Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How long should my first draft take?

Last week, I talked about having a "super power" for your character. I then found this article written by Rachel Hauck on the matter, so I thought I'd pass that along.

Also, I've updated the pages of the web site. At the top, you'll now find a tab called The Judges. This is a list of all the judges we've had so far for the writing prompt contest. Unless I missed one or two, but I'm pretty sure I got them all.

The other thing I added is a tab called Resources for Writers. It's pretty much what you'd think. I have many, many more to add, but thought I would at least get it started. If you have suggestions for additions, please shoot me an email.

And (yes, I promise we will talk about first drafts here in a minute) yesterday I posted a list of all the finalists for the most recent prompt. Tomorrow I'll be posting some of their entries.

162 words later, let's get on with the intended topic of the day. Writing your first draft.

In On Writing, Stephen King says, "I believe the first draft of a book - even a long one - should take no more than three months, the length of a season. Any longer and - for me, at least - the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel."

Now ... nobody panic, okay?

While I agree with Mr. King, and while my first drafts currently only take me about 8 weeks to write, this wasn't always the case. Me, Just Different took, like, forever. So did the first drafts I wrote before it. Because I was learning. And it's okay if you are too. I'm guessing it took Stephen King longer than 3 months to write Carrie.

I'm sure this isn't true for every writer, but my experience was that my first novel - particularly that first draft of my first novel - was the hardest one I ever wrote. And I credit my husband with teaching me a principle that changed how I write.

We were driving through a rough part of Orlando, on our way home from a friends' house, and I was telling him that I'd gotten stuck in my manuscript. He asked what the problem was, and I said something like, "There's just so many things that need to be fixed. I keep getting stuck trying to fix everything, and I'm not making any forward progress."

Ben then started talking to me about the law of diminishing returns, an economics principle. The law of diminishing returns states in all productive processes, adding more of one factor while keeping the others the same will at some point decrease the total production. So, for example, say you're putting together a puzzle. Having one or two people join and help you can help the process go faster. But if you add, say, 20 people, it might actually take a lot longer to put it together. Or if you're growing a garden. Some fertilizer is helpful and will yield more crops. But too much fertilizer will decrease what you produce.

Or say you're writing a first draft, like I was. I was investing a ton of time in my first draft, but it was getting me nowhere. Because you know what would often happen to me? I'd rework some scene in chapter 4 over and over again .... only to decide around chapter 12 that the plot line didn't work and could be cut. Which meant I'd wasted all that time perfecting something that ultimately got scrapped.

It didn't make sense to invest 6 months trying to write a really good first draft, then spending another month doing content edits, and another two weeks polishing. It made much more sense to invest only 3 months in a bare bones style of first draft, then take a month or two on edits, and then another week or so to polish.

Is this the "right" way to do things? For me - yes. Using that method, my first drafts are usually done in about 8-12 weeks. They usually grow by about 5 to 10,000 words in the editing process, but I'm now writing entire novels in the amount of time it used to take me to write a decent first draft. So for me, it works much better to write without editing.

Something I started doing with my last first draft, however, was using asterisks to mark a sentence I didn't like, but just didn't know how to change. So instead of sitting there for 10 minutes thinking, "What's a fresh way to say 'butterflies filled my stomach'?" I just type, "Butterflies filled my stomach*" That asterisk tells me, "I don't like this-but I can fix it later." Using the asterisk helped appease my inner editor. I hope it works for you too.

Have a great day, everyone!


  1. I felt a definite accomplishment when I got my first-draft time down to 2-3 months. But another something to keep in mind is that this is assuming 2-3 months of reasonable writing time. "Active" writing time. So that month I dedicated to an online signing, which broke up my last MS's writing time? Totally doesn't count. ;-) Similarly, when I was in high school and college, there was just no way. Not that many hours in a day--and that's okay too. Stephen King, if I'm not mistaken, doesn't have a day jog. ;-)

  2. Job. He doesn't have a day JOB, not jog. Oy. And I'm supposedly in editing mode . . .

  3. You're blog need a "like" button similar to facebook!
    Like- the new tabs
    Like- first draft advice
    Love- the asteroid
    Like- this blog in general
    4 little thumbs up

  4. Roseanna, that's an excellent point. Writing is his full time job, and he doesn't slack off :) He says he writes 2k a day, 7 days a week, 363ish days a year.

    Tonya, that comment had so much "voice" to it :)

  5. This post was great! I took your advice before you gave it -- a few days ago, I was getting a bit depressed with my first draft -- "It doesn't make any sense," I'd say. "She wasn't supposed to be like that!"

    But then I took your advice -- this was after I'd written three and a bit chapters -- and read through it all. And to my surprise, it was nothing like I'd imagined!

    I'm loving these two weeks off school. I write a few thousand words, and stand up -- and I can't help but dance around the room! I love to write. I love, love, love it. I was jumping in the air in my ugg boots, a smile on my face. It feels so right.
    Or, should I say, write.

  6. It took me a year or more to write a considerable 300-400 page book... lol
    And it needs lots and lots of editing!
    I just for some reason can't squeeze writing a whole novel into that time... I can't write forever unless I'm really fired up about it because then when I start getting bored, so does the book.
    Its so frustrating! =P

    Got any advice on how to get myself fired up again and not make the book so boring?

  7. Emii, I looooove times when the writing just WORKS. Yay! Dance on, my friend.

    Jazmine, there are so many different reasons a writer can lose motivation... Is it an idea you're passionate about? A theme you're itching to explore? I think that makes a big difference.

  8. This is totally helpful!! I was wondering if I was spending TOO MUCH time in my first draft, but this is going to help!! Not to much fertilizer. Got it.
    Hehe. Well, thanks!