Writing a Fantasy Trilogy Part 3: The First Draft

Disclaimer: Ye gods, this is no how to guide. This is just an on-going collection of thoughts as I work my way through the process. They may or may not be useful or entertaining to people; it is more likely they may well end up providing a great deal of amusement to me when I look back over my posts and realise what a load of nonsense I was talking. So please do not think I am laying down rules here or instructions – I am just laying out some writerly jams. Or something.

(Here are Parts One and Two, on ideas and planning, if you want to read back)

So I bet you thought I had forgotten about this, right? Well, maybe slightly, but mostly I’ve spent the last six months or so writing the first draft of my new book, The Ninth Rain. As with all first drafts, there were times when I thought I had made a mistake, when I thought that I was writing entirely the wrong book, or that I would never finish the fucker; there were even times, let’s face it, when I thought I was a small asthmatic lemur called Nigel.

But I got there in the end. So here I am with some thoughts on writing the first draft, assisted by Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender, because, why not? There is, it has to be said, not an awful lot to say. The main thing is:

JUST KEEP BLOODY WRITING

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Sokka on hearing that the advice in this post is essentially ‘just keep writing’

You’ve developed your ideas, you have your plan. It might be super detailed, it might be just a series of linked events – either way, you are ready. It’s time to take the plunge.

The difficult thing to embrace about a first draft (especially if you’ve just finished a final edit, like I had, but let’s not go there…) is the sheer, free-fall creativity of it. You have to let go. You have to follow where the story leads. There will be times when you end up going down the wrong path and you’ll have to abandon that section and start again, but that’s okay. Just keep bloody writing. You’ll get fed up with the entire thing, usually when you’ve passed some excitingly large number of words (60,000 words for me) and you’ll be convinced that there’s this other, much better book you should be spending your time on, but ignore that, and keep bloody writing.

The first draft of The Ninth Rain has several sections marked up in highlighter, with notes next to them saying things like: THIS CHARACTER IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE NOW, REWRITE or OH GOD JUST DO SOMETHING ELSE. The important thing is, highlight those fuckers up and keep bloody writing – when you do the edit, you have the delicious task of deleting these unneeded sections later. Just keep bloody writing.

ALL PROGRESS IS WORTHY

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You will be tired. You will eat too many Haribo. But it will be worth it.

Sometimes there will be days when you only dribble out a few sad little words. A couple of sentences. But they are still words and sentences you didn’t have before. Cherish their little bottoms. As you go, you will also have thoughts and ideas about the future books in your trilogy. Write them down, and then go back to this book. This book gets written first, or the other books will never exist. Don’t worry about them too much yet.

THINGS DO NOT GO ACCORDING TO PLAN

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Everything is fine. No really. Fine. It’s the quenchiest.

This is frightening, but actually it is the great joy of first drafts. About three quarters of the way through The Ninth Rain I had a huge realisation about the nature of the fictional world I was writing that changed several things about the book. I made lots of notes, knowing that in the edit I would have to rewrite several chapters at the beginning – a pain in the hole, but it would absolutely make the book better. I genuinely think that sometimes you can only have these revelations when you’re in the middle of writing the book. They only come when you are waist deep in the world, trying to figure out how to get one set of characters to a new location, or wondering why you chose to give someone such a difficult name to spell. Your brain is working silently, figuring all these things out for you, and sometimes it throws up unexpected solutions. These are brilliant, because:

THE FIRST DRAFT IS ESSENTIALLY YOU TELLING YOURSELF THE STORY

This is hugely important. The book doesn’t have to be beautiful or polished, it doesn’t even have to make sense at this point – you just need to find out what it’s about. The edit, and all the following redrafts, are about making it readable. For now, you tell the story to yourself. And you will be surprised. So:

DON’T PANIC

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How cute is Sokka? Really fucking cute.

No one else needs to see this draft. It can be as monstrous as you like. I know lots of people do show their first drafts to other people, and that’s cool, but this is my blog series and I’m telling you what I know works for me, and no one sees my first draft. Oh hell no. I’m figuring things out on the page, and that private space is vital, because it gives you complete freedom. No one needs to see my inability to spell words like ‘eighth’ and ‘sorcerer’, or the fact that at least two character’s names are consistently spelt wildly differently from page to page, and none of that matters at this stage anyway. Listen to the story, chase it down, and when you catch it, hold it close to your shriveled, blackened heart. For now, it is yours alone.

KNOW THAT YOU WILL REACH THE END

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And it will be glorious. The first draft is hard, and beautiful, and can feel impossible, but if you just keep bloody writing you will get there. I did a poll on twitter recently asking writers if they preferred the first draft or the edit, and I got a wildly different range of reactions. For me, the first draft is where the story is really born, all bloody and screaming and ready to kick ass. The edit gives it clothes and a haircut and makes it presentable to general society, but enjoy those wild days while you can.

 

If you want more thoughts on writing the first draft, I also wrote this blog, which has a greater emphasis on kit-kats.