where I get to feel that euphoria over having tinkered with a paragraph until it sings with a music that makes my heart soar, or that pleasing intellectual exertion of analyzing a composition to refine, rearrange, and rethink its various parts. But with the first draft of a novel, since I’m just picking words and details almost at random in order to just get the story out, I usually feel like what I’ve written so far is really bad writing.

So, lest I see how bad it is and give up in discouragement (which is what happened with novel #1), I now forbid myself from going back and looking at what I’ve already written except when absolutely necessary to hunt down a detail. I’m just running full-speed-ahead with my eyes shut.

One thing that comforts me, aside from the fact—which I endlessly repeat to myself—that I will be able to go back and fix everything after I’m done, is the counsel of author Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird that the most important part of writing is creating “shitty first drafts.” That’s a relief!

3. Managing Your Mind

Finally, of course, writing a novel is hard because it takes persistence, courage, and self-awareness—to keep going even though you’re not sure the novel will be any good, to stick to the project when a thousand other writing ideas and projects clamor for your attention (this is a particular weakness of mine), and to continually adjust the routines and patterns of your writing life as needed to make the most of your limited time and mental energy for writing.

In these areas, I have found a few big things that help me, by paying careful attention to how I operate. For example, I’ve learned that my writing energy can’t survive on a diet of just one type of writing—especially if we’re talking about the toil of novel writing! I also need some instant gratification from things like essays, short fiction pieces, and revisions of previously written short stories; I need the encouragement and sense of community I get through blogging and participating in group challenges like those at Carrot Ranch; I need to regularly write in my creative “bloodletting” notebook (for free-writes, poetic jots, and other creative miscellany); and, of course, I need to journal for the sake of my sanity. I do have to have some self-discipline about how many writing projects I have going; but if I limit myself too severely, I lose heart.

Another thing I’ve realized, more recently, is that it’s actually impossible (at least for me, but probably for anyone) to write a novel only in intermittent bursts of a few stolen minutes here and there each day. This, I think, was the real downfall of my novel attempt #2: I tried to squeeze it in every day when it was convenient, and I ended up writing less and less each day until my momentum just completely ran out. I know now that I have to designate at least one solid chunk, even just a half hour (though an hour is better), of continuous writing time daily so that I can get into the flow of the story and the mind of the character/s and maintain that momentum. The more often I do that, the easier novel writing becomes.

But Don’t Forget to Have Fun!

Drafting a novel is hard, but I won’t say I’m not enjoying it. I’m still having fun—and I try to nurture that feeling and enjoy the process of novel writing as much as I can, such as by relishing my fountain pen or organized three-ring binder, or setting the mood for writing with a delicious cup of tea. I’m also still keeping a daily word count (long after I failed to complete the NaNoWriMo challenge of writing 50,000 words in one month), and it’s fun to chart my progress. As for the story itself, I do like it, though I don’t know yet if anyone else will. And I’m already looking forward to going back and resuming work on novels #1 and #2—but not until I’m done with this one!


One comment on “Why Writing the First Draft of a Novel is So Difficult

  1. emilievardaman
    February 2, 2016

    I tried to write a novel once. I got about 1/3 of the way in and for the life of me could not figure out what happened next. I knew the ending, had it all planned. But I couldn’t get that big middle chunk.
    I have a few general ideas. Maybe I have to go back to the location (set in Baja California) and roam the area a bit. Get stimulated. Good excuse to go back to Baja Norte!
    Best of luck in this third attempt.


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This entry was posted on February 2, 2016 by in Discoveries from Writing and tagged , , , , , .
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