This is the fourth part in my "How I Write" series, which, it should be noted, deals strictly with my personal fiction writing. My regular, full-time job as a communications professional includes a significant amount of non-fiction writing (business, journalistic, etc.), and the process is significantly different.
Before diving into part 4, let's recap: in Part 1, I had my epiphany, which is also my initial incident. I then fleshed out the epiphany/initial incident into a workable storyline in Part 2. Then, last week in Part 3, I figured out who my characters were—most of them, at least—which leads me now to the fun part: the part where I get busy writing and bringing the story to life.
If you're at all like me (and from what I've heard, a lot of new writers are), you love to edit as you go, believing that if you perfect each paragraph now, it will save time later. That may sound good in theory, but when put into practice, it simply dosen't work. The big fallacy here, for me at least, is that I spend all of my time editing what I've already written and never make any (or very little) actual progress furthering the story. Eventually, this cycle of continuously editing the same bit of writing over and over becomes tedious enough that I lose interest, and the story goes into the dreaded "bottom drawer" never to be seen or heard from again. Not a particularly productive process. Over the years, I've read advice from more than one successful author, recommending the completion of a full first draft before going back to do ANY editing. Great advice, but did I heed it? Nope. Not even a little. When it came right down to it, I couldn't seem to break my edit-as-you-go habit, which consequently meant my writing went nowhere.
So, how did I get from being hopelessly stuck in an unproductive writing cycle to where I'm at now—which is making final edits to my completed novel (before I turn it over to my editor)?
In the end, it was my amazing wife who gets (most of) the credit for helping propel me past my most unproductive habit. Through a combination of constant encouragement and tough love, she impressed upon me the need to always "write forward" without looking back, until I'd completed that entire first draft.
While my wife gets most of the credit, I must mention two other things that made a world of difference in my ability to write a first draft straight through to the end without looking back: first is a method I began of writing each chapter in its own separate document file. This way, once a chapter is "done," I don't look at it again until it's time to rewrite/edit the entire book. Proceeding in this manner, one chapter at a time, finishing it, then setting it aside in favor of the next chapter, I was able to complete my "first" first draft—a roughly 95,000 word sci-fi action-adventure novel—in about ten months. Secondly, I have to give credit to my friends and cohorts in my writing group. Their regular encouragement, challenges and overall camaraderie helped push me forward and continues to do so today. If you're not part of a writer's group, I encourage you to join one—or start your own, which is what I did. (One suggestion I would make regarding writer's groups, however, is that you should esure, that your writing goals coincide with those of the group and that your personality fits in with the others in the group. If you're not finding the group to be helpful and supportive for you, then you may need to find a different group.)
One concern I often hear voiced by new writers about not editing along the way is what to do when things in the story, and/or about the characters, change along the way (which they inevitably will). Shouldn't you go back and correct the earlier parts of the story that are affected by these changes? I know this is of concern to many, because it was a concern I had as well. My story changed quite significantly as I wrote it—so much so that instead of being a stand alone novel, it turned into what will eventually become a three-volume series. The answer, however, or at least my answer is an unqualified NO! DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES GO BACK AND EDIT ANY PREVIOUS CHAPTERS UNTIL THE FIRST DRAFT IS COMPLETE.
For the same reason you closed those chapters in the first place: you will be tempted to begin editing them. You'll see a sentence that isn't quite up to snuff, and then another, and pretty soon you're going back over everything, doing a total rewrite, and in the process losing any momentum you had built up toward finishing your first draft. I'll say it again: DO NOT GO BACK! Take notes, if you feel you must, but don't overdo it on those, either. Don't do anything that takes away from your momentum as you work to complete that first draft. I didn't bother taking notes as I wrote my first draft, mainly because as I continued to write, and my story became more and more complete, things continued to evolve and change at too rapid a pace. Not just the story, but the characters, as well (including a couple of pretty interesting surprises). Some things changed so much that any notes I might have made early on, would have themselves needed to be edited significantly. Rather than go down that unproductive road of constant editing, I decided to focus on finishing the first draft instead, and leave all of the things that needed fixing for the rewrite/editing stage (which is the next topic, and the stage I'm currently in with my novel).
Proceeding in this manner has, on one hand, made the overall editing/rewriting process a larger task. On the other hand, however, because I waited until the first draft was complete, I have been able to attack all of the edits, armed with a full understanding of how the entire story will unfold. So, even though there may be more edits to make than if I "edited as I went," I have, (1) been able to complete a full first draft (which in and of itself is an amazing feeling), and (2) have that full draft to work from while making my edits. To me that's a win all the way around.
There's one additional note about my actual writing process I'd like to make. Like most people, my daily schedule isn't conducive to a "pre-planned" set time to write. It just isn't realistic for me to say "I'm going to write for one hour every night/morning" and stick to it. I've tried, and it just doesn't work that way for me. Yet, over the course of about ten months, I managed to write a complete 95,000 word first draft. I wrote most of those words a few sentences at a time, using a simple text-editing app on my smart phone. Rather than wait for the moment in my life when I would have the time to write, which became more and more obvious would never come, I decided to write what I could, when I could. While waiting for the coffee to brew, I'd write a few sentences. While waiting for a file to print, I'd write a few more. While waiting at the doctor's office, or in line at the DMV or wherever I had a few minutes to spare, I'd write a few sentences. These sentences turned into rough drafts of chapters, which I'd then convert to Word docs for further editing and "finalizing" (as much as a chapter in a first draft can actually be finalized). Once finalized, I was done with that chapter until the rest of the first draft was finished. It may not sound like the most exciting way of writing a book, but it worked perfectly for me. (And yes, even a few sentences at a time, it was actually rather exciting!)
Due to the holiday season, and the fact that I'm still involved in the editing process, the next part in this series, How I Write - Part 5: Editing, Rewriting and When to Step Back & Turn Your Story Over to Your Editor, will not be published until the first part of January '15.
Thanks for reading & Happy Holidays!!