The Power of the Ugly Draft: How I Wrote a Novel in 22 Days
I just wrote 60K words in three weeks and no one is more surprised than me! We are 22 days into NaNoWriMo and this morning I typed “THE END” on the first draft of my third novel, Weirfall: The Timekeepers’ War Book 3.
Figuring out my process as a writer has taken years of fumbling and frustration. My first novel, The Timekeepers’ War took nearly ten years to get from concept to published manuscript. Not only is is the first book I have every published, it was the first book I ever wrote. There are not many authors who get to see their first novels published, and I am forever grateful to be one of them.
It wasn’t easy. My drafting process was painfully slow and I ended up having to cut 50K words from my first bloated over-written draft. I made a lot of mistakes. I am still making mistakes. And every time I make a mistake I learn something new.
So how did I go from writing one book in ten years to writing a book in less than a month? Here is what has worked for me:
Let go of perfectionism
Plan for Success
Whether or not you consider yourself a plotter, a pantser, or a something in between, having some kind of a plan is going to make your life easier.
I have always been a bit of a pantser. Drafting is like “flying by the seat of my pants.” One of the reasons my first book took so long from start to finish is that I didn’t really know what my story was about. I floated through plot ideas, exploring hundreds of possibilities, and struggling to connect the dots in a cohesive way.
Exploratory writing is great. Many people find a lot of joy in this process. But if you really want to finish a book, you will benefit from having a plan. It doesn’t have to be a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown with character backstories and 100K of world-building files cluttering up your desktop. At the very least, you should learn how to outline a novel.
I resisted planning and outlining for years before I finally read a book that made everything click. If you like to plan, you probably already have a favourite craft book. But for those of you who really don’t want to let go of the explosive creative joy of pantsering your way through a draft, I highly recommend K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel.
Weiland showed me how to put all my exploratory creative energy into the outlining process, so that the drafting process became faster and more organized. You won’t lose any of your creative mojo, I promise. You will save time and effort with a good plan.
Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland is a life saver!
Study Your Craft
Learning how to outline is a great segue into learning the basics of story structure. I have always been a great lover of story. I read a lot, and I read widely. I have a good instinctual sense for when stories feel “right.” Many writers are like this.
Somehow, for me, this did not translate into a strong working knowledge of story structure. How to properly structure a novel is something that I have had to learn. I spent hours re-structuring my first book after realizing that I’d gotten the pacing all wrong.
I re-wrote my second book three different times before I realized I had messed up the overall structure of the trilogy and was trying to jump too far ahead of myself with book two.
Studying writing craft can be intimidating. There are thousands of books and courses available that purport to teach you how to write “the right way.” I recommend avoiding all of the nitty gritty details of line editing at first. Don’t worry too much about show vs. tell or grammar or fillers and filters. First, you have to get the structure and the character arc in the right place.
I recommend Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, both of which use screenwriting techniques to help writers understand universal principles of story telling, using examples from popular culture that are accessible and easy to understand.
K.M. Weiland’s Structuring your Novel and Creating Character Arcs were indispensable next steps in my own craft study. I find Weiland’s work extremely well organized and easy to cross reference. Creating Character Arcs saved my bacon when I got off track drafting book three. I read each relevant chapter as I was drafting and used the character arc to drive me through my plot points when I felt I was wandering. I am confident that my third book will be my best yet, simply because I put character development front and centre.
With a better understanding of structure, a solid outline in place, and a stronger sense of Ghost’s character arc, writing Weirfall has been a dream in comparison to my struggles with the first two books.
Let Go of Perfectionism
If you want to be a great writer, you have to stop trying to be a good writer. Let go of perfectionism. Let yourself be messy and make mistakes. Write badly. Dump all of your ideas on the page, even if they sound stupid.
A badly written but complete first draft will make your revisions faster and easier. It seems counter intuitive, I know. But all those poorly written sentences–rife with cliches and repetition and placeholders for words you couldn’t think of–act as a memory trigger when you come back to your second draft work. If you have stuck to your outline and have a decent macro-structure in place, revisions will be a piece of cake.
You didn’t waste time getting the imagery perfect in the first draft, but you didn’t lost any of your wonderful ideas, either. Now that you have time to play with the language, you can decide which images to keep and perfect, and which are no longer necessary. You can replace your telling with showing where you want the reader to linger and you can cut the over-written filler where you need to speed things up.
The best part is, you can do this without shedding any tears as you “kill your darlings,” because you haven’t spent hours and hours perfecting and getting emotionally attached to beautiful sentences that simply don’t fit.
Once your structure is in place and your draft is complete, you can add to your craft knowledge with books like Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. There are hundreds of great craft books out there. Swain’s Techniques is my favourite, even if it’s a little old-fashioned, particularly for the genre fiction writer. He taught me about the evils of simultaneity and how it killed my pacing in book one. The way he breaks down sentence and scene structure completely changed they way I write.
But you can’t edit a blank page, as they say. And you have to let go of you perfectionism if you want to finish that draft.
Make Time to Write
One of the most common complaints I hear from other writers is that it is impossible to find time to write. There is this idea that you have to sit down at your computer and slave for 8-12 hours a day in order to finish a book in any kind of reasonable time.
This is a lie!
I wrote a 60K novel in 22 days writing for 2 hours a day.
Finding an “extra” two hours a day isn’t necessarily easy. I wake up at 4am every day in order to get my hours in before the rest of the house wakes up. Then, for the rest of the day I am home-schooling three kids, bookkeeping for our trucking company, writing blog posts, updating social media, and doing my business writing (aka the “real job”). I am in bed by 9:30pm every day.
Whether you are an early bird or a night owl, finding time at the beginning or end of your day is usually the easiest. Be sure to either go to bed earlier, or let yourself sleep later, so that you aren’t sacrificing sleep. If that’s not possible, perhaps you have to write on your lunch break. Whatever works for you, what is important is sticking to it.
Have a schedule. Sit down and write whether you “feel like it” or not. You are not waiting for inspiration, you are writing because you have a plan. You will learn to make your muse come to you. The more frequently you write, the easier it gets.
Last year, when I did NaNoWriMo it was my first “win.” I spent 3-4 hrs every day fighting against my internal editor to get the necessary 1667 words a day to hit 50K in November. That draft, after two months of revisions and edits, become Ghostlights: The Timekeepers’ War Book Two.
This year, I wrote 2-3K a day in a 2hr window without breaking a sweat. The early morning quite probably helped. More than anything, though, keeping a regular schedule helped my brain jump into productivity mode that much faster each day. In the end, I was flying through my words faster than I’ve ever written before.
So, That’s How I Wrote a 60K Novel in Three Weeks
Is it pretty? No. But it has potential to be. In another 20 days I will have Weirfall revised and ready for beta readers. I will have finished Book Three before Ghostlights is even released. This is the publishing schedule I could only dream of when I started this journey more than a decade ago.
There are novelists who blow my productivity out of the water. I aspire to release 6 books a year some day. After my success with outlining and ugly drafting last year, and recreating that success this year, I’m ready to commit to a more rigorous writing schedule.
Doubtless I have more mistakes to make and hurdles to drag myself over, but I’m ready to handle it.
What is your biggest hurdle in drafting and revising your work? Do you think any of these tips could help you take your process to the next level? Let me know in the comments!