Besides the structural edit, which is a process that adds new meaning to the word difficult, the hardest part of the writing process for me is writing the first draft of a novel. Other writers I know love the first draft and hate the redrafting. We’re all different. And everyone writes their first draft in a different way. As I’m about 90,000 words into a first draft of my 2020 book, which has a working title of The Dior Bequest, I thought I might talk a little bit about how I write first drafts and why I find them so difficult.
The First 20,000 Words
This is by far the hardest part of the first draft for me. Before I began writing this book, I did put together a synopsis. I suppose the synopsis does give a vague idea of the story, but a vague idea versus crafting scenes peopled with engaging characters are two very different things.
I’ve said before that I’m an inveterate pantser. That I begin writing with an idea of what the heroine’s journey might be, the thing that she is trying to achieve in the book, but that’s about it. And it’s been the same for this book.
So for the first 20,000 words I write whatever scene appeals to me on that particular day. It means I write out of order but that’s because I don’t know what the right order for the scenes is. I haven’t done a lot of research at this stage either so there is a lot about the historical time period and the heroine’s particular set of circumstances that I don’t know. I certainly don’t know who most of the other people in the story are apart from one or two main characters.
I write slowly in this first 20,000 words, aiming for a thousand words a day but sometimes falling short of this. I don’t know why it is, but usually somewhere around the 20,000 word mark, I start to get a better idea of what the story is. I know the characters a bit better, I know their motivations, and I suppose I also feel more passion for the story.
From 20,000 Words to 50,000 Words
My writing pace picks up a bit here. I’m usually able to write about 2000 words a day now. I start to feel a little bit more confident, as if maybe I know what I’m doing, as if maybe the story will all work out. But there is always a sense of doubt; I might know the endpoints that I would like to reach but I don’t really know how I’m going to get the characters to those endpoints.
From 50,000 Words Onwards
This is the part of the first draft that I love the most. Here, the energy of the book really kicks in. I have 50,000 words behind me, which means I know my characters 50,000 words more than I did when I began writing them. I also have a much better idea of the story now.
I should also say that, while The Dior Bequest is a dual narrative with a contemporary and historical storyline, similar to The Paris Seamstress, I start out by writing the historical storyline only. Even though both storylines will, in the final book, be threaded together, I don’t write them in that way. So, in writing the historical thread, I’m laying the ground work for the mysteries that will perhaps be unravelled in the contemporary storyline, which I haven’t yet written. So there is still a fair bit of doubt here; will I be able to unravel everything in the other storyline or not?
Writing the Contemporary Storyline
My contemporary storylines are usually smaller than the historical. In The Paris Seamstress, the historical storyline is about double the size of the contemporary storyline. But just because it’s shorter, it doesn’t mean it’s easier.
When I sit down to write the contemporary storyline, it’s just like starting over. A whole new set of characters to get to know, new storylines to create, plus the pressure of hoping that the mysteries I’ve tried to set up in the historical storyline can be dealt with in this narrative.
Because the key thing with a dual narrative is that the characters in the contemporary storyline must have their own lives, their own journeys, their own goals, their own problems. They can’t just be there as puppets to read diary entries and look at photographs and piece together mysteries. That’s not interesting. I need to make this set of characters and their own contemporary concerns as interesting as the set of characters in the historical storyline.
So that’s basically how I go about writing the first draft of a novel. This first draft is turning into a bit of a monster. I think it’s likely to come in at around 140,000 words, which is definitely on the long side. Trouble is, there will be a lot that needs to be fleshed out, but also a lot that will need to be cut as I don’t think anyone wants to sit through a 150,000+ word book!