I’ve sent the manuscript for The Seamstress from Paris off to my agent. I’m hoping it will be my 2018 book and our next step is to get a contract for it. So, what’s the most logical thing to do when you’ve just sent one manuscript off to your agent? Rest? Drink champagne? Do the christmas shopping? Go out to lunch? Or, if you’re me, you start a new manuscript! Actually, you start what I call the pre-first draft.

What’s a Pre-First Draft?

It’s actually a fancy name that I coined for this blog. Usually I call it the quick and dirty 20,000 words but given the way search engines work, I was worried that people who were looking for actual dirty words might find this page if I called it that!

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m not much of a planner. With each book I try to do a bit of a plan but there’s a point, for me, at which it’s too early to do a plan. That’s where the quick and dirty 20,000 words come in.

Each year, before the kids break for summer, I sit down and try to write 20,000 words of a new book. That’s my pre-first draft. It keeps my mind off the fact that my agent might hate The Seamstress from Paris (the book I’ve just submitted to her), that we have to go out and get a contract for it (my contract with Hachette was just for 2 books, so I’ve written The Seamstress without a contract), and that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing with this new book!

Why Write a Pre-First Draft?

I guess it becomes my outline. Not in the sense that it lists scenes and events that will happen in the book but it gets my characters onto the page. I can start to get to know them and find the voice of the book.

I usually find that my first attempts at the voice aren’t quite right. But somewhere in the process of writing 20,000 words, I discover the voice. I work out who the characters are and how they might relate to one another. I find characters I hadn’t planned to write. I can get down that one crystal clear scene I always have in my head and see how it works in words. That’s what my pre-first draft is all about.

And I’m not exactly sure why I like to do 20,000 words. I think it’s because, based on going through this process a couple of times (for A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald and Her Mother’s Secret), that’s what I need to be able to see the story. It’s enough to give me knowledge but not so much that I feel awful about throwing a lot of it out when I sit down to do the actual first draft.

What Does it Look Like?

A mess! No spell-checking, no proof-reading, no editing or making it pretty. It is literally the world’s worst piece of writing. But that’s okay. The point of it, for me, isn’t to be good writing. The point of it is to provide a place from which my ideas and imagination can grow.

How Does the Process Lead to The First Draft?

Basically, my whole life revolves around school holidays. I submitted The Seamstress from Paris to my agent with 3 weeks to go until my kids finish school. So I’ve set myself the goal of writing 1,000 words a day for the 3 weeks they’re at school. That means I’ll have 15,000 words by the time holidays start. Then I’ll get up an hour earlier for the first week of holidays and write another 1,000 words a day and then I’ll have my precious 20,000 words.

1,000 words a day is relatively easy for me. In the middle of the first draft, I might be writing 6,000 a day so to only have to write 1,000 feels quite relaxed. The pressure is off. Two half hour sessions will easily get 1,000 words done.

Then, once I have the 20,000 words, I let them sit for the 2 months of school holidays. The characters and the story swirl around in my head and start to unravel, to work themselves into being. In February, when school starts again, I’ll sit back down, do a bit of an outline based on the two months of thinking, throw out much of the 20,000 words and write the actual first draft with a bit more of an idea of what I’m doing.

My working title is The French Photographer. What do you think?

Does that sound like a super-weird process to you? Or can you see the advantages? Does anyone else do something like this? Let me know what you think in the comments!