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Yes, I have a first draft. It’s complete – well, as complete as a first draft can be. It’s printed and sitting on the desk next to me: a pile of A4 paper that looks nothing like a novel.

I’ve learnt a lot from writing this draft. Practical things, like how to use ‘Self-Control’ (the app, not the good character trait), how to switch off to a messy house or kids’ fighting, and where to best position my computer to avoid the afternoon sun.

I also learnt a lot about the writing process, or should I say, my writing process. I preface this post by saying this is my two bobs’ worth only. I hope people find it interesting and maybe it will resonate with a few. I know there are many different writing methods and processes that work for different people and that’s exactly how it should be.

When I began my novel, I barely knew anything about writing in general, let alone writing a novel. I foraged around, attending courses, workshops, writing groups, trying out what other writers did, until I found my own pathway, what works for me. 

Here’s one of the lessons I learnt along the way:

TOSS THE PLAN: 

I cannot write to a ‘plan’. I know lots of writers swear by one, but I can’t do it. I’m a very organic writer. I need to get my fingers moving (even sometimes my legs) and see what comes out on the page.

I started this novel with a ‘plan’. I didn’t like it, so I revised it, and kept revising it over and over, believing I couldn’t start writing my story without knowing where I wanted it to go. In the end, I started writing anyway, even though I didn’t like my ‘plan’. What came out was something like:

‘One summer day, the family piled into the rusty truck, and bumped down the road to the river, which glistened in the sun. After they’d eaten egg sandwiches and apple cake, and drank tea, Archie went for a swim and Glenda told them all she was pregnant.’

Because I knew where I wanted the story to go, I was writing filler until I could announce the next plot development.

So, I scratched that and tried to write something original and scintillating and meaty, but still with the characters acting according to the ‘plan’. I couldn’t. When I tried to write to the ‘plan’, the story came out very contrived: the characters didn’t act how they wanted to, but according to the ‘plan’, and the plot was thin and unoriginal.

I developed literary constipation: I sat in front of the screen, straining and squeezing out tiny, hard word pellets. I put the novel to the side, and gave up. I didn’t like what I’d written, and I started to wonder why the bloody-hell was I trying to write anyway. I should have stuck to my day job.

This went on for a while, pushing and straining and squeezing, still trying to write the story according to the ‘plan’. Then I wrote something one day, anything. Whatever came into my head, I let flow onto the page. I thought it was rubbish (surprisingly, not all of it was), but I just kept writing without correcting it. I knew I wanted to say something — I wasn’t sure what –but I knew if I stayed with this scene, the answer would come. And it did. It didn’t fit into the plan at all, but it was so much better than anything my brain could have planned.

And it did. It didn’t fit into the plan at all, but it was so much better than anything my brain could have planned.

That’s how I write. Sometimes, I write a thousand boring, crappy words before it hits me what I really want to say or what is really going on in this scene. Then I scrap the crappy words and start at the good bit. Hemingway’s advice to give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft in order to work out what it is you want to say rings true for me. 

My first drafts of scenes are often embarrassing. Dialogue that goes nowhere, characters that act in clichéd ways. But I have to write the crap to get to the nugget below.

While writing this draft, I wrote about 35,000 words from what I thought would be the main character’s POV (point of view). I wasn’t particularly happy with them and started writing from another character’s POV. The second character took off. I liked her so much, she’s become the main protagonist. I cut my initial 35,000 words, but they weren’t wasted. Through those words I got to know this now-secondary character and she came alive to me. I know her background even though I haven’t included it in the novel, and I needed to know her in order to write the scenes that have stayed in the novel.

So, I flushed my plan away along with the shitty writing that went with it. After that, my writing, the story, and my confidence improved.

What about other writers? Do you like plans, or do you find them restrictive? I’d love to hear about how you like to write.

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(Published in the anthology, 'Jukebox', OOTA, 2013.)

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